Most people would rather have a root canal than organize their paper. I have yet to find anyone who likes to organize their paper clutter.
Bills, documents, notes on old legal pads, mysterious receipts, birthday cards from people you do and don’t remember, even something pleasurable such as photos of your family can feel like an insurmountable chore to organize.
Plowing through piles or bins of paper is different from other types of organizing. It requires a whole different set of decisions and brain skills and unlike organizing 3-dimensional objects such as your clothes or dishes, paper is often fraught with all kinds of meaning – most typically fear and anxiety and to a lesser degree, sentiment and confusion.
Paper doesn’t have the same qualities that other objects have in our lives. It’s not pretty or shiny or useful, except in its blank (note pads) or decorative (wrapping paper) form. Organizing paper won’t make it more possible for you to entertain, unless it’s covering your dining room table.
Face it, for most people, organizing paper is boring.
Complicating the process is age. The older we get, the harder it is to focus on the task of organizing paper. It takes all kinds of executive functioning skills that get harder as we age. It’s more than just a matter of know what to keep and what to toss.
The moment we look at our paper piles, our brains become Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. “I can’t think about it now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
Paper organizing requires careful review. You can look at a piece of clothing and know it’s a piece of clothing. With paper you have to study it. Is it a bill? A statement? An insurance policy? Is it something important? Do I need to act on it? Will I need it later?
With paper, you are already exhausted by the time you figure out what it is.
It’s no wonder that even in the age of going “paperless” we still have so much paper.
During my career as a professional organizer, move manager and now organizer coach, I have encountered virtually every type of paper and document that exists. I have also written extensively on the process of organizing your paper. But it doesn’t matter how well its sorted into tidy little piles. If you don’t or can’t make a decision about it, it probably won’t get put away.
Here’s the good news about paper organizing.
In most cases, if you never organize your paper, nothing really bad will happen. The sky won’t fall. You won’t go to jail. Your children won’t be hurt. You won’t get sick, at least not from the paper. Will it cost you? Maybe, if you forget to pay a bill, or don’t do your taxes or forget your daughter’s birthday (God forbid!). Even if you forget to pay your electricity bill, don’t worry, you’ll get another reminder, and another.
Would it be inconvenient or possibly stressful to forget to pay your electricity bill? Yes, but it’s not life threatening unless you are on life support and if so, organizing your paper is not going to be top of mind.
The worst part about paper clutter is that it’s often a reflection of our state of mind The more clutter, the more we realize we’re feeling confused, overwhelmed or neglectful. This creates more anxiety and confusion and the cycle repeats.
It’s better to have a system for managing your mail, paying your bills, filing important documents or knowing what you should shred to protect your identity. These are all habits and elements of life that make us feel calmer, lighter and in control of our lives. But if you don’t already have these habits, and are not inclined to learn them now, you can still feel less stressed about your paper clutter.
Here are some ways you can manage your guilt or alleviate your anxiety about your paper piles.
You know all those saved letters and greeting cards you’ve kept over the years? You’re not likely to ever look at them unless you’re moving or downsizing your home and probably not even then. If you never look at them again, it’s not a problem. Your adult children will have to at some point but that’s another story.
If you overlook a bill, you’ll get another. Don’t sweat it.
You don’t have to support every charity that keeps mailing you solicitations for donations. This is true especially if you have a limited income. Seniors are their favorite customers since they count on you forgetting that you donated last month or last year. When you get them in the mail, toss them.
If you feel strongly about supporting your favorite charity allocate no more than 1% of your total income and divide that up between your five favorite charities. Let’s say you earn $75,000 a year. 75,000 x 1% = 750. 750/5=150. Donate no more than $150 to your favorite charities.
If you didn’t order something from that catalog when you got it, you probably won’t. Recycle it.
Keep your family photos. Even if you never look at them. They don’t take up that much space.
If you have more than a grocery bags worth of documents to be shredded, take them to be shredded. It’s not worth your time to do it yourself.
Stop ripping up envelopes with your name and address – unless doing so gives you satisfaction. Your name and address are public information. An identity thief can’t hurt you with just your name and address.
If you see your complete social security number on anything, shred it!
Keep a bin near where you open your mail. That way all the junk can get tossed right away.
Empty your mailbox daily. A stuffed mailbox is a sign that something is wrong in your home.
The IRS will never call you. Open anything that comes from them.
Stop saving investment statements. They are obsolete from the moment you get them.
If you can easily find it in your email or online, you don’t need to keep the paper copy.
If you have more than 1 or 2 boxes of unsorted paper that you have not looked at in more than six months, you probably won’t.
There is an 80 percent chance that anything you file you will never look at again.
If you want to find something really important, chances are you can request a copy, unless of course it’s a love letter or your 6th grade report card.
Don’t spend your retirement years going through your files unless you really want to.
