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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Celebrate "Organize Your Files" Week...With Ice Cream!

The third week in April is designated "Organize Your Files" Week.  Professional organizers like Paper Doll are all beside themselves with joy and celebratory glee for this paperific observance.  What about you, are you all aflutter over this holiday week?

No?  But organizing your files with lift your spirit.  And there's ice cream at the end of this post!

I understand how overwhelming it is to face a clock ticking to zero minutes, zero seconds, and the need to find an essential piece of paper.  In fact, many of you probably experienced exactly that stress-inducing situation last week, striving to prepare your tax returns while searching your home for files or papers you knew you'd just seen days (or moments?) ago.  (Our Canadian friends, who have nine more days to file their own tax returns, maybe going through this same anxiety now. Eh?) 

The pandemonium of tax week is almost assuredly why the third week of April became "Organize Your Files" week.  After all, aren't you more likely to take better care of your health in the aftermath of an illness?  Don't you pamper your car a bit more after you've had expensive repairs?  It's human nature to give greater attention to something after a crisis.  With tax return chaos in your active memory, don't you want to avoid that kind of pain and anguish? 

So, whether your files are practically tip-top, look like a tornado hit, or are non-existent, here are some basic strategies for getting in order.

Finish your taxes.
You thought you were done, just because you filed with the government?  Filing your return just puts you in Big Brother's good graces, but aren't your own needs more important?  Gather up your copy of your tax return and all your supporting material, and put them in a new folder labeled "Taxes-2008".  (If you did your taxes online using TurboTax or a similar program, burn the PDF version of your taxes to disc or copy to a flash drive and keep them in a safe place.) 

Repeat with each year's return and supporting material, and put the folders in reverse chronological order.  If you have oodles of space (and slender files), keep them in the financial section of your Family Files.  If you have 30+ years of returns, own a home-based business, or your tax files yield phonebook-thick folders, gather all but the most recent return, and store them in a banker's box or (better yet) a fireproof safe, accessible, but not taking up your prime real estate.  If you'll need frequent access to the old returns over the coming years (e.g., you're carrying a loss forward over multiple years), affix tape flags as page markers to make it easier to find the information you'll need at tax time.

Don't tax yourself. 
Seriously, after the exhaustion you've forced upon yourself in getting your tax returns together, don't penalize yourself by keeping your tax-related paperwork in a shamblesCreate a brand new tax prep folder or folders for the current year. If your financial life is simple, one "Tax Prep-2009" folder should suffice.  If complexity is the name of your financial game, have a hanging folder with interior folders for Charitable Donations (e.g., confirmation letters, canceled checks), Medical Expenses/Health Savings Account Expenses (e.g., paid bills, pharmacy receipts...but remember you can always get a tax-year summary print-out of expenses from your pharmacy), Childcare Expenses and any other category for which you or your family tends to have lots of supporting material.

(If you run your own business, on any scale, you'll need careful records for each deduction category.  We'll be talking about small business records in an upcoming blog series.)

If Your Files Are All Piles...
If you don't already have a filing system and your papers are all over the place, you're probably depending on your memory to know when and where you saw any particular document.  To keep that straight in your brain, you're blocking off space you could be using for conjugating naughty verbs in Italian or remembering the name of that person walking towards you right now whose name you always forget (gulp) just as you need to be introducing her.  Save the brain strain...and turn the piles into files.

Remember that all of your papers belong in one of five categories:

  • Financial
  • Legal
  • Medical
  • Household
  • Personal
This means creating five simple categories of files will keep you out of bankruptcy, prison, or (possibly) the hospital, and will help make your home, professional and person life easier and more enjoyable.  So, if you've never created a filing system, or yours is so old that your paper weights are naturally-occurring igneous rock formations, begin by reading Paper Doll's classic blog series on Family Files:
If you've got a desk or even a room of mismatched papers, grab a stack and clear enough floor space for yourself and five piles (financial, legal, medical, household and personal).  Just sort, and trash/shred anything that's no longer of use to you.  Once you've got your five stacks, it'll be much easier to break the piles down by accounts (banks, brokerage) or categories (transcripts, résumés, certifications) and create the labeled folders you'll need.

