Friday, February 24, 2006

Welcome to my messy world

When I look at my desk and see how untidy it is, I get discouraged. Then when I think of the 4,200 emails in my inbox, I want to hang my head and cry. How about you?

A few years ago, my friend Julie Kassalow Noris, a business coach, helped me organize my files in my house. She said I should move my battered metal file cabinets from a neglected third floor office to the kitchen, since I spend all my time there.

Yes, until I bought new wooden file cabinets, my old trusty rustys looked weird in the breakfast nook. But they made it easier for me to take care of bills and files at home. To me, Julie’s permission to let me live the way I live was an incredible act of friendship. She didn’t tell me what to do, but just sat with me while I did it. More importantly, what she said made sense and I wouldn’t have thought of the idea myself, even though it seems perfectly obvious.

Now, of course you, the reader of this blog, and I, the writer, don’t know each other yet, so we can hardly think of ourselves as friends.

But let’s act as if we are. Let’s do for each other what my friend Julie did for me.
Let’s dig out together and bring some calm into our work lives. Let’s encourage each other and exchange tips. Feel free to whine. (Don’t tell me about your closets - that’s a whole ‘nuther part of the newspaper; we’re strictly bizness here.)

Our topics? Cluttered desks, emails, computer desktops, over-crowded calendars, piles of files, used coffee cups with odd life forms, pens that don’t work, old newspapers. You get the picture.
I plan to start working on my desk and will let you know how it goes. Tell me what’s happening with yours. We will allow the organized out there to advise us (please!), as long as they behave nicely and don’t condescend!
More to come...


Anonymous D.B.Sher said...

What a fantastic idea - it's one of those "Why didn't somebody think of this before" ideas. Thank goodness you came up with this now. We are having a meeting this week on - you guessed it - how to better organize our department. So thanks and we'll be following closely.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Thnkr said...

I second the thought expressed in the previous posting. I'm a successful professional despite my information clutter but it's at a steep cost in terms of added stress and loss of productivity. I look forward to the exchange of practical ideas.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the future the task of the knowledge worker is going to be searching and digging for information. More than half of a professional's time will be spent trying to cut through clutter to try and make sense out of it. How can people spend the time they need to invest in producing quality work products when they're constantly trying to field the information that's flying in ?

10:51 AM  
Blogger Delaney said...

I agree with all the thoughts posted. I'd most like to reinforce the remark about finding time to set up an organization for your data, when "stuff" is coming at you like rain on a windshield! And the result is a constant state of panic about losing something critical.

11:32 AM  
Blogger papertigerlady said...

Congratulations! You've taken the most important step in getting on top of your clutter -- admitting that it IS a problem in your life, and that you're willing to do something about it!

As a professional organizing consultant for the past 27 years (and a right-brained, naturally disorganized artist/musician!), I can assure you that succeess is possible! The problem is NOT you -- the problem is that no one has ever taught you how to develop a personalized system for managing your innate creativity that suits your strengths and style. People often ask, "What should I do?" The more appropriate question is "What will you do?"

Organizing is an art! You paint a picture of the results you seek, and we can assist you in developing a "productive environment" that will help you accomplish your work and enjoy your life.

If you would like a free 30-minute phone consultation, go to and fill out the Productive Environment Scorecard. Fax or e-mail it to us and we'll schedule a time that's mutually convenient for us to talk!

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Tom Durso said...

Very interesting start to a very interesting (and useful!) series, Jane. I notice that a lot of the tips mentioned thus far parallel those from David Allen's Getting Things Done, which I've just read but have yet to implement. Will you be writing about that as part of the series?

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My thoughts on those stacks of unfiled papers:

Most papers that are filed are never actually needed again.

Most filed papers remain in file much longer than needed because it is such a pain to thin out old files.

Most filed papers are only being kept at all because of reasons beyond the choice or control of the person who has to keep them. (Do YOU ever really want to see your 2001 tax return again?)

So for the person with an excellent memory, the stack of papers is a real temptation. You know what's in it, you know about how far down it is, and you can start from the bottom when it comes to weeding out old stuff you have never needed to use even though you had to keep it. You can even have two stacks, one for things you might actually need again (it's a small pile, believe me), and the other for things you don't need but aren't allowed to throw out yet.

The main reason for getting organized is so if you die suddenly, your heirs have some chance of finding your insurance policies and other financial records. (And so if you don't die suddenly, you don't have to spend your last weeks on earth sorting and shredding paper.)