If you have paper on nearly every surface in your home, including floors, near your stove or on your bed, then it’s time to call in a professional, for your safety.
If you have any reason to believe you’ve been a victim of fraud or if you suspect someone has access to your credit information without your consent, contact all three credit reporting agencies immediately and submit a fraud alert.
Have an organizing question or need help getting organized to move or want to schedule a coaching session? Schedule a free, no obligation phone chat with me using this link. https://calendly.com/letsmakeroom/30min
After living in the same home for 35 years, you’ve decided to sell your house to move into a smaller home that better fits your plans for the future.
Now the bad news.
After living in the same home for 35 years, you’ve decided to sell your house to move into a smaller home but now you have to decide what you want to take with you to your new home and then figure out what to do with everything else.
Here’s the ugly truth. You’ll have to get past the overwhelm if you want to make this happen. Action in the form of decisions is the best antidote. However, if you need help, consider hiring a professional organizer or move manager, especially if you are a senior or not as strong as you used to be. Breaking your back or leg should not be a part of your moving plan.
Start by looking around. Every room in your home has surfaces, drawers, closets and cabinets containing – dare I say filled with – a lifetime of objects and memories – enjoyed, received, purchased, stored, used, never used, never discarded.
You suddenly think, what am I going to do with all this stuff? You wonder if anyone wants your ten year old sleeper sofa, the one you bought so your grandkids could sleep over but now those kids are in high school or college and they’ve moved to new cities.
You think about the china and the silver that you haven’t used in years and that your kids have outright told you, “thanks Mom but no thanks, I have no place to put it and and even if I did, we’d never use it. I can’t even put it in the dishwasher!”
You’re not alone. It’s a dilemma faced by millions of people retiring or nearing retirement, every year.
So what do you do?
Start by getting clear about why you are moving.
Perhaps, you’re going to be closer to your grandkids. Or, you’re leaving the suburbs, and selling the house that’s outgrown you to return to downtown so you can walk to the stores you love and be closer to things you enjoy.
Maybe you’re moving into a condo or a smaller one-story home so you don’t have to deal with three flights of stairs anymore.
Maybe you’re moving back to your hometown where the air is cleaner and life is simpler.
Whatever the reason, get a crystal clear picture of what your future could look like and how you’ll know you got there.
Picture yourself playing with your grandkids, sharing coffee with a friend or taking a walk down that old familiar road with your dog.
You’ll need to have this picture fixed in your mind. Why? Because getting downsized and organized to move, and then planning and executing the move can at times be a mind-numbing, physically taxing and even tedious process. Add to that the time it takes to get unpacked, settled and adjusted to your new home, neighborhood or community. It’s hard adjusting to your new life… even when it’s the one you chose to have!
Once you’ve prepared yourself mentally, it’s time to start making some big decisions. If you’ve already found a new home, that will make downsizing and planning for your move predictable since you’ll know ahead of time how much space you have to move into.
But let’s say you want to start downsizing now, even though you don’t know where you’re moving. You just know you want less in your life and to be free of the burden of all the stuff!
First, start with what you know. Decide and mark (with bright green or blue painter’s tape) the items in your house that you know, for certain, you are taking with you. Make the labels as visible as possible. Go through room by room and “read the room” like you read a book, from left to right. Mark each furniture item that takes up floor space from the left side of the door or entry way until you reach the right side of the door or entry way. Ignore the household items, just do furniture, large lamps and hung art work for now.
If you have an extremely cluttered room such as a garage or office or an old bedroom that has become a “dumping ground” for undecided items, don’t tackle these first. That’s like expecting to press a 500lb weight when you haven’t worked out in years. You’ll hurt yourself!
Build your decision-making muscles slowly. Instead, start with a reasonably uncluttered area and make decisions about items contained in these rooms first.
Sort usable items you don’t want and could be donated, from trash. Use white, tall kitchen plastic bags for soft items you no longer want like clothing, purses, and belts and “banker” or file storage size boxes for heavier or fragile items. If possible, use boxes with cut out handles. It makes it easier to transport donated items to your car or to another part of your home for staging. Never use large boxes for donations. (Leave those for the movers).
Use tall paper lawn bags (available at most hardware stores) for recycling paper and heavyweight plastic bags for trash and non-usable or broken items. Get the trash out as soon as the bags are full to make space for your next task. Seeing empty space is a great motivator!
Old blankets and linens can be donated to a local animal shelter. Used bed pillows are generally not donate-able and should be trashed unless your city (few do) offers a fabric recycling program.
Moving is probably the only time when you will finally look at the paper you have been saving.
Don’t even think about tackling paper until you’ve first downsized your household items. If you do have a large quantity of paper – several file cabinets worth — consider the fact that 80% of what most people keep they never look at again.