Once you've read through these posts, if you still have questions about how to organize your filing system, add a comment or send an email.  Organizing truths aren't secrets...Paper Doll wants to share with everyone!

Halt Backsliding and Evict Squatters!
Two banes of any filer's existence are backlogged piles that never to made it into the fabulous filing system, and squatters, files that no longer contribute any value but take up prime real estate.

Stop the backsliding by using this week to do a mini-version of the file set-up described in the last section.  If you haven't filed since the last time you read one of my posts about filing, don't worry--at least you have a system in place, a home for each document.  Just sort the files into one of five categories, then start playing the matching game (though instead of duckies or bunnies, you're going to match all the cable bills or insurance renewals), category by category, until you can easily plunk each sheaf of papers in the front of the right folder.  (That's the beauty of reverse-chronological filing.)

As for the squatters, start with the records retention schedule of your choice and your own good common sense.  Move from the front of your system to the back, and take just 10 minutes each day to shuffle through the folders and toss what's no longer of value.  Just as you should discard the spoiled items from the fridge when you're identifying what you need at the grocery store, the process of evicting these squatters will help keep your filing system "sanitary" and allow you the chance to review file contents.

Extra tips to make filing fun:
For those of you who (somehow) fail to find organizing as luminously fascinating as I, there are ways to make it easier:
  • Treat yourself to good supplies.  I'm not saying expensive supplies, but good ones.  Three-times-recycled file folders, with wrinkled tabs and torn edges, are the paper equivalent of underwear with elastic that's lost its zing.  You (and your files) deserve better.  You don't have to buy fancy new supplies (though, in two weeks, I will be reporting back from the National Association of Professional Organizers' annual conference on all that's new and zippy in office and filing supplies), but you do need to have some standards.
  • Label clearly.  My research is anecdotal, but I find that people are more likely to file often and according to their own defined rules if their files are labeled with a label maker rather than handwritten. Perhaps typeface is authoritative?
  • Opt for color if you're colorful.  If manila is too vanilla, keep your berry important papers from heading down a rocky road.  (Sorry, today--4/21/09--is Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry's, and Baskin Robbins is selling cones for 31 cents on Wednesday, April 29th.  Is it any wonder I'm thinking of filing in terms of ice cream?)  What was I saying?  Oh, yes, if you'll be more tempted to stick with your filing routine, opt for colorful or patterned interior or hanging folders.  I'm a big fan of anything with an Anne Taintor design , or perhaps you'd like something a little more communicative, like these Knock-Knock folderssold at www.OnlineOrganizing.com and elsewhere.
  • Schedule a filing ritual.  People often fail to file because there's no time built into their schedules to do it.  However, although we don't have "brush teeth" listed in our Blackberries, we remember to adhere to our dental hygiene because we've developed rituals.  Build filing into your schedule, preferably for two minutes prior to having lunch and three minutes before finishing up for the day, using an on-screen reminder or cell-phone alarm, if necessary, and within a matter of days or weeks, you'll file without needing to be told.
  • Enhance the atmosphere.  Filing isn't brain surgery--it doesn't take every bit of your concentration.  Play music--even make yourself a playlist or mix DVD--for getting your filing done to a syncopated beat.  Moderately peppy music makes every task, from laundry to emptying the dishwasher to matching account numbers just a little more fun.
I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you that "Organize Your Files" Week applies to electronic files, too.  Make time to review each digital folder until you've trashed the duplicates and digital squatters and made a back-up of everything (photos? financial records? system preferences?) you'd be sad to see disappear in the event of a computer crash.

Happy "Organize Your Files" Week!  But please, no presents.  Your loyal readership is enough...though I'd be glad to meet you for a celebratory ice cream cone!

posted on: 4/21/2009 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Jim Deitzel on 4/21/2009 1:20:27 PM:

OK. Ice cream in Orlando.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 4/21/2009 1:32:53 PM:

That last comment, ladies and gentlemen, is Rubbermaid's brilliant chief blogger, Jim Deitzel. In two weeks, I'll try to report back not only on the National Association of Professional Organizers conference, but the ice cream flavors of which we decided to partake.

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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