Sunday, May 19, 2013

Organizing Your Personal Papers: Spread 'Em Out

I recently re-visited a client to give her a little help with organizing her personal papers. I last left her with a set of instructions that described how she could organize materials into groups. She was to place materials in a box for herself, a box for her kids, and a box for her parents. Each box would have materials written by the corresponding family member. This type of organization, by provenance, is a basic tenant of archives management. (Simply put - keep materials organized by the person who created them.)  My client was able to accomplish this, but had trouble with the next steps. While I have written about organizing papers before, I want to share a few simple tips I've learned to share that may get you over a hump.

Shirley Historical Society
Lawton Papers in the process of being organized
I like to tell people that archives management is as much an art as a science, especially when dealing with your own papers. Do what you think is right. Do what will help you find what you need. Do not worry about "perfection" because there is no such thing when it comes to organizing. Take it one step at a time. Try not to be overwhelmed. Do a little organizing at a time.

Have you ever walked into the house of a friend who is in the middle of cleaning? A mop and broom lean against the wall. A bucket of water has splashed a bit on the floor. Picture frames are awry in the front hall with a dust rag and polish on the wood table. A basket full of small items sits at the bottom of the steps ready to be carried upstairs to be put in the appropriate room. 

"Pardon the mess," your friend says. "I'm in the middle of cleaning."

1. Things often get messier before they get neater. 

In my house, the basket at the foot of the steps usually contains things such as hair ribbons, things I've recently purchased for the upstairs bathrooms, and receipts to be filed in the upstairs office. I pick things up from around various rooms and put them in  one place and prepare to spread them out again. Things look neat in that little basket that I can label as "upstairs," but they are really materials from all different upstairs rooms that now need a more precise home.

2. Move from big, to small, to smaller groupings for organization

Right now I look around the room and my vacuum sits out, a television waiting for repair lies face down on a table, my sewing projects (including pants that need re-hemming and a skirt for my daughter that needs taking in) are slung over a chair. My receipts, as usual, sit in a basket on the stairs. It is a never ending task, but it is handled in the same steps every week. Empty receipts from wallet onto table. Move receipts to hall basket. Move receipts upstairs. File receipts. 

My broken television could very well remain upstairs on its stand. But, then it will never get fixed. We'll forget to call the repairman. My receipts can stay in my wallet. But, then they'll never get filed. I'm not a very good or willing seamstress so I certainly wouldn't turn on the machine to complete that task for one pair of pants hanging in my closet. But, if I have a big pile that I can see needs to be completed, it will more likely get done. Over the years, I have collected pieces that need fixing and corners of my closet. They sit there so long that I no longer want to wear them. I finally got smart. I set up a table in a quiet room with my sewing supplies. They stay out at all times. There is a chair for me to throw the clothes needing repair. When I get two or three items, I sit down, click on the machine and fix them. I don't have to think about it. I don't have to find the clothes or get set up. It's just there.

3. Keep your papers in the midst of being organized out where you can see them. 

If you have a pile of papers neatly boxed waiting for folders, you probably feel pretty good that you've taken this first step to get them off the floor. Then, I have found that the mind block tends to come for many people. Now what? Set up a corner for your personal papers. Start organizing one box at a time and leave the materials out. If you have a small apartment or little hands that will touch everything you leave visible and can't leave your materials out in plain view, find a way to keep the organization you started easily accessible. Put materials laid out on a shelf. If necessary, put them back in your box with a partial organization under way that can be pulled out at a moment's notice.

My professional organizing "Life in Context" partner, Sue West of Space4U, recommends setting a timer. Organize for 10-15 minutes at a time and that's it. If you leave things out or easily accessible you can come back to it for those short sessions and it's not a big mental deal.

4. Do a little at a time.

Pull things out of one box and begin organizing by type of material. My letters in pile one. My certificates in pile two. etc. etc. Things may fit into more than one category. That's okay. Where do you think you are most likely to look for it? Put it there. Don't be afraid to move and change your categories as you go. This is not set in stone. Organize for accessibility.

Never forget that things get messier before they get neater. You can't organize directly out of a box. It's just too confusing. You feel overwhelmed because it's a big task, you are cramped, and you are looking too far into the future. Put things where they make sense to you. Spread out. Set a timer. Do a little at a time and walk away with your mops, broom, and dust rag, or sewing pile (um, I mean your papers, folders and pencils for labeling) out and ready to go next time.

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