If possible peruse your cabinets by file, not by document. If you’re concerned you may accidentally toss something confidential, err on the side of placing the entire file in a file-storage sized box marked “shred.” Set all your “shred” boxes aside and either arrange for them to be picked up by a local shredding company or you can search “free shredding events near me” online. Insurance agents and banks often sponsor free, public shredding events, for promotional purposes.
Time will determine just how and where your unwanted items get disbursed. In other words, the longer lead time you have, the more thoughtful you can be about where your discarded items end up.
If you’ve lived in your home for more than ten years, expect to pay for hauling or trash removal. Take advantage of your local waste management company’s free bulky item pick-up service if available but keep in mind you may still have to pay someone to help you get large and heavy items such as old appliances, mattresses and un-donateable furniture to your curb for pick up.
Save your back! Take advantage of whatever charities in your area offer truck pick-up but keep in mind you may have to book up to several weeks in advance and what is taken is always at the driver’s discretion. Check out DonationTown.org to schedule a truck pick up in your area.
Most household items will be accepted but furniture is more difficult to donate unless it’s collectible or in demand (e.g., mid-century modern) in good condition and less than 5 years old. If you have time, you can try posting items on free web-based sites such as Craigslist, Nextdoor, Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle.org, LetGo etc. Check to see if there is a “free stuff” group on your favorite social media site, if you use one, such as Facebook or Instagram.
There are also services like MaxSold which is an online auction site that will provide local help to get almost all your household items sold at below-market prices and picked up in a day or two.
The biggest advantage of selling or donating your large furniture is you don’t have to pay to have these items moved. Add to that, they are being purchased, presumably, by someone who wants them. The disadvantage is that you will have to be okay with prospective buyers coming to your home but you can either be there or agree to have representatives manage the sale for you.
Once your house is emptied of all sold and donated items as well as debris, your move will be much simpler. Contact one or two reputable movers in your area to get onsite estimates for packing, moving and insuring your move.
If possible, take advantage of their packing services, at least for your high value and fragile items, especially if you are moving out of state or more than 50 miles away. It’s well worth the added expense since it’s less likely things will arrive damaged if packed professionally. In the event that something does break, the liability rests with the movers, not you, and therefore you can file a claim with your mover’s insurance company or your own homeowners insurance if they cover your move.
After your items are moved, you can now turn the house over to your real estate agent to reap the most value from your home’s sale and begin living out the the vision you imagined! Chances are, it will be even better than you expected.
The answer? It’s not because you are a collector. It’s because you don’t know why you are collecting.
Having collections in and of itself does not make you disorganized. If that were true every museum and gallery in the world would be a cluttered mess.
It’s more likely your collections need to be reviewed for their personal relevance to you the same way a museum, gallery or boutique will display and collect their collections to fit their particular vision, style or mission.
Are you collecting items that have meaning to you or are you attached to them for another reason? If your mother passed, and you have everything she ever owned, how is that honoring her memory? How does that enhance your life? Is that a collection or just a collection of stuff?
There is no such thing as the clutter-police.
No one is going to come to you and say, “you can’t get rid of that!” unless you let them. If an heirloom was given to you, you are the owner of that decision. Not the person who gave it to you. Not even your spouse or your children. Just you. If you don’t like something you were given, someone else will. I was given a gift of a cookbook from a friend but I know I will never use it. Instead I am giving it to someone who I know will love it.
You probably have more collectibles than you have room to store them. Prioritize which of those collectibles you want on display or to use yourself. The rest are just things taking up space. Consider giving them new life somewhere else as a gift or donation.
Your decision about what and how much to store, will depend on your available space and of course how much value they have to you.
Outside or external storage is like buying a house just for your things! Is that worth it to you?
You can be both “a collector” and still suffer from chronic hoarding disorder, a mental health disorder in which an individual excessively saves items that the consensus among the general public would be to view as worthless or to such excess as to render their living space uninhabitable or non-functioning.
Assuming you do not fit the criteria for hoarding disorder, (people aren’t hoarders, they have hoarding disorder) there are several possible causes of why you are disorganized.
Here are the most typical barriers to organizing your collections:
Time. You perceive or believe you don’t have the time to get organized. You may have other more pressing or important priorities. Any organizing task, no matter how small requires some time investment. Even a minute can make a difference in how much time you spend tidying up your home. Spend a minute now, save hours later. Take a moment now and think of all the things you could do if you just had one minute to do them. For example: Hang up a coat. Toss the junk mail. Empty the dish drying rack. Empty a trash can. Can you think of more? Getting organized is a habit not an event.
Space. You have more things than you have space for. It’s a simple equation to fix. Less stuff = more space for what you love, use and collect. There’s no getting around it. If you moved from a three-bedroom home with a cluttered garage into a two bedroom condo with no garage, you will have more stuff than you have room for. Even if you have the same amount of square footage, you will still need storage. This would include both built in storage such as closets and cabinets, as well as furniture that is built for storage. In short, you have to be willing to edit and purge what you no longer love, want or use.
