FAQ #4 – What Do I Do With All This Stuff

A common complaint that even well-organized people have has to do with storage of reference material & the archiving of old, completed records.

How long should you keep those important documents?

The short answer is – it depends. I did a little research and found a handful of lists and guidelines for record retention, that I have compiled here for you:

  • Automobile records (title, registration, repairs) – as long as you own the vehicle
  • ATM receipts – if to 6 years if you need them for tax purposes
  • Bank statements – up to 6 years (but you should be able to access these online nowadays)
  • Credit Card statements – up to 6 years, again for tax purposes
  • Insurance policies – (auto, homeowner/renter, liability, medical, life, etc) up to 5 years after a policy ends, in case of late claims
  • Investment purchase records – as long as you own them
  • Investment sales records – up to 6 years for tax purposes
  • Receipts -
    • Appliances – as long as you own the item
    • Art or antiques – as long as you own the item
    • Clothing – until the end of the return/exchange limit
    • Credit Card slips – personal – until you reconcile your statement, business – up to 6 years for tax purposes
    • Medical – up to 6 years
    • Tax-related – up to 6 years
    • Utility bills – up to 2 years
    • Warranties – life of the warranty, or as long as you own the item
  • Resume -Keep one updated copy of your resume (and keep your LinkedIn account current too)
  • Tax Records – Keep this year and the previous 6 years (and next year tax-time ought to be pretty exciting!) These records include:
    • Bank statements
    • Cancelled Checks (pretty soon these will all be online too)
    • Certificates of Deposit
    • Contracts
    • Charitable contributions
    • Credit Statements
    • Income tax returns
    • Lease and Loan agreements
    • Loan payment books
    • Pay stubs
  • Vital Permanent records – There are a few papers and records that you should keep forever (like Dark Side of the Moon):
    • Birth certificate
    • Death certificate
    • Adoption records
    • Citizenship papers
    • Marriage certificate
    • Divorce certificate
    • Last will and testament
    • Medical records
    • Passport
    • Power of Attorney records
    • Social Security records

What can I purge?

Looking at the above list can be a little disconcerting, but those papers really don’t take up that much space. What does take up a lot of space are the things that you do not need (there’s that pesky 80/20 rule again). Things like junk mail, phone books (seriously, who uses a paper phone book anymore?), expired coupons and special offers, old greeting cards* and invitations.

*[Unless the card or invite has a very special meaning. "Happy Birthday, love Joe" doesn't cut it.]

You know what else can go in the shredder? All of the above items that are past the retention date. And those magazines that you are never going to read. And business cards of people that you will never call or do business with. Old brochures and travel junk. Old maps. That box of recipes that you’ve been collecting but never made a single thing. And clothes that you don’t wear because they are outdated/don’t fit/you just don’t like them.

Take a good, hard look and narrow your focus

I am willing to bet that there is a lot of stuff that you could get rid of, even if you’re not moving. Not only will a good purge make you feel better about where you live, it makes it easier to keep your home and living areas organized.

Storing Your Reference Materials

For reference materials you have 3 powerful tools: A file Cabinet, Bookshelves & Google Desktop Search. For physical record that you need to keep, depending on the format, they should be stored close at hand. Label them clearly,either with their own file folder or a sticker on the spine of th book/binder/whatever. It is important that each item that can go in a file cabinet get its own folder so that you do not have to search though a jumble of paper to find the one that you are looking for.

A useful tip for reference items is to attach a 3×5 card to each item so that you can track how often you use it. Of course, there may be items that you use daily, but you may discover that less-frequently-referenced items can safely be stored elsewhere, or archived. This feature will come in handy when you do your annual “Spring Cleaning” to purge your workspace of things that you do need.

Another recommendation is to scan as many physical records into an electronic format as often as possible. This frees up valuable storage space and these records can be inexpensively copied & stored off site as part of your disaster recovery plan. See this Work.Life.Creativity post:

I implemented a program in my dept. a few years back so we could cut down on the time it took to find documents. Everything to do with accounting is in there which makes our yearly audits a breeze. I burn all of the scans to DVD weekly and take them off site in case something catastrophic should happen to our building. We wouldn’t even miss a beat if the building was gone since all of the software is backed up daily and all of the paper is digitized.

When these records are digitized then Google Desktop Search becomes a valuable tool for referencing them. GDS is capable of indexing every file, document and application stored on your hard drive, including the e-mails in your e-mail client.

This means that you no longer need to print & save those “important” e-mails as they can be saved, tagged & labeled for ease of recovery. As the ultimate e-mail backup tool I have set up my e-mails accounts & e-mail client to BCC every in-and out-bound e-mail message to a special G-mail account for storage in the Cloud – accessible from anywhere.

