Monday, January 11, 2010

Paper Chase

It's not often I reference a book from more than 20 years ago, but when I read that today is National Clean Off Your Desk Day, I knew precisely what I wanted to do and whose help I would need.

Name, Barbara Hemphill. Book, Taming the Paper Tiger.

I was a Resident Assistant in college, always on the prowl for a good floor program. Managing paper (especially then) was a relevant and good life skill for the 75 residents living on my floor. So, I took the work of Barbara Hemphill and turned it into an award winning floor program. Eventually I developed a reputation, and even a following, for my presentation of Hemphill's no-nonsense approach to managing the paper in your life. I presented her material in graduate school, at conferences as a young professional, and still - even today - you might find my boys strapped to chairs, forced to listen to me rant... and rave.

There are 198 pages of no-nonsense ideas packed into Hemphill's book, but today I am only sharing two pages - five points.

Go directly to your closest stack of papers. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.00. Ask yourself these five questions and prepare to be ruthless:
  • Is this only for my information and now I know it? My mother is great about sending me parenting and work-related articles from the New York Times. When an article arrives, I read it and then pitch it. Same with magazines.
  • Does this information exist elsewhere? In 1989 this was a more legitimate question. Now, in the age of Google and search engines, this question is reserved for items such as contracts, receipts, warranty information, etc...
  • Is this information recent enough to be useful? Old menus,to-do lists, advertisements, promotional materials, and schedules are of little value. Pitch them.
  • Under what circumstances would you want this information? If your answer is "just in case" then pitch it. If you don't know exactly how you would use the information then it is unlikely you will remember you have it or be able to find it should the time ever come.
  • Finally, what is the worst possible thing that could happen if you didn't have this piece of paper? If you are willing to live with the consequences, toss it immediately.
If you are interested in knowing what Hemphill says you should do with what's remaining, gather forces and make noise letting me know. Otherwise, I will leave it at this, assuming I would be preaching to an already organized choir.

One more point. Hemphill's book is 21 years old. If you are anything like me, the desk top on your computer could be every bit as messy as your physical desk top - even more! What advice would you share for organizing the files, emails, and other data accumulating on your computer?

I would suggest printing off today's post and presenting it someone you think should be celebrating "National Clean off Your Desk Day," but it seems a little ironic. Maybe with an additional note saying, "Start Here."

Signing off until tomorrow...


Heather @ said...

I try to follow these same principles in my email box...trying to get my "inbox" clean so that I can more easily respond to the emails that require a response.
I'd say the same thing for the electronic and organize immediately makes much easier than organizing later. I must admit though that I'm guilty of having a full desktop and organizing later.

Chaotic said...

my 1st inclination: print & hand to Karen! So I did. As for organizing paper, I rock. But that is bc I have an addiction to it. sigh. Important papers are in the safe. Bills get tossed once the new bill comes and I see they posted pymt. Things like that. Where I get overwhelmed is computer files, mostly pictures. So my new rule is to label & sort each image when I download the camera, and to do that AT LEAST every 2 weeks. Otherwise, I find I dont rememeber where/when/why I took the pic. so that has been helpful.
Back to another week of OT...sigh

Robin said...

I'll admit to simply renaming my desktop and moving it over when it gets too full.

Katie @ Highlowaha said...

I am bad about having stacks of paper that pile up all week, and then I purge/organize on Sunday evenings.

As for email and my computer desktop- they are immaculate. My goal in life is to have an empty email inbox so an email either gets dealt with or filed almost immediately upon its arrival.

Peggy said...

I'll clean all the hot spots and put it in one big purged pile. Okay, so if all my piles were cleaned, purged, filed and removed, what would life be like? Almost too organized even for me! I like my little piles! They're cute!

Kat said...

This is very timely! I have had "clean off desk" on my to do list for quite awhile now. In fact, at one point, I just get so fed up with it that I scooped everything into a empty file drawer. Not good. By tonight I will clean off my desk and purge that drawer!