Mindset. Getting organized requires a large degree of logic, attention to detail, system thinking, creativity, physical endurance, mental focus and to put it bluntly, a willingness to do it. Inertia, whether physical or emotional (caused by depression, anxiety or attention deficits) can be a huge impediment to getting and staying organized. Untreated mental or emotional issues can lead to other more serious conditions or risks. Consult with a physician or mental health provider about whether your own mindset may be interfering with your organizing goals. If you consider yourself “chronically” disorganized, check out the public resources available from The Institute for Chronic Disorganization
Strategies. Even with plenty of time, space and readiness, you will need to have a plan for how to tackle different types of clutter. Is it things you are trying to organize or paper? In my work with clients I approach these two types of clutter very differently. Organizing things tends to be easier for most people because their value is easier to assess, practical and emotional. People struggle more with paper out of fear and a lack of clarity about what to keep and what can be safely tossed. Explore the web or your library for tips on organizing from others and see what’s worked for them.
Purpose. The old expression if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there is true for organizing as well. Sometimes the goal is easy, such as clearing out a house to sell or decluttering a garage enough to fit a car. Most of the time the purpose is more intangible such as a desire to feel more peace and wellbeing or a desire to feel more comfortable having people over. Ask yourself, “why do I want to do this?”
Scope. No matter how motivated you are, sometimes an organizing task is just too big to do alone or the urgency too great. That’s when it may be time to call in ‘the troops.’ Put the word out to (nonjudgemental) friends. Reach out to local organizers in your area. Do a Google search for “professional home organizer near me.” Post a help wanted ad at your local community college for help or ask other trusted professionals in your life for a referral to a professional organizer. You can also check out the National Association of Organizing and Productivity Professionals or the National Association of Senior Move Managers. Just enter your zip-code and it will list credentialed or qualified organizing professionals near you.
Getting organizing requires a compelling purpose. What’s yours?
Just a desire to get organized is not enough to overcome the physical and emotional barriers that may keep you stuck in clutter.
Resolve to let go of things that no longer have value for you, even if they once did or if they were given to you by a loved one or friend.
Explore whether your mindset or other inhibiting conditions may be keeping you from meeting your goals.
Finally, gather your tools or more specifically your strategies. Have a plan to know what you will do in different circumstances or with different types of items. Struggle with downsizing books? Google tips on “how to organize your library.” Need help organizing your massive amount of clothing? Google “Wardrobe editing decision tree.”
Now that you know where, why, how and when, decide whether you can do it alone or if you need help. Either way, congratulate yourself for making the decision to make more room in your life for what matters most.
How to keep your office organized when it’s is in your bedroom
You are finally in bed after a long day. You cover yourself with a blanket; feel the warm comfort of your pillow beneath your head and the soft, cool sheets against your tired body. You begin to relax into a night of slumber when you are suddenly startled by the pinging sounds of your computer sending notifications about tomorrow’s busy day. You get up and turn down the volume and get back in bed. That’s when you notice the pile of papers strewn across your desk, in varying heights and reminding you of a slew of unfinished tasks, unpaid bills and projects still yet to be started. You shut your light out, hoping in darkness you will forget the site of all that you have left undone. All of a sudden you see the blinking of all your devices in random rhythms, your router, your modem, your phone. Your room lights up with a blue blinking glow. You cover your face with a pillow and somehow manage to fall into an exhausted sleep.
In general, I don’t think a bedroom is a great place for your office. Your bedroom should be a place of respite, relaxation and most of all sleep. Yet sometimes, there is no choice. Space is at a premium. You share a home or an apartment and there is no other available space to work.
This doesn’t mean you should lose sleep when your office is in your bedroom. Here are some ways you can minimize those distractions without sacrificing your personal productivity.
Hide your desk. Space permitting, hide your desk behind a free-standing, decorative folding screen or room divider. You can buy them online or in most home decor stores. When it’s time to leave work, simply pull the screen around your desk.
Shut out and shut down. Turn off or block digital noise and distractions. If you can’t hide your electronic equipment, things like your modem, router, or fax/printer behind or under your desk, place a small piece of dark blue painter’s tape over the lights that blink. Painter’s tape will not harm your equipment and can be easily removed or re-placed. This is especially recommended if you use a guest room for your office. You don’t want your guests losing sleep from all the pings and blinking lights.
Re-purpose and reposition. If your room is configured for it, why not turn your desk into a combination bedside table-workspace. That way, you are no longer looking at the desk from your bed. You’ll need a lamp on your desk anyway, so why not make it your bedside lamp. You can also leave a little room nearest your bed for a book or notepad, a place to put your reading glasses, a small plant or decorative item, and a clock or device with an alarm. In other words, all the things you would need nearby while you’re working.