Don’t forget your Spring Cleaning

There is one last tool I’d like to mention, and that is the “Spring Cleaning” mentioned above. It is important to go thru your workspace at least once a year in order to archive or toss these items that you don’t need anymore. It is remarkable how much stuff can sneak into your workspace when you aren’t looking.

What do you do to control the amount of “stuff” in your workspace? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

FAQ #3 -How Can I Make More Time in my Day

I get asked this question a lot, and the short answer is, “You can’t.”

The long answer is that you can make more time for the important things, if you stop doing things that are not important. The trick is to identify those things and weed them out.

Do you know what you are doing with your time?

As previously discussed in the post “3 Steps to Better Time Management” we need to take a look at three things in our lives:

  1. How do we really spend our time?
  2. What is truly important to us?
  3. How can we make our commitments more effective?

If you feel like you do not have enough time it is likely that you are busy spending your time rather than investing it.

Knowing what we are really doing with our time is essential, and in order to find out we need to create a time log, a blank piece of paper divided into three columns: “Time”,” Activity”, and “Interruption”. Carry this paper with you for an entire day, recording your actions and activities, according to these instructions:

1. Every time you take on a new activity, make an entry on the Time Log. You may feel foolish. It will interrupt your work. Do it anyway and do it for the entire day. Pick a happy medium in defining what constitutes a new activity. (Don’t stop to note every pen stroke, but don’t have only large blocks of time entered as a single activity.)

2. Under “time,” enter the time you start the new activity, to the minute. Under “activity,” enter a brief description of what you’re doing. Under “interruption,” explain why the activity felt like an interruption of your time, if it did. This last column is totally subjective.

Tracking your day like this will allow you to see exactly what it is that you have been doing, so be honest and disciplined about it. You may be surprised at how different it is from what you think that you have been doing. It also allows you to track the types of interruptions that you experience, and when. I would recommend that if you do this exercise, put the completed time tracker in your Tickler File for four weeks later and do it again then. This will enable you to track your progress on staying productive, and managing those interruptions (if possible).

The next step is to look over your actions and activities for the day with a hi-lighter in your hand. Hi-light the entries that you consider to be “important”, and make a list of them on a second sheet of paper. Then make a list of the “unimportant” or “interruption” entries. Staple these together and file them in your Tickler for comparison four weeks from now. You may want to write the “interruptions” on a 3″x5″ card and keep it in your organizer so that you can be reminded of what activities you are working on eliminating.

Make more time: Action steps

Look at your time-tracker log. Are you spending time doing things that you do not need to do? Are they wasteful of your resources? Are there tasks or activities that could be delegated?

  • Stop doing the things that you do not need to do. This can be difficult but it is essential. Delegate as much as possible, delete the rest as best you can.
  • Batch your activities. Some tasks, like checking e-mail, paying bills and filing can be done in groups. Create some filters for your e-mail account and only check it periodically (the period will vary based on your needs). In fact, if e-mail is one of those activities that pulls you out of a workflow mindset then you definitely need to get it under control.
  • Set a regular time for a Weekly Review. Checking back on yourself is a powerful motivator to get things done in  timely manner. Looking at a long list of un-done tasks can be depressing, but looking back upon a list of crossed-off activities is inspirational! Use your Review time to create a short list of Most Important Tasks – the things that have to get done next week. Focus on this list and your work will seem much less daunting.

What do you think? Do you have any tips for making more time for the things that matter?
Please share in the comments.

FAQ #2 – How Should I Manage My To-Do List?

Many readers and visitors to this site leave comments or send e-mail asking for specific tips on how to manage some portion of their workflow system. You say you don’t have a system, and that’s why you need help? Well, everyone has a system, some are just more robust than others.

No matter how busy you are, I am sure that you have some way of recording those “inputs” that come your way. Maybe you just try to remember them, and lay awake at night worrying about things that you forgot. Here is the number one secret to getting more things done so that you can enjoy your life and work again:

Capture your to-do list

The next most popular question is along the lines of “What tool is the best, and which tool do you use?” I have to tell you that I have tried a lot of things, and the one tool that I have found that works best for me is this:

ubiquitous capture tool for GTD

My handy-dandy notebook. I never go anywhere without it. I write down everything that pops into my head, so that I do not forget. You can do the same, and likely with a $.99 spiral bound notepad from the grocery store. This is the very first step in creating a robust time-management system that is adaptable to your own particular needs and situation.

Capture: Write down everything that you need to do.

This notebook is the perfect place for you to jot down ideas and inspirations, your shopping list, a contact’s phone number, whatever. It is better than scratch-paper, because any jottings are bound in and won’t get lost. You can even stick some blank 3″x5″ cards in the back in case you need to jot down a note and give it to someone. Handy-dandy.

Analog vs Digital

This is where the use of a capture device becomes controversial. There are many in the Getting Things Done community that swear by their PDA/handheld device for doing this sort of capture and inputting it directly into their workflow system. This can be a very attractive option, and one that I do recommend if you already have a handheld that you can use for this purpose.