9:01 AM  
Anonymous brobb said...

One of my biggest problems is that when I decide to set aside time to organize, say, a large project, something else comes at me to distract me. Then getting back to the large project is very difficult. I guess that's where the 5 am or midnight sessions come in, but I work 45 minutes away from my office and am not likely to make either of those times. But I remain essentially optimistic.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Bill.M said...

The posting by "anonymous..."
" Anonymous said...
My thoughts on those stacks of unfiled papers:
Most papers that are filed are never actually needed again."

Thanks, anon - that is one key perception for us to acquire.

Another perception is awareness of procrastination: I've heard that you just set what seems a reasonable time block for a task, then if you can't achieve it for whatever reason you either scale back the job or increase the time allocation.

Then you must not criticize yourself for failing. I don't know how to do this reliably, consistently.

I've also been made aware that you must not try to do things for an external reason (e.g. to spare your loved ones the mess when you've died suddently...). I've heard better advice in the realm of Buddhist awareness - in which one is aware and fully in the world (i.e. experiencing the present), observing all and "identifying" them. Thus: oh that pile; oh the phone; oh, those obligations, opportunities, etc. BUT NOT TO EVALUATE them initially as they will and do overwhelm you if you fall into them as the "being" you are.

OK I am not a good student of Buddhism but there are some truths there...

2:22 PM  
Blogger Jane M. Von Bergen said...

Hi D.B. Sher,
What is it that your department is organizing -- files, work? Are you going to get an organizer? Keep us posted.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Jane M. Von Bergen said...

Tom Durso referred to the David Allen book "Getting Things Done." Apparently Allen's book is a classic in this field. I hope to interview Allen, either for a Q&A for the paper or online or both.

Also I have to agree with Delaney, Anonymous and BRobb. How do you organize and keep up with the onslaught? Bill M's point is well-taken. We can't constantly judge ourselves -- we can't say that because our desks are messy that we are messy. They are separate and we have to keep that in mind.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in a very paper intensive industry. We literally create hundreds of files a week! Our problem was not only organizing the files, but trying to accessing them. Last year we purchased a product called docstar that has revolutionized the way we deal with paper. Not only are we more organized we are more productive!

12:19 PM  
Blogger papertigerlady said...

In order to create a long-term solution for managing paper, you need a system -- and that WILL take time. A few hours invested now in setting up a system you can easily maintain will have an instant payback. Here are some specific tips:

• Today's mail is tomorrow's pile!™ Ignore your old piles, and set up a system so that everything new that comes goes into the system.

• Clutter is postponed decisions®. There are only 3 choices for any piece of paper. Taming the Paper Tiger recommends The FAT System™: File, Act, or Toss. (This is the one time that "fat" is a good thing in your life!)

• TOSS? For every piece of paper ask yourself “What’s the worst possible thing that would happen if I didn’t have this?” If you can live with our answer, toss, recycle or shred it – and live happily ever after!

• ACT? When are you going to do it? Use a calendar system to remind you to take action at the appropriate time. File the paper so you can find it when you need it.

• FILE? Not sure what to call it? Use a filing system ( so you or anyone else you can to can file or find any piece of paper in 5 seconds.

Happy paper taming!

1:14 PM  
Anonymous MEM said...

Here's an odd question for the organization experts (which I am not!), or perhaps for a neurobiologist (which I am not). A co-worker of mine used to keep and file paper copy of EVERYTHING. I was always impressed with how she could get her hands on a document. When she left the company, I was left with the task of sorting her vast paper files and I found lots of folders but no discernable organization among them. I what degree was her retrieval ability based on real "organization" and to what degree is it based on, say, the activity of printing the document, creating the folder, and filing it allowing her to form a multi-dimensional memory of where she had put something. I never watched the actual "retrieval" activity - so I don't know if she really knew where things were, or if she just paged through all those many-colored folders in random order looking for the thing she knew she'd put "somewhere...the folder, or maybe green...definately not red"

I think some people organize by filtration - tossing things that aren't immediately useful and therefore minimizing what they have to retrieve. Others organize by the kind of constant-handling that my co-worker might have used. I also believe there are people who truly understand, sort, filter, categorize, prioritize and organize vast quantities of text or information...I believe in them like I believe in Santa Claus...I know he's out there, and I know I'm not him!