Clear the decks. Surfaces are notorious clutter catchers. No matter what size the surface, they have a way of getting covered with things. Just like you have a home, everything in your home should have a home. Take the time each day to survey what you have on your desk or work surface and decide 1) Can I toss it? 2) Does it need to live on my desk? 3) where else could it live in my home? Then toss it, move it or take it back to where it lives. No more homeless items!
Create vertical storage. Install simple bracket or wall-shelves above your desk area for less frequently used items, books, or reference materials. Use decorative boxes in like colors to contain surplus office supplies. Get these all off your desk and on to a shelf to free up space for working, creating and being more productive.
Equalize your workspace. Before leaving your desk for bed, take 60 seconds to put loose items in drawers, loose papers in a stack or contain them in a shallow box (e.g. an “in-box”). Review your calendar and most important to-dos for the next day. Then shut off your computer (or put it in “sleep mode”) along with all other unnecessary electronics. You’ll save money on your electric bill and may even get a few more Zs tonight.
The other day I decided to organize my one and only recipe binder. Most recipes I look up online. A few I take from cherished cookbooks and an old 3-ring, 1-inch recipe binder I’ve had for years. I found myself wanting to organize the binder recently after it took me a little too long find a recipe I needed.
When I started the process of organizing the binder- emptying the contents, sorting each recipe by category, disposing of the ones I knew I would never make again, then putting them back in order – I thought to myself, “I really don’t feel like doing this right now.”
Being organized is all about developing an organizing habit. It requires a thought, a motivation, an acton and a result.
Developing an organizing habit comes from a desire to continually survey your environment and be willing to improve your surroundings so you can function on a day to day basis with more ease.
It takes a willingness to regularly decide whether or not this thing or that still serves you or adds value to your life. Once decided, it then should be followed up with action – a choice to retain and store it logically and aesthetically, or to let it go to to find a new life somewhere else or to dispose of it safely and conscientiously. It’s not easy. Even sometimes for an organizer.
I had no strong motivation, nothing forcing me to undertake this little project. I also realized if I wanted to find a recipe in the binder, I still could, if I was willing to tolerate the inconvenience of looking for it (I was). There were other more pressing priorities in my life. I’d just returned from a trip to New York and was still adjusting to the time change and catching up on my to-do list.
Now back home, I realized, “I’m tired.” I thought it would be nice to get this done, but it wasn’t really necessary right now. I can live with it the way it is. Further, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to make decisions or take on any actions. This, I thought, is just how my clients feel.
It’s nice to be organized but let’s face it, it’s not always easy to get organized. When do you really have to get organized? It differs for everyone but in general here are some reasons you don’t have to get organized:
If what you want to organize is good enough and still usable (like my recipe binder)
If you (and your family or housemates) can still find what you need when you need it without too much effort
If you are okay with your home looking “lived in” and doesn’t have to look like it’s staged for sale
If you are not regularly losing things, paying bills late, incurring late fees, or paying for things you already own and can’t find
If you and your family are not fighting over the clutter in your home
If you are not feeling stressed every time you open your closet
If you are enjoying your life to the fullest
Here’s when you probably should think about getting organized:
When you are selling your home or moving
When you are planning a remodel
When you or a member of your family has to downsize for their own safety
When you feel the stress of your paper or physical clutter impacting your wellbeing or mood more days than not
When you and your family are arguing over the clutter in your home
When you realize you feel ashamed or embarrassed to have people into your home when you otherwise would
When you’ve used up your storage space or can’t use your storage the way it was intended (e.g., parking your car in the garage)
When you find yourself renting storage units for more than a year (this is a very costly way to defer organizing)
I frequently meet people who when they find out I’m a professional organizer will say, “oh, I need you!” but in fact they really don’t because they’ve learned to live with and tolerate their cluttered closets and messy garages. They put up with the fights with their kids or their spouses. Or they just don’t feel like doing it even when someone can do it for them because it’s one more thing on their to-do list.
Most people realize the time to get help is when the disorder exceeds their ability to tolerate the consequence. It’s when it costs them more in money or peace of mind to do nothing. Sadly, this is also when they are least equipped to take on the task. Like me in that moment with recipe binder, they are just too tired and there’s too much else they have to get done first.
Think you want to organize your office? What’s it costing you not to? What can’t you do now? How would it help you if you could find what you need when you needed it?
Want to organize your kitchen, living room or closets? What’s it costing you not to? Are you unable to prepare a meal? Are you fighting with your spouse because there’s no place to sit and play with your kids in your living room?
Are you feeling sick to your stomach every time you open a closet, cabinet or cupboard because the mess is unbearable?
Are you moving and waking up nights thinking about how the heck you’re going to get all the stuff from your 2,500 square-foot home into a 1,200 square-foot condo with no garage!?
I often say to my clients, don’t let the small stuff get in the way of the big stuff. What I mean by this is consider the cost of not taking action.