If you do not have one of these PDAs or smart phones, I do not recommend that you run out to buy one. Learning to use a capture device of any kind requires a shift in your thinking. You have to learn a new habit, that of collecting your tasks and organizing them into an action plan.

I do not use a digital device to capture my inputs for two reasons:

  1. I just don’t like it. I seem to have an “unhealthy” love-affair with notebooks. I enjoy writing with a pen or pencil, and being able to create pictures or sketches or other non-verbal ways of expressing ideas. I suspect that I do more of my thinking in patterns and images than I do in words. This type of capture can be difficult in the majority of handheld devices.
  2. The notebook as a capture device is independent of my workflow application. As a “productivity blogger” I get offers to use and review different applications (like Wrike, UltraRecall, OnePlace, etc) all the time. In an effort to provide value to my readers, I do take these systems for a test drive – and few of them are able to “sync” with any handheld devices. In addition, I don’t have to worry about upgrades or new versions of software suddenly becoming incompatible with my notebook.

Creating an Action Plan

Whichever method or tool you use for capturing the inputs, ideas, and tasks, you still have to process those tasks into an action plan for execution. For getting them done. Again, there are quite a few software applications out there that have attractive features and benefits for a wide range of personality types. Some people are more visual, some like adding a lot of detail, some people are comfortable with simply making a list and checking things off. No matter what application (software or legal pad) you choose you need to have the same goal for its use:

Contextualize: Assess each item on your list.

  • Does it fall into the category of a task that needs to get done? Should you do it Today, Tomorrow or Later? Put it in the proper file folder, or enter it into your master list (paper-based or software application).
  • Does it fall into the category of an appointment/meeting? Then it needs to go into your calendar.
  • Does it fall into the category of reference material? Then it needs to go into your archive or your Tickler File for later use.

The Franklin-Covey method recommends assigning each task a letter- or number-based priority (A B C, A1 A2…). I have found this to be inefficient and inflexible. Things happen. “Fires” start. Your workflow needs to adapt to the situation you find yourself in at any given time. For this reason I recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology and use the two-minute rule: If you can accomplish a task in two minutes or less, just do it. Do them all. Do not get bogged down in making your list or trying to sort the less-than-two-minute tasks.

When you look at your list and see a bunch of little things crossed off as completed it gives you a good feeling. Now you can work on the larger, more time-consuming tasks. There are two ways to address these more-than-two-minute tasks and projects: 1.) set an appointment with yourself to do it in your calendar, or 2.) enter it into your master to-do list (paper-based or software application). The kind of master list that you use is not important. Actually using the list and marking items “complete” is important. Take your time, feel free to experiment with different applications for a week or so. If it does not feel smooth and natural after a week’s use, go back to the legal pad until it’s time to try another one.

Your calendar is not a to-do list

Let me say that again: Your calendar is not a ‘to-do’ list and it is not an In-box. For those of you familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system, you know that only three things are to be entered into your calendar:

  1. Time-specific actions
  2. Day-specific actions
  3. Day- or Time-specific information

That’s it. Because your calendar is a tool that you use to tell you where you need to be and when you need to be there, or when something is scheduled to happen. That is why Allen refers to it as the Hard Landscape. Keeping a separate, master to-do (paper-based or software application) list saves you from having to copy tasks or activities from one day to another if they did not get done.

In summary, you already knew how to manage your list. What you didn’t know was how to capture then organize your list. Now that you have a better understanding of what the tools are and how to use them, you should be able to tackle that list and get some things done.

FAQ #1-How Can I Get Organized?

I hear something like this almost every day:

“I have so much stuff to do, can you help me get it together?”

Is this your workspace?Every time I receive an e-mail like this, my first response is, “Look around your office or workspace. Is everything put away, are your supplies stocked and handy? Or are there piles on piles of stuff and you don’t even know where your stapler is?

Nine times out of 10 the answer includes “piles of stuff”. My advice to these folks is always the same, and I will share it with you here. (Bookmark this page for future reference!)

How to organize your workspace, once and for all

Get up from your desk, go get a big trashcan and a box of manila folders. Then close your door (if you have one, put up some tape if you don’t) and ask someone to cover your phone for an hour. It’s time to get to work. It’s time for you to invest some time in preparing yourself for success.