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Susan Sabo said...

reply to Mem ~ from one of the organizing professionals in the article…

Statistics say that we will see in one year as much information and as many papers as our grandparents saw in a lifetime. The idea that your coworker printed and filed everything is overwhelming to even think about - and I'm an organizer.

The co-worker must have had an inordinate amount of space for putting folders and time to make the folders. Such abundance of those two resources is about as common as that man in the red suit you mention (Santa for those who didn't read the comment from mem).

Your coworker's ability to put her hand on the paper doesn't disclose how long it took her to find the paper. My suspicion is that it took her a while to find papers since you talk about ‘constant handling’. That thought and your observation of no discernable organization would lead me to suspect that if she had a system for paper storage, that system was broken. Few learn how to set up a filing system. Those who are good at it were lucky to learn from a parent or in professional training or are puzzle solvers who see and create patterns.

This same skill – setting up filing systems -- is vital for computer folders too. [hint: they should parallel your paper system]

To your question, just as people have different learning styles, people have different filing styles. Some lead with visual cues, some kinesthetic cues, and others auditory cues. People set up and use better filing systems when their style is accommodated.

Efficient folder retrieval in electronic and paper filing allows everyone to give attention to the important things – the work we’re paid to do, the friends and family that we adore, and ourselves for personal growth and fulfillment.

3:42 AM  
Anonymous D.B.Sher said...

Hi Jane. Our department is reevaluating our procedures for work assignments, keeping track of deadlines and filing paper. My main question is this: I understand the mantra that each piece of incoming paper should be handled once - i.e. toss, file or act. But in my line of work (legal), some pieces of paper need to be "pondered" and then acted upon at a later date. They become "To Do" items. What is the best way to organize those items that we can't just instantly dispose of? Some people keep such items on their desk as visual reminders of what needs to be done. But that ends up in a messy desk that is off-putting, and things get lost. Or overlooked. What do other people do about this?

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Affairs In Order said...

A suggestion to d.b.sher RE: how to organize "to do" things -- if you want them out of sight but still insure they get done 1) put them in a "TO DO" marked file folder of an appropriate size in the very front of your most used drawer 2) chronologically by the posted date (maybe using a stick-um) on which you need to review them and 3) pull out and quickly scan the front one for date every day (or every other day). The key is the regular checking. You could also put an identifying mark (star, check,etc) on your desk calendar to remind you of "To Do" check dates, but it's another action to take. The regular habit of checking it is the simplist and therefore more probably done.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

susan sabo to D.B.Sher:

What many other people do to keep from forgetting open items is track them on a master list of things to do. Sometimes adding a 'review by' deadline assists in effective tracking. Sometimes adding the name of the folder holding the related papers is helpful.

Things that need attention after an extended amount of time can be put on your calendar as a task when the date is best. For example, reservations for a September trip might be best made on June 1. Put a reminder to make reservations on June 1 on your calendar. You could further aid effectiveness by including the folder name where the trip details reside.

5:31 AM  
Blogger papertigerlady said...

To d.b.sher -- forget "handle a piece of paper only once!" -- It simply won't work for most people! As you accurately point out, some papers need to be "pondered." In File, Act, Toss -- Act doesn't necessarily mean "now" -- Put those files in "Action" Files -- to be acted upon at the appropriate time. You can create a "tickler file system" and actually file the paper on the date you want to look at it again, or put it in a subject file with a note in your calendar, Palm , etc. to remind you to look at it.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous D.B.Sher said...

Thank you for all of the great suggestions. You have already helped me out! This week I put all the loose papers on my desk in their files, but I made a copy of the things I have to "ponder" and act on. I wrote due dates on the papers and put them in a nice neat "TO DO" file. I also took the extra step of writing the deadlines on my calendar. I put all the case files in their drawers so my office looks neat (instead of keeping the files on the floor to remind me of what I have to do) which makes me more relaxed when I walk in each morning. The whole project took about a day. Since then I have just been methodically going through the TO DO file and getting the things done, and each day when the mail comes in I have been treating new items the same day. I feel so organized! It's great! Instead of staring at piles and wondering where to begin, I can just open the TO DO file and see what deadlines are closest. Now obviously the key will be to not let the TO DO file get out of hand. Thank you all again! You have been extremely helpful.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous file-cabinets said...

I really liked your page today. Keep writing. Have a nice week.

5:47 AM  

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