If it’s small, like my deciding not to organize my recipe binder right now, there is relatively little consequence. But if you defer taking action or decide you can do it all yourself, consider the cost to your health, your marriage, even your dreams and goals. For those large painful organizing projects that are impeding your life or causing you great stress, it’s not whether you can afford to do it, it’s whether you can afford not to.
This year, why not give your Mom what she really wants for Mother’s day.
More time to spend with her family, and less time to feel overwhelmed by her clutter, especially all that paper!
Here’s what you can do: Suggest to Mom that you’d like to give her the gift of organization so she can feel more in control of her life and less stressed by all the paper clutter in her home. You can help her yourself or better yet, hire a Certified Professional Organizer, who can quickly identify and sort all it all. Once sorted, you can purge what’s no longer needed and contain what’s left either in labeled paper or digital files according to your mother’s preference and ability.
If you decide to do this yourself, make it a time not just to plow through those piles but also to share the memories with Mom. Whatever you do though, don’t chastise Mom for keeping everything. No one was born with an “organizing gene” and the rules around paper have changed considerably since she was young, especially now that we are in a digital age though she may not be.
Most of what we keep, as much as 80% according to several studies, we never refer to again. Old bills, especially utility bills, make up the bulk of what I’ve seen the most of when helping my clients tame their paper piles.
I’ve seen floors literally buckle under the weight of boxes upon boxes of retained paper.
Even if all the paper in these boxes were accidentally tossed the chances of needing anything in them is statistically small. That being said, there is always a chance that those boxes contain confidential information so to protect your Mom’s identity I recommend you arrange to have it picked up by a residential document destruction company in your area.
Shredding these papers protects your Mom from others using her confidential information fraudulently. If you chose to to this yourself, be especially mindful when you are tossing documents containing the following:
Social Security Number (in full)
Credit Card Account Number (in full)
Driver’s License Number (in full)
Medical Record Number (in full)
Account Number (in full)
In recent years the practice of including full account numbers has changed to protect individual identities but that has not always been the case. If your Mom has kept documents for more than 10-15 years, it’s possible some contain this type of confidential information. Note however, documents that contain just a name, address and phone number are part of public record (remember old phone books?) and nothing can be done with this information alone so it’s safe to recycle these.
To get started, you will need a cardboard or plastic box labeled “SHRED” to contain documents for destruction. You will also need a supply of paper bags or boxes labeled “RECYCLE” and a smaller receptacle for “TRASH” such as the plastic that contains magazines and other junk mail. Lastly, you will also need a work surface. If table space is scarce, use a folding table or large ironing board if available. Use a “sharpie” for labeling if needed.
These record retention and destruction recommendations are general best practices and not intended to replace the advice for you or your Mother’s specific situation, especially if she is ill, disabled, or in dispute with the IRS. In these cases, consult with your tax preparer or another legal professional.
To get you started, start with whatever loose paper is most visible on surfaces, tables, desks or the floor. Open all mail and sort all items, including individual files and documents into the following 5 categories:
Financial includes: old and unpaid bills, store receipts paid in cash (if you are tracking your mother’s cash expenditures), bank statements, investment statements, tax returns, pension documents, social security information
Medical includes: Medical history, prescription records, explanations of benefits, prescription receipts, and health insurance and/or Medicare documents specific to your Mom
Legal includes: Life insurance policies, veteran records, estate planning documents such as wills, trusts, power of attorney, health proxies or living wills, birth, adoption, marriage and death certificates
Home includes: Property insurance records such as home and auto, mortgage records including records of satisfied mortgages, appliance warrenties
Personal includes: Educational and work history, cards, letters and other correspondence, general reference such as “project” or “idea” files. Binders that contain old training material, photographs, professional or published papers written or contributed to by your Mom and anything of a personal nature that could not be replaced if lost.
As you do this you can toss the following: empty mailing envelopes, obvious junk mail, expired coupons, store receipts paid by by credit or debit card and old user guides or warranty information for products or appliances no longer owned. Keeping a focus on sorting will make purging later go that much faster.
Next purge (shred or recycle) the following from each of the five piles:
Financial: Old paid bills, store receipts for low value items, checks from closed accounts, investment statements except current month or quarter, tax returns from more than seven years ago. ATM receipts – unless tracking cash withdrawals
Medical: Outdated medical information, explanations of benefits, receipts for prescriptions paid by insurance, any documents not specific to your Mom such as marketing and general information
Legal: Cancelled life insurance policies, cancelled or expired contracts
Home: Cancelled insurance policies, repair records for cars no longer owned, mortgage bills already paid, any reference material not referred to in over a year or that can easily be found elsewhere or online. Anything printed off the internet.
Personal: Any personal reference material that has not been referred to in over a year (such as old recipes, remodel ideas, maps, wellness or hobby information, old magazines, binders containing old training material, greeting cards signed by unknown people, out-dated resumes, any document that can be easily found online. Children’s school records and drawings if not displayed. Take a digital photo instead. Personal papers such as these will most likely take up the bulk of your Mom’s paper files.
