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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Get Organized Month: Paper Control 102--Advanced Topics & Office Hours

Welcome back to to Paper Doll University.

People may feel reluctant to share the details of their organizing obstacles because they feel the clutter (tangible or temporal) is somehow a sign of a personal failing. They blame themselves. (In truth, clutter comes from a lack systems and skills appropriate for both the person and the project.)

But with paper, most people have a "me vs. paper" adversarial approach. With paper playing the role of an ever-encroaching villain, people are more comfortable admitting to their ongoing battles and seeking help. Indeed, last week's post post was the most widely read in Paper Doll's almost 2 1/2 year history, and yielded a lot of reader mail and requests for more information on some of the paper basics.

So, if last week was Paper Control 101, let's consider this the second semester course, with advanced topics and office hours.

Last week, after the topic of "Toss or shred what you don't need...", people asked:

"What should I look for in a shredder?"

Good question! Not all shredders are equal. To flummox identity thieves, reduce clutter and keep your sanity, consider the following:

--Size Matters--Tiny desk-top shredders with 4.5" feeders look adorable. But the narrow feeder means you'll have to fold almost every piece of paper you shred, as only envelopes will be narrow enough to be fed without folding...and how often do you need to shred an envelope? These tiny shredders also tend to have horizontal rather than vertical feeders, meaning you have to take more time and be more precise just to get the shredder to eat the papers. Opt for shredders with 9" feeders, more than wide enough for standard 8 1/2" x 11" paper.

Next, decide whether you want one with an attached bin/receptacle (basically, a small metal or rubber trash can to catch the shredded items) or a bin-free one (where you set the shredder atop your own rectangular bin). Either will work, but the all-in-ones assure a good fit, so you're less likely to have a snowstorm of hanging chads if your toddler or pet wobbles by.

--Consider Capacity--It does no good to buy a fancy-schmancy shredder that rips credit cards and CDs right down to the atomic structure if it balks at eating more than three pieces of paper at once. And it's a waste of money to buy a sophisticated, "heavy duty" office model shredder if you will only be shredding a handful of papers each day. Medium-range office shredders can handle upwards of 30 pages at a time; bargain-basement home shredders may get indigestion from a greeting card. For personal use, a shredder with an 8-12 sheet capacity should be a good choice, but remember, shredders for home use aren't designed to handle hundreds of pages at a clip. (So, if you've cleaned out 5 years' worth of old files, don't expect to shred them all in one day. After 100 sheets, most home shredders will overheat and you'll have to walk away for at least an hour.)

--TeenyTiny Is Tops (for Security)!--I'm not sure anyone in real life ever went to the effort of to reproduce full pages out of old-school shredded strips (they way they do in myriad movies and TV shows), but it remains that 1/8" inch strips could be reconstructed into full pages if someone had patience. For the utmost security, you want to use either a cross-cut or "micro-shred" shredder. If what you've got left when you've finished shredding is only good for confetti or packing material, you've hit the mark.

--Other factors (besides price) worth evaluating:

Can it handle staples? For some of us, lack of a staple-eating feature is a deal-breaker.

Will it make a mess? Some shredders have pull-out drawers, while others require carefully removing the shredding mechanism (bomb squad style), dumping the contents and then putting it all together again. Either way, have a vacuum handy.

How loud is it? As with hair dryers, often the more expensive, professional versions will be quieter, but for personal use, the higher price isn't worth the cost of trading a trash-compactor-crossed-with-a-plane-overhead grind for a gentle hum. Just turn the radio volume up.


Last week, in the section entitled "Consider technological alternatives", I used a phrase that got a lot of you writing and tweeting. Tell us more, they beckoned, about the dangers of Scanning Without Planning

It all starts with knowing why you've decided to start scanning in the first place. For a small group, the notion is something along the lines of "I don't have a great deal of space, so if I scan all of my reference papers into the computer, I can maintain all of the things I previously neatly filed away. I'll still be able to locate what I want quickly and easily, but I can yield that filing cabinet real estate to something more fun (like a ficus, a stripper pole, or wine refrigerator." These folks have a plan--they'll mirror the system they already had in place in their digital storage. That's fine.

However, for a majority of people new to scanning, the thought process is much more like, "I'm surrounded by piles of paper and I can never find stuff, so I'll scan all of it so I'll have it without having to step over it." The assumption on the part of the aspiring scanner is that if the piece of paper hasn't yet been discarded, it must be important and must be kept. This is one of the major falsehoods we tell ourselves and is the major contributor to clutter. Just because you haven't gotten rid of it doesn't mean you actually want or need it! (If you can't recall why you have something, don't assume you've kept something for a good reason, or even any reason.)

So, before embarking on a Scan-a-Palooza so that every clipped article, receipt, recipe and photo moves from the material world into the digital realm, please review some extra credit reading: Knowledge Is Power.

