Making peace with paperwork - Part 2 (Maintenance)

Once you have a proper filing system in place, maintenance is simple but requires discipline. Without a plan for handling future incoming items, your organization can rapidly fall back into chaos. Although Libra is available to you to assist with maintenance on a weekly or monthly basis, our goal is to help you become self-sufficient in this area.

Creating a mail center  

Organizers will tell you that it's critical to create a dedicated space for handling incoming mail. This "mail center" should be arranged in a place where you a) cannot ignore it and b) can readily access your files, checkbook, envelopes, stamps and stationery, etc. Common examples are on a section of your kitchen counter, a table in your foyer or at your desk.

Conventional practice is to create three trays: for TO DO items, TO FILE items and OUTGOING items. The idea is to sift through mail as it arrives and categorize it under these headings to be dealt with at a later time. For the very busiest of people and for those who prefer to strictly divorce "work" time from "play" time, this system sometimes works.

F, F, however, proposes throwing those trays in the "circular file." For most people, categorizing papers in this way and putting off the actual doing/filing/sending leads to an overwhelming pile-up that resembles the messy situation in which they began. For a long-term solution to handling paperwork, F, F recommends one of two systems:

1) Just Do It

I personally subscribe to the "Just Do It" system. I was taught that work comes before play so when I get home from my day, the first thing I do is put away my coat and shoes, empty out my handbag and, yes, handle the mail.

First, I trash, recycle or shred what I can. This mostly includes any catalogues I receive, as I find that I'm quite content with my belongings until I start eyeballing the shiny new baubles in those glossy pages! I write checks or arrange for online payments of any bills. I make appropriate phone calls in response to any correspondence that needs to be addressed. I am not a coupon clipper but I set aside any exceptional offers in my special coupon envelope.

Once I've finished the "TO DO" items, I file what's left. Why delay when I can file the few items that I need to save in less than a minute? As for outgoing items, I leave stamped, addressed, sealed mail on my foyer table to take with me to the mailbox when I leave next.

Processing the mail each day takes an average of 1-20 minutes. As soon as it's handled, I feel totally free to sit down and relax, knowing that my papers are in order and nothing's awaiting my attention.

2) The 4-Hour Workweek

Timothy Ferriss' book by this title popularized the practice of saving up all of the "busy work" and getting it done in one shot.It's a valid response to the 24-7 accessibility to which most of us comply via our email and mobile devices. It's not for everyone - I couldn't dream of settling down with a book before I'd folded the laundry! - but if you find yourself slavishly responding to communications at every minute of the day and night, your work/life balance may be seriously off and this might be a good remedy.

Applying this approach to your paperwork requires only a large bin and a calendar. As mail and other papers enter your household, dump them in your bin (I recommend something cute that fits in your home office physically and stylistically). Schedule an appointment with yourself once or twice a week to address the items in the bin - and keep the appointment. I recommend using an electronic calendar to set aside the time but you should use whichever date book you use for all of your other scheduling purposes, as you must honor this appointment as you would any other.

Managing lists and deadlines

Many of the papers that clutter our thoughts and our homes are easily replaced by a single, centralized document. For example...

  • Do you collect rewards cards and find them popping out of every conceivable household crevice? Sit down one day and open up a Word document. Make a list of all of these cards, record the account numbers and customer service contact information - and pitch that pile of plastic.
  • Are you a fan of social discount coupons (available for purchase on sites such as Groupon and Eversave)? Chances are, you have a collection of printouts from deals you've purchased, each with an expiration date. Don't miss out on cashing in on the investments you make with these purchases! Store all the printouts in a dedicated coupon envelope or create a special email folder for your purchase confirmations. Get out that trusty calendar and make a note on the date of each coupon's expiration. Electronic calendars are especially useful here, as you can set a reminder a week prior to the expiration date. You'll never learn too late that you've missed out on redeeming a coupon.

Don't let dates and deadlines weigh heavy on your shoulders. Once you've written down everything you need to do in a centralized place where you're sure to see it, you'll no longer stress about when and how it will be done. Get it onto your calendar and off of your mind!

As with any lifestyle change, implementing an effective maintenance system takes a tailored solution that suits your individual needs and personality. It also requires rigid adherence for at least a few weeks until you've successfully formed your new habits. If you find you need moral support as you begin your new practices, schedule a regular session with Libra. We'll guide you through the process until it becomes second nature to you.