Creative Cleaning and Cleansing

"Less Stress from Cleaning the Mess." From decluttering to inspiration! Proverbs 31:27a


Have you ever sat there while your boss stands over you, desperately searching for that missing document he or she needs RIGHT NOW? Or have you kept a client waiting on the phone for several minutes while you’ve searched for a status report?

If you have, then however organized and effective you are in your day-to-day work, your boss and your client may have a less than perfect opinion of you, because in a key encounter, you’ve let them down. And if it’s your job to help people, how much of other people’s time are you wasting if you can’t find the information you need when you need it?

You owe it to yourself to file effectively, however boring this may seem. Imagine how much more impressive it would have been if – when asked – you’d smiled, accessed a well-organized filing system, immediately found the document, and quickly given the answer!

Managing Time

On a typical work day, we deal with many documents, presentations, graphics, and other files. There’s a flurry of data pouring in from all directions that we need to process and, usually, store to retrieve later. We want to be able to lay our hands on the information we need – at the right moment, when we need it – so it can be used for further analysis or report writing, or perhaps for creating a presentation.

All too often, though, we waste our own time (and often the time of other people) searching for data that’s sitting on the very computer we’re using! This adds to our stress, and makes the task of putting the data to use more difficult than it ought to be. So we need to get more organized and efficient with our file management if we’re going to get our work done in a timely manner.

Managing Information Efficiently

When you receive a file in an e-mail from a co-worker, vendor, or customer, it’s tempting to “just put it away” in some folder for the time being. “Hmm. looks interesting, but I’ll take a closer look at this later, when I’ve got more time.” Sound familiar? Or, worse still, perhaps you just leave the message and its attachment sitting in your Inbox. After a while, many such documents build up, leading to a lot of clutter. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever find time to go back and get all of that information organized, especially considering that you’re usually under pressure with other things.

You can spend hours of precious time searching for data you’ve filed away somewhere, because it’s easy to forget the filename – or even to forget that such information is on your computer in the first place. So how can you go about simplifying your work? Get better at managing files.


Effective File Management

Managing files on your computer isn’t much different from the way you’ve always stored and managed your paper files. It boils down to this: store the information in folders – by category, and in a sequence that makes sense to you.

Here are some tips to help manage your files:

  • Avoid saving unnecessary documents. Don’t make a habit of saving everything that finds its way into your Inbox. Take a few seconds to glance through the content, and save a file only if it’s relevant to your work activity. Having too much data on your computer adds to clutter and makes it harder to find things in the future – and it may, over time, slow down your computer’s performance too. Be selective about what you keep!
  • Follow a consistent method for naming your files and folders. For instance, divide a main folder into subfolders for customers, vendors, and co-workers. Give shortened names to identify what or whom the folders relate to. What’s more, you can even give a different appearance or look to different categories of folders – this can make it easy to tell them apart at first glance.
  • Store related documents together, whatever their type. For example, store Word documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and graphics related to a particular project in a single folder – rather than having one folder for presentations for all projects, another folder for spreadsheets for all projects, and so forth. This way, it’s much quicker to find, open, and attach documents for a particular project.
  • Separate ongoing work from completed work. Some people prefer to save current or ongoing work on their computer’s desktop until a job is completed. Then, once it’s done, they move it to the appropriate location, where files of the same category are stored. At periodic intervals (for example, weekly or every two weeks), move files you’re no longer working on to the folders where your completed work is stored.
  • Avoid overfilling folders. If you have a large number of files in one folder, or a large number of subfolders in a main folder – so many that you can’t see the entire list on your screen without scrolling down – break them into smaller groups (subfolders or sub-subfolders). Think of creating a sequential menu, arranged either in chronological or alphabetical order, to make retrieval easy. For instance, you can divide a folder called “Business Plan” into subfolders called “BP2008,” “BP2009,” and “BP2010.” Likewise, you can divide a folder for a client named Delta Traders into subfolders named “Delta Traders sales presentations” and “Delta Traders contracts.” The idea is to place every file into a logical folder or subfolder, rather than have one huge list of files.
  • Having said this, there is usually little point in creating a folder for fewer than about five documents. If you do, the time you spend clicking through subfolders to get to the documents you need may not be outweighed by the greater ease of finding them.
  • Install Google Desktop on your PC. If you can (sometimes IT departments don’t permit this), install Google Desktop on your PC – you can find this at This neat tool creates a desktop search engine that indexes all of your files and emails, meaning that you can search for them quickly and easily. This can be invaluable when you need to answer offbeat questions!
  • Make sure your filing system is backed up. Again, this is a bit tedious, but it’s so important, as anyone who’s had a failed disk drive will testify! Make sure, firstly, that your PC is backed up regularly and, secondly, that the backup includes the directories where you file information.

Prioritizing Your Files for Action

Take these approaches further by customizing your file management. This can help you prioritize your work, which can lead to better efficiency.

  • Organize files by dates. Incorporate a date into the file name. This will help you determine which is the most recent document in the folder, without having to open the file and read through the content. For example, a file named “Guidelines 12Oct07” would indicate a version of the Guidelines file dated October 12, 2007. (If you’re working internationally, be aware that in some countries this date can be presented as 101207, while in other countries, this same date can be shown as 121007. This can be very confusing!)
  • Some people use version numbers to distinguish between documents that have been reworked or changed. Examples would be “Delta Traders contract v1” and “Delta Traders contract v2.” This also makes it easier to pick out the most current file.

If your document is going to be looked at, used, or amended by several people, you need to be particularly careful about version control: people quite rightly can get very annoyed if versions are mixed up and their work on the document is lost.

Make sure you put the version number in the file name here, and also consider having a version control table at the beginning of the document showing the version number, the date of the version, the person making changes, and, perhaps, the nature of changes made.

  • Use “Tickler” files. Tickler files, also known as the “43 folders” method, are a unique system that’s used by many people for organizing files. Create 12 folders (one for each month of the year) and an additional 31 subfolders (for each day of the month). Fill each folder with the documents that you need to work with on that day. At the beginning of each day, open the folder for that day. Take all the items out of the folder and move them into a “today” folder or onto your desktop. Then move the empty folder into the corresponding slot for the next month. If you can’t complete some work items by the end of the day, transfer them to the folder for the next convenient day. This system of file management helps you keep track of everything you need to do, and it also doubles as a diary.

For any system to be useful and effective, it must also be convenient for you. To some extent, this depends on the nature of your business or the work that you do. So, although there’s no “one size fits all” solution to file management, you will likely profit by using some of these file management tips, and by customizing them in a way that best serves your own needs.

Key Points

Are you losing too much time searching through the clutter on your computer for files that you need? And when you’re under pressure, can you retrieve information quickly and easily?

Spending precious time looking for data can take the pleasure out of any kind of creative work you might be doing – and it adds to your stress levels as well. Simple good file management habits can hugely simplify your working life!

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Home/Office Paperwork

How to Organize Your Home/Office Paperwork

The secret to taming the paperwork is to keep up with it, which is often easier said than done. If you have a slush pile already, first you need to weed through it and decide what to keep and what to throw away. Then you must organize what’s left into categories. Finally, you need to keep up with the paper flow.

Instructions and Things you will need:

  • Pad of paper
  • Pen, pencil, or marker
  • Storage Boxes
  • Garbage bags
  • Shredder
  • File folders
  • 1

The easiest way to organize is to first cull everything that you can throw away. Start with junk mail and catalogs. Put them in your trash bags or recycling bins and immediately move them out of the area so you aren’t tempted to put anything back on your desk. Be ruthless — only keep what you absolutely must. Stack this stuff in a pile for now and move on to Step 2.

  • 2

Next open any official mail, such as bank statements. Throw the envelopes and any advertising inserts in the trash. Shred loan offers and checks from credit card companies immediately. Resist the temptation and don’t even look at them. Then put this mail in a second pile and put it aside for now — but make sure to keep it separate from the first stack of papers from Step 1.

  • 3

Anything that you need to keep but that you don’t need now can be stored elsewhere. Plastic bins work best, as they don’t deteriorate in damp basements or garages. Pack up anything that isn’t “active” and get it out of your office. Label the storage box clearly.

  •  4

Begin sorting your official mail (from stack 2) into as many file folders as you need. Bank statements, credit card statements, utility bills, student loan papers, insurance papers, etc. Again, as you sort, get rid of any remaining inserts and trash or shred them right away. Keep the folders as lean as you can. Make a separate folder for “To-Do” items, such as bills that haven’t been paid or scholarship applications that need to be filled out. If you have a bright neon file folder, here is the place to use it!

  • 5

Once your paperwork is sorted into folders, write on each folder’s tab to indicate what’s inside. Then put the folders away. A file drawer is best, but a vertical organizer also works well. Decide on an organization scheme: you can place the folders alphabetically, or loosely sort by topic. For instance, put all the bills together, then put all your mortgage papers and insurance papers, then anything else. Colored folders or tabs come in handy but aren’t necessary, although you might enjoy this task a little more if you can have some fun with it.

  • 6

Put everything away. The goal is to get your desk cleaned off so you have a clear work space. Avoid piling folders on your desk. Take your “To-Do” folder and put it in the front of your drawer or organizer, where you can easily see it. Get a calendar you can write on and use it to record the due dates of bills, so you don’t need to pull them out of the folder and pile them on the desk in order to remember them. Alternatively, use software that helps you organize.

  • 7

Make it a daily routine to look through the day’s mail. Pitch what you don’t want immediately. Open all the envelopes and file bills in the “To-Do” folder and write them on your calendar. Look through any catalogs and decide either to keep them for one month or trash them. At the end of each month, prune your catalog pile.

Tips & Warnings 

  • Sort through your mail immediately
  • Keep tax receipts in an envelope
  • Label all file folders/Watch for duplicate file folders
  • Put papers away at the end of a work session
  • Sort through stored papers once a year
  • Avoid piling papers on your desk
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Tackling the Paper Pile

Tackling The PAPER PILE!!!!

Today’s motto:

Do not organize what you can toss!

Are you overcome by papers but don’t know how long to keep them or if it’s safe to throw them away?

Set aside 45 minutes and turn on good music. Get a bag or a recycle bin ready, and borrow a shredder if you don’t have one.  It’s time to make some big progress.

Start with the obvious.

Go quickly through your house and throw away all the junk mail, expired coupons, catalogs, and old grocery lists that you see.  Any little scribbled notes that you no longer need should be tossed.

Take it one step further and prevent useless paper from entering your house in the first place.  Open your mail over the recycle bin.  Opt out of credit offers, and remove your name from catalog mailing lists.

Magazines and newspapers

Save individual pages from magazines instead of the entire issue. Give magazines away to a friend or donate them to the local library.  Put yesterday’s newspaper in the recycle bin.  Cancel subscriptions for newspapers or magazines that you never get around to reading.

Paid bills

You really don’t need more than three months of past bills that have been paid.  If the company