  1. Look at your desktop, your shelves, in your desk drawers and file cabinets. Is there anything there that you do not need to get your work done? Of course there is. Toss it in the trash or take it home. A couple of pictures or decorative items are okay, even good for you, but your desk shouldn’t look like grandma’s mantle. Use the manila folders! Every piece of paper gets it’s own folder. Label the folder, and make a new stack on the floor, we’ll come back to it shortly.
  2. Collect all of the sticky-notes, memos and reminders that you have plastered all around. You leave these things out so that you don’t forget – well, sorry to tell you but, you stopped “seeing” those things quite a while ago. Create a text file with Notepad on your computer and type the essential information into it. Save it as “Reminders” and place the icon in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. Now all of your reminders are in one place and out of the way.
  3. Go through the files in your filing cabinets. Apply the principles from Step 1 above: if you don’t need it to perform your job, get rid of it or archive it.
    NOTE: Everything that goes into an archive box must be tracked. Make a list of the items/files/documents that you put in that box. Number and date the box. Then create another text file and enter the list of contents. Save the text file as “Box # date”, and put it in a new computer desktop folder called “Archives”. Now whenever you need to find something in an archive box, you can use Google desktop search.
  4. Tear down those piles of stuff. Steps 1-3 should have cleared up some storage space in and on your desk, and in your filing cabinet. Now you have some room to put away the stuff in those piles, and that stack of file folders on the floor. This is where it gets a little more personal, and I am going to describe the simplest, most stripped-down organizational system ever.
    All of the stuff in those piles is going to get sorted into 4 stacks:

    1. “Today”
    2. “Tomorrow” NOTE: this does not mean tomorrow in a literal sense, it means soon
    3. “Later”
    4. “Delegate”

    Look at each item/document/folder in the pile and decide which stack it should go in.

    • Is it urgent? Yes – Put it in the “Today” stack. No – put it in the “Later” stack with a due date on it.
    • Is it just important? Put it in the “Tomorrow” stack, with a due date written on it.
    • Is it neither urgent nor important? Well, it should go in the trash can unless it needs to be archived.
    • Is it something that someone else can or should handle? Put it in the “Delegate” stack, with a note of who it is assigned to and when it is due.
    • Not sure what to do with it? Archive it.

    Take some time to consider each item in the pile, but not too much time. Also, you may begin to feel your excitement build as you clean up your workspace & organize your tasks. Be careful. Resist the urge to actually start doing these tasks. Yes, you will get flashes of inspiration about some of these items. Write it down and attach it to the item.

You are almost there!

After your desk and file drawers have been purged and organized, all of your piles have been conquered, it’s time to make something happen.

  1. Put the “Later” stack in your file cabinet. You will not need to look at it until the end of the day tomorrow.
  2. Put the “Tomorrow” stack in the file cabinet too. You will look at this stuff in the morning.
  3. Put the “Today” stack on top of your desk, you are going to address these items in a few minutes.
  4. Pick up the “Delegate” stack and go find the people that you are assigning these items to. They deserve to get these assignments as early as possible. When you hand off these assignments be sure to communicate clearly what is to be done and when it is due.
  5. Take a break! You’ve earned it. Congratulations on overcoming your mess and getting your tasks organized!

Cliche-ridden picture of kids jumping

Hooray! I’m organized…now what?

Now it is simply a matter of doing and of ongoing maintenance. When you are done with your break, sit down at your desk and do the things in the “Today” stack. You may not be able to get them all done today, and that is okay. They have likely been building up for a while.

While you are working, more inputs (tasks and other “stuff”) may be coming your way. You need to handle each incoming item the way you just handled your piles:

  • Is it urgent? Yes – Put it in the “Today” stack. No – put it in the “Later” file with a due date on it.
  • Is it just important? Put it in the “Tomorrow” file, with a due date written on it.
  • Is it neither urgent nor important? Well, it should go in the trash can unless it needs to be archived.
  • Is it something that someone else can or should handle? Put it in a new “Delegate” file, with a note of who it will be assigned to and when it is due.
  • Not sure what to do with it? Archive it.

At the end of the day, take your remaining “Today” items and put them in the “Tomorrow” file. Then go home, you are done.

When you get to work tomorrow morning, you will find that you are still caught up and organized. Now you have a simple routine in place to handle all of your tasks:

  1. Pull out the contents of the “Tomorrow” files, this becomes your “Today” list of activities. Do them.
  2. Follow up on any delegated items that are due today.
  3. Process all incoming tasks and “stuff” into your filing system.
  4. At the end of the day, put any remaining items in the “Tomorrow” file and look at the “Later” file – review the due dates and choose one or more items to work on tomorrow.

Good luck, and keep on working. Here’s to being done!

For more helpful tips and discussions of practices like this, visit the Work.Life.Creativity forum.

For what it’s worth, this is what my workspace looked like on 23 Sept:

My messy desk back in September


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And this is what it looks like today:
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How to clean your desk
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I went all-out and cleaned out the desk drawers, for the first time in a while.
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Clean your desk drawers
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I even went so far as to organize all of the stuff on the shelves…
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supplies on bookshelf
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barrister bookcase

Now that I am working from home again, it is even more important to maintain my system, and to keep it as stripped-down as possible. In this way I can get more done in less time and get done. Because it really is about being done, not working all the time.