KEEP and CONTAIN (either file or scan)
Use this as a guide for setting up your paper or or electronic file system
Tax returns and current tax information including receipts used for deductions for future tax returns
Bank statements and investment statements by account name and last 4 digits of account number – most recent three months unless your Mom will be applying for assistance under Medicaid or MediCal. In this case she will need the last 5 years of bank statements.
Credit card statements by account name and last 4 digits of account number – last three months only
Life insurance by policy name – keep while active
Social security account information
Records of health history, prescriptions taken and major conditions
Lists of physicians, specialists and other providers seen or consulted with
Insurance/Medicare/MediCaid account information
Estate planning documents (birth, adoption, marriage, death certificates)
Heath proxies, power of attorney documents
Records of satisfied contracts or any current contracts
Mortgage documents for current home
Records of recently paid household bills (less than one year) – if possible, set up auto pay and have bills issued paperlessly via email.
Records of property insurance (home, auto, other assets)
Warranties, appraisals or certificates for high value items (value greater than $100 per pound)
School transcripts/Official records such as diplomas
Records of work history (most current)
Cards, letters and other correspondence if it has historical or resale value (emotional value is optional)
Professional, written or published work if it has historic importance to the general public or a particular industry for archiving purposes
Anything that could not be easily replaced with strong emotional value
TO-DO or ACTION Paper
Finally, identify any documents that require some kind of ACTION or to-dos that your mother feels are worth her time such as bills to be paid, forms to be filled out, greeting cards to be mailed, or items she wants to discuss with another professional. Put these items in a separate mail sorter on her desk or workspace, keeping the bills separate from everything else. Don’t put anything here that needs to be filed or contained. Any retained magazines should be placed where your Mom likes to read them. Once she is done with these items they can be filed, contained or tossed as needed.
After you spend a few hours helping her, then take her out for lunch or dinner so you can both relax and enjoy some quality time together, knowing that you’ve made some room in your lives for what matters most.
Have you dreamed of having a tidy, organized home or resolved every year to be more organized? There are literally thousands of books, magazines, articles and blogs (mine included) that will offer you all types of tips and ideas for how to live a more uncluttered, organized life. If I were to narrow it down to one, very simple idea it would be this: Less stuff. Here’s just a handful of reasons why having less will actually give you more!
Less to distract you
Less to remind you of bad memories
Less things you can’t find when you need them
Less money spent on duplicates
Less time spent getting organized and more time being and feeling organized
Less arguing with your family because of clutter
Less to pack when you want to remodel or move
Less to unpack after you’ve moved
Less storage needed (and less money spent on outside storage)
Less chance you’ll overlook an important bill or task
Less chance you’ll misplace something important
Less stress on your family
Less loneliness when you’re too embarrassed to entertain at home
Less of what is cluttering your life!
I could probably go on and on because the benefits of having less of what you don’t love or need far outweighs the burden too much unnecessary stuff often brings.
It’s not about “minimalism” unless that’s your thing. It’s about choosing, every day, to love what you have and only keep what you need and use!
Just because something “can be used” doesn’t mean you should keep it. When was the last time you used it? What is the likelihood that you will use it? If you haven’t by now, chances are you won’t.
Do a web search for “donate stuff near me” and you will find a great list of charities eager for unwanted items in your community.
Even if you do everything on your smart phone, paper is still a fact of life, as is identity theft. Knowing what paper is safe to toss is not only a good habit, it will help minimize your chances of being a victim of identity fraud and make it easier for you to know just what to keep (e.g., for tax purposes) for when you want to get organized.
TIP: If you don’t have a shredder, use a black marker to hide any confidential information on documents that contain an account number, medical record number or social security number before you toss. Items that may include this information are noted below with the word shred.
TIP: Be sure you keep and regularly empty a recycling bin in the area where you do your paperwork.
*These are general recommendations for household paper. If you own a business or have extenuating circumstances, such as you owe back-taxes, consult with your tax preparer or consult an attorney about your specific situation.
What to toss…
Pages you’ve printed off the Internet that don’t contain anything about you personally.
Online account information you can easily find on the Internet (shred).
Brochures, flyers or marketing material for events or products that don’t interest you anymore.
Outer envelopes of mail you’ve received, even if it has your address.
Paid bills after one year if you are not claiming them on your taxes (shred).
Business cards for people or companies you would never do business with or meet for coffee.
Loan documents when your loan has been sold or paid off (shred).
Closed bank account statements and checks (shred).
Greeting cards from people you don’t like or remember (Recycle).
Your child’s scribbles and instead curate and take photos of your favorite artwork and rotate their latest creation as part of your “collection.”
Investment statements, excepting your year-end statement and any records of trades (shred).
Bank statements after one year unless they contain expenses you’ve claimed on your taxes (shred).