Cheryl said...

I'm a more than a little afraid of today's topic. I tend to keep more than I need- just in case. And when I bought my new car I need 15 months of insurance history and if I hadn't have had it I would have been screwed. You know that junk room I'm always refering to? I don't have a desk. I have a room. And it begins in the kitchen, then floats to piles in the dining room, then over to the junk room. Then, there's that stack of papers that comes out of my purse that lands next to the bedside table. And the amount of paper that comes home with those kids from school! I've gotten better about just looking at the school papers and putting in the recycle garbage. But, omg, after re-reading this- I'm a SLOB!

My desk at work is relatively clean. I have an inbox that isn't overrun. So that's good but I still feel completely stressed by today's topic.

Heather said...

couldn't you have called your insurance agent to provide proof of 15 months of insurance history?

I'm just saying... =)

We've chosen to go paperless in most of our bills and bank accounts and can access statements online. Much easier than delving through stacks of paper.

Sherri @ Design2Shine said...

I do as much paperless as I can! I still have a mail demon in my house though.
PS...never got my Shine ball :-(

Cheryl said...

Heather- I did provide a letter from my insurance company but they wanted the actual insurance cards. And- it took some time to find because being the organized person I am... it was in some crazy ass place. BUT I found them because I hadn't tossed them.

lindsaymarie said...

i organized my life pretty obsessively during the week before the new year, but i will use these guidelines when i go through my folders from last semester's classes and re-organize for the next semester. it starts a week from tomorrow, ahh!

as for organizing my virtual life, i am a lot like katie, i try to read and delete or file an email asap, so the only messages in my inbox are those that haven't been dealt with. i try to keep my inbox as empty as possible. and my desktop is nearly empty.

heather said...

I guess I won't be buying a new car =)...seriously...they can't think everyone saves those things after they expire.

Cheryl said...

Don't worry Heather... it was for the Cash for Clunker's Deal. You won't need it for when you buy a new car unless they revive the program. :)

So what exactly is the length of time you should keep utility statments? I have some friends that keep an annual cycle of them. And Chaotic tosses hers after 30 days....

heather said...

I've always heard an annual cycle so you can compare this year's bills with last year's at the same time to ensure that nothing is up (higher rates, etc...).

So i pull January 2009 and shred when January 2010 arrives.

Robin said...

I toss my utility bills because they provide the comparisons on the current bill including number of days, and weather info.

Katie said...

Cheryl, I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who keeps my old insurance cards in my car! All of mine are in an envelope in my glove box. I know I should get rid of them, but I'm just afraid of getting rid of important paperwork like that!

Peggy said...

I just re-read this blog post, I must have still been sleeping when I read it the first time.

I really like today's topic. And will try and purge. One great analogy I read recently (when you might be feeling like a failure at resolutions etc...) is:

It honestly takes two weeks to form a new habit.

Claudia @ Highlowaha said...

Lots of great discussion around today's topic. Heather, I was as shocked as you were about the request made of Cheryl to supply so much back data. For the most part, I have to believe official documentation from an agency would suffice.

I once heard that stacks of paper are really a disguise for a dislike toward decision making. We hang on to something, because we fear that if we make a decision right now about what to do with it, that we might regret it later.

If that is the case, then Cheryl and others... trust that a decision made today to get rid of something will be ok. There are precious few pieces of information we can't get our hands on again.

BeeKayRoot said...

I'm pretty good at getting rid of hard copies of documents. My problem is that I save just about everything to my computer hard drive.

When I left to take my new job, I pretty much copied my entire hard drive to bring along with me.

It's so sad, I know.

Claudia @ Highlowaha said...

No, I get it Brian. When you work in Student Affairs, you are only as good as your resources and your network.

I've moved countless boxes of files countless times, just because I like the security of knowing they are there.

I think Hemphill would say, if everything has a place and there is a place for everything, then save away!