A shocking proposition: Stupid Simple Filing

Many people procrastinate on filing. In fact, most of them (us) dread it. Here's my theory: this is because most filing systems suck. They are painfully over-complex and inefficient.

Now folks like David Allen have suggested ways to make this less awful – use a simple A-Z order, only when needed should you make folders for a specific thing (filed behind the folder for that letter), and, most importantly, keep way fewer things. You can also make the filing process less unpleasant by using pretty folders and nicer filing cabinets and fancy labels and… ah, screw it. Filing is dull and uninspiring.

Here's how I do it.

1. Arrange to receive things you do not need to keep in digital form rather than on paper. Bank statements are a great example of this kind of thing which you can later access online in the rare case you need it.

2. Keep only papers you have high confidence you'll need again or that the government requires you to keep or that it stresses you out to think about discarding or shredding at this moment.

3. Make as few folders as possible for your comfort. Yes, A-Z, but also make folders for the stuff you know you'll have a bunch of (e.g. "Next Year's Tax Prep") or will need in a hurry or when stressed (e.g. "Homeowner's/Renter's Insurance," "Health Insurance," "Automotive Repair").

4. Make a folder called "Manuals" and throw the booklets for new stuff you acquire in there. Warranty info and purchase receipts for major things can also go here until they expire. I like to put the newest thing at the front of the folder and to weed it out once every year or so to purge manuals for stuff I got rid of and forgot to send the manual along with the item.

5. Put everything else you think you have to keep in one stack.

Seriously, just stack it up.

Make it very handy for adding to the stack and very unoffensive to your eye. My stack has sat on an upper shelf just above eye level when I had a seated desk and now resides behind two more constantly used desk items below eye level at my treadmill desk. (If I happen to spot a nice 9"x12" open-topped box, I might incorporate it, but so far it hasn't been necessary).

My discovery was that I spend far less time flipping quickly down through the reverse chronological stack to find one of the few things I actually wind up needing to refer back to than I ever did filing, so why file?

When the pile gets unappealingly high (or reaches 1 foot high, whichever comes first), whip through it quickly and pull out obviously stale stuff that can now be discarded or shredded or for which you have since created a file folder because you turned out to need those papers all together very often.

Here's the really sneaky part: since you know you'll be adding to it again soon you are not actually required to completely file or discard everything in the stack. If you feel anxious about what to do with it, just leave it there on the bottom and deal with it next time when it's less emotionally loaded or uncertain.

Is it perfectly orderly? No. Do I know just where to look for something when I turn out to need it? Yes.

Less time filing = more time for working on things that really matter to me!

Productive pattern: scenario planning

When you are creating or modifying something – a new furniture arrangement, a new aspect of your routine, a new way you want to approach particular social situations – design for not only the expected use but also for several possible other conditions if major variables switch to other settings than what you predict.

Prepare yourself for comfortably rolling with the changes.

There is a great discussion of this principle in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand (a book which informs about a much broader range of thinking than merely the architectural!) on page 178. He says "All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong." I'll tone it down just a hair:

All plans are predictions.

No predictions are 100% perfect.

By preparing yourself for imperfection and envisioning reasonable responses to the most likely alternate scenarios, you'll reduce your stress and optimize your results.

Here's an example:
Over the past few years I kept reading about treadmill desks and thinking "Wow, that might work great for me." I finally reached a point where I was ready to try it. Instead of just making a plan to switch to the first one I heard about, I thought about some possible alternate scenarios to "Everything goes as I hope and I love it."

Alternate scenario #1: "I don't love it."
Influence on my plan: Find a way to invest less money on the experiment so it's not too painful if it doesn't work out. (I have more time than money. If you're the opposite, ordering the fancy pre-made solution could work for you if you are satisfied with the company's return policy).

Alternative scenario #2: "I totally love it and want it permanently, but it takes up too much space and disrupts our use of the room which serves as my office/guestroom/Joe's desk area."
Influence on my plan: Explore ways to rearrange that room which still allow for all the functions we currently use it for instead of assuming I need to leave my current workspace where it is.

Alternative scenario #3: "I like it, but my body takes a long time to adjust to working while standing."
Influence on my plan: Create 'infrastructure' to support taking care of myself physically. Continue using a rest reminder (I use TimeOut on the Mac) to give myself time away from keyboard and treadmill. Make a nice seating area near enough to my walking desk that I can step off for a few minutes and rest my body while writing on paper or reading a book or doing something else that doesn't require the computer.

Even a short brainstorming sprint on what else is fairly likely to happen besides your favorite prediction will allow you to plan better and build solutions which can accommodate a variety of futures without breaking.

Oh well. C’est la vie.