The next step is to set up a digital file system that echoes your paper files (i.e., financial, legal, medical, household, personal) as we've discussed in the past. Let's pause for a study break while new students review the required reading from the syllabus:

Family Filing—As easy as (eating) pie
Financial Filing—Scrapbooking snapshots of your money's life
Mom, why is there a receipt stuffed in the turkey?
I Fought the Law...and the Paperwork Won!
Patient: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." Doctor: "Then don't do that!"
Paper Dolls Live In Paper Households
I Hope Nobody Ever Writes a Nasty Tell-All Called "Paper Doll Dearest"!

Now it's time for some lab work and independent study. Using the same kinds of headings and subheadings suggested in the readings above can really help determine where these scanned documents need to go. Then, before scanning even one page:
  • Sort papers into general categories. (If you're transitioning a well-organized file system, you'll easily be able to work from sub-categories; if you're starting with mountains of loose papers, at least having the five main categories will help your work go smoothly.)
  • Scan one category of papers at a time, based on the pre-sort.
  • Label your files with precision. With papers, you use logos, colors, type-faces and familiarity with layout to help you discern the difference between your bank's monthly checking account statement and your 401(K) statement. With digital files, you're generally working with file names only, so be specific: BoAChecking200909.pdf shows it's your Bank of America checking account statement from September 2009. If it's a super-duper important file that you fear losing track of, consider giving it a asterisk as part of the title, like *2010TaxReturn so that when you sort your files alphabetically, anything with an asterisk will pop up on top for quick access.
  • Move newly-scanned files for each category to the appropriate major-category digital folder before moving on to scanning the next category. If you're pressed for time, that will suffice. If you want more precision, then...
  • Create subfolders for subcategories (e.g., for banking, investments, taxes, etc.) and move the scanned document files to those folders. See how it's just like a filing cabinet?
I see you, in the back of the room, with your hand raised?

There's always one Devil's Advocate in any class. Well, advanced computer users will point out that "organizing your scanned files isn't necessary anymore", that OCR (optical character recognition) software allows you to search within PDFs and other scanned documents for keywords. And they'll note that desktop search engines allow you to search for keywords or partial words in the names of files.

While this is generally true, Paper Doll sees two minor flaws with depending on desktop search. First, many people who haven't ever had (or taken) the time to organize their papers won't have the time (or the inclination) to learn about how these search functions work. Second, it's often faster to go to your computer, click on the Financial folder, then the Bank Statement folder, then pick the dated file you need than to start trying to remember what keywords you might have used. I'm not saying using desktop search is flawed, but relying on it before you've ascertained that it's the best organizing tool (or really, permission-not-to-organize tool) for you might not be the best strategy.


When Paper Doll talked about "Stopping the Flow of Paper You Don't Need or Want" last week, we really only got to hit the high points, referencing the Direct Marketing Association and Abacus for general junk mail, the Opt Out Pre-Screen for stopping credit card offers and a list of contacts to assert your privacy rights and stop lenders from sharing your information with their "partners" for marketing purposes.

I tried to hit as many of the major players (AmEx, Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Discover, First USA and Wells Fargo) as possible, but a number of you wrote in that the lenders backing your MasterCards and Visas weren't listed. I encourage you to either Google (or Bing--is Bing a verb yet?) the name of your lender and the phrase "privacy policy" or use the Site Map of your credit card company's web site to find the current policy and contact information.

With regard to web sites for helping you stem the tide of catalogs and junk mail, frugal Paper Doll concentrated on options that were free (or at least cost no more than $1, in the case of the Direct Marketing Association's online option), but I should mention that there are paid mailbox decluttering options, for those of you facing a time crunch:

41Pounds (the approximate weight of junk mail the average North American adult receives each year) has a long term view. For $41 for a five-year subscription, they'll contact several dozen direct-marketing companies for you (including the Direct Marketing Association, so you'll recoup that $1 and the time it would have taken to contact them) to stop credit card and magazine offers, insurance promotions and any catalogs you specify. In addition, $15 of your fee goes towards supporting your choice of 41Pounds' many green non-profit affiliates. (Thanks to Jackie Kelly, professional organizer and owner of Bethesda, MD's Clearinghouse, for bringing my attention to 41Pounds on Twitter last week!)

Some of you also asked about Green Dimes, much ballyhooed a few years ago. They promised to remove your name from catalog and other direct-mail lists for the low, low price of $20 per year, and they'd even plant ten trees on your behalf. Sometime last year, Green Dimes became Tonic Junk Mail Stopper; now it's Precycle, with a one-time fee of $36, and they'll plant five trees in your honor and even send you two eco-friendly light bulbs and a reusable shopping bag.

Other for-free junk mail removal services, including ProQuo and JunkMailFixIt, ceased operations in 2009.

Paper Doll's office hours are over for today, but we'll pick up next week with more advanced topics, particularly strategies for developing a system for dealing with your papers, and alternatives for paper storage for those who just can't love folders and files. We'll also be looking at a new study conducted by our friends at Smead (the Organomics folks) regarding the wacky places people hide VIPs (those very important documents).

posted on: 1/12/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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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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