Prescription receipts unless you claim them on your taxes (shred).
Credit card statements after one year unless they contain expenses you claim on your taxes (shred).
ATM and store receipts more than 30 days old.
Paycheck stubs more after one year. Keep your W2 and tax return instead (shred).
Copyright: Lis McKinley, 2017
Lis McKinley, M.A., is the owner of LET’S MAKE ROOM based in Oakland, California. She is a Certified Professional Organizer and Move Manager specializing in helping homeowners and other residential clients get organized to move, remodel or simply enjoy their homes more with less of what they don’t need.
Editor’s Note: This is an introduction to the system I created to help people who struggle with too much paper.
Believe it or not, there are only three kinds of paper.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your first novel, your 2009 taxes or a bubble gum wrapper. The key to organizing paper is to remember these three types and know the difference between them. They are:
Paper you Act on
Paper you Contain
Paper you Toss.
Most people get stuck in paper clutter for three reasons.
They don’t have a system for organizing and managing it
They are afraid of accidentally tossing something important so they hold on to it “just in case.”
They hold on to it with the intention of doing something with it “someday” but never do.
Unless you take some kind of comfort from having a lot of paper around you, I’m going to assume you would prefer to have less.
The ACT system is actually quite simple. It just takes a little practice. The key to it is remembering that the goal of the system is to minimize the amount of paper you actually keep. If that’s not your goal, then consider what value all that paper has in your life now?
The ACT system is an acronym for Action, Contain, Toss.
Paper you act on is either a task or a project that’s worth your time to complete.
Paper you contain will likely be referred to again, or you are required to keep. (Everything else is optional!)
Paper that has no value to you should be tossed or safely disposed of.
Here’s how to use the ACT system to organize your paper:
For every piece of paper that comes across your desk, whether it be a business card, a magazine, a contract, a pad of paper, an invitation, notes to yourself, etc., you should ask yourself these three questions in successive order:
Is there an IMPORTANT Action I need to take with this piece of paper that is worth my time? (Reading and filing don’t count.) If your answer is no, then before you toss it, ask the next question:
Is it LIKELY I will need to refer back to this piece of paper again and would it be difficult to find it elsewhere? If yes keep and Contain it. Otherwise, go on to the next question:
Does it display any personal or confidential information that I would not want others to see? If not, then you can Toss it. Otherwise shred it.
The key to taming your paper monster is making the ACT system a regular habit.
Spend a few minutes each week sorting your incoming paper, mail and other documents according to the ACT system
Take action on those tasks and projects that you decide are worth your time
Contain only what you are likely to refer to again and can’t find elsewhere
Minimize the amount of paper you keep – what may have been important last year may not be now. It’s okay to let it go.
Maximize the amount of paper you toss – and protect your identity as you go. If you’re not sure, ask a professional.
Make peace with your paper piles by incorporating desktop containers, files and other organizing products that fit your own personality and style.
For more help on how to get organized at home, call us to schedule a visit.
At 8:00 this morning, I had my own private celebration. It took place in my head.
An hour earlier I was driving and thinking about how terrifying it must be for some of my clients to do the one thing that scares them the most; To finally confront what’s kept them from moving forward in their lives because they feel overwhelmed and stuck and it’s showing up as piles of papers, boxes and who knows what else, on their desks, on the floor, in their drawers, everywhere.
I was thinking about what it means to do the one thing that scares you the most and to have the courage to do it anyway because you know you have to. Because you know not doing so will have far greater consequences.
For people who are chronically disorganized, the consequence of not facing their fears can be enormous. For some it’s a loss of control over their lives. For others, it’s isolation. I know people who have lost their children, their spouses and their very security because of their inability to face their fears head on. I also know people who have shown great courage and have discovered the meaning of making room in their lives.
My fears are about public speaking. And yet, as a small business person I know the value it brings to others in the form of information and sometimes even inspiration. But I do it quite frankly because I have to. Working with people in their homes and in their offices or helping them move is tactical but it’s also very personal. I know that if people see me and feel I am someone they can trust, and recognize I have the expertise to help them, then they often will remember me when it comes time to organize their offices, or their bedrooms or help them plan and oversee their move to a new home.
This is what I was thinking at seven o’clock this morning, on my way to speak to a group of fifty small business owners and entrepreneurs about how to face their fears, specifically about how to confront their own Paper Monsters. I did this presentation a few weeks earlier and it had not lived up to my expectations – perfectionism, my monster, rearing it’s ugly head, yet again – and now I was getting ready to face him again. Was I scared? Petrified, which is why at that moment I started thinking about my clients.
“If they can have the courage to hire me, then I can damn well find the courage to face my fears as well, ” I thought. And so I did. And it went fine. It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. And that’s good enough. But to be honest, I’m glad it’s over. At least for today I can celebrate.
Tomorrow, I do it again.
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