Sometimes something just gets in the way and you can't do what you'd planned.

Maybe the wireless network goes down and you spend a while debugging it, but don't quite sort it out and need a break and get distracted by other projects, so you never post that update to your blog you'd intended to do. Just, y'know, for example.

No big deal. Things happen. S'okay.

You don't have to stress about it.

Remember the difference between "have to" and "want to". Stressing out should never be on your "have to" list. "Focusing on" or "Putting a significant amount of effort into" may be, but stressing out is rarely productive at all, let alone worthy of being on the Must Do list.

Hope you had a lovely day too and got lots done on surprise projects!


Hey cool! Check it out – Discardian has categories now. Explore a little there in the sidebar and let me know what you think.

I'm planning to do a little bit more cleaning up and consolidating from the under-represented categories. And you should let me know if you think something belongs in a different category.

What little organizing step have you been meaning to do?

Spend some time over the next week making it happen so that you can reap the benefits from now on.

Don’t get swamped on the way back into the swim

The first day back at work can be daunting, but you can get through it without going nuts.

If possible, start just a little early and take a quick pass through your incoming email, papers, voicemails.

Remember the Getting Things Done principles: you'll be less harried if you have a clear head and a good picture of what's on your list. First collect all the incoming stuff and process it quickly – less than 2 minutes on each thing – to delete or file that which requires no action on your part, note upcoming commitments on your calendar, delegate that which needs to go to someone else first, and otherwise identify things that need more of your time.

Prioritize those things – ideally by sorting/labeling as you've gone through them processing & organizing – and then just start plugging through them.

Sudden stuff will come up. If it really isn't higher priority than other things in your queue, then just prioritize it and do it at the appropriate time, giving whoever is bringing it to you a realistic prediction of when you'll get to it (and if needed an understanding of the stuff that has to get cleared from your plate beforehand).

Chug on through. Maybe you won't get very far down the list, but you'll know what's going on and be working on the right things first instead of just the noisiest or most fun.

Find the Harmonic Intersection

A great surprise Discardian tip appeared in my Flickr pictures from my contacts from the wise Reverend Dan Catt. Have a look at his fine diagram of finding the magic point of agreement on a point of domestic discord.

So, when you're working on Keeping The House Tidy and there's something that one of you thinks is often in the wrong place, try each making a list of acceptable locations. With any luck you'll already have some place in mind that turns out to be fine with you both. Venn diagram optional.

(Advanced tip: notice that this technique can be used with other kinds of disagreement besides rucksack storage as well…)

Two Priorities: Day 5

1. Work

Carve out at least 30 minutes today to work on something which improves and demonstrates the skills which are required for the position you'd like to be promoted to.

Good candidates are things like being able to succinctly & effectively summarize a lot of information, giving better presentations, writing clearly (particularly valuable for technical folks, but also great for anyone who has to articulate what their organization is doing or hoping to do), and being a mentor.

2. Home

Get rid of or pass along another of those projects you put a dotted line through on your list and cross it off for good. I recommend this be the one that is taking up the most space or the space you most want to be using for other things.

Again, look at the starred projects and think about what you might want to work on this weekend. Is there a project you'd love to work on that's waiting for some supplies or other errand to move it forward? Weekends have opportunities for such things. Mmm, weekends.

Two Priorities: Day 4

1. Work

Time to put in some progress on those projects which your boss cares about and which have been waiting for a while and which can be completed in less than an hour. See if you can knock out two of these without negatively impacting other important things, but even one is good.

Be sure to send an email to your boss reporting on any significant progress.


2. Home

Clean up and/or optimize your project space for a bit this evening. Just vacuuming or sweeping if that area's gotten less pleasant to be in is good progress. Think about if there are things you need to change to make it easier for you to work on things in comfort.

I offered to store a folding table my boyfriend wasn't using and didn't have a good place to store and bought a better chair than the one I'd had. Since then I actually did scan some old photos that had been waiting years to get done and the space is very inviting to sit down and move other paper projects forward at last.

Two Priorities: Day 3

1. Work (or, for the retired & students, Projects You Do For Others)

Yes, yes, indeed, the time has come to slap down that project which nags at you most and which it will relieve you greatly to have completed. Don't let it take over your day if it would cause you other issues, but do put in at least 30 minutes moving that horrid old festering project closer to out of your life.

2. Home

Clean up/get rid of/pass along one of the projects you drew a dotted line through on your list yesterday. Cross it off thoroughly now.

Reward yourself with a little chunk of time working on one of your starred projects. Even if you only have time to look at it and write down a little list of what you want to do next, that's great. Thinking about a fun project as you head off to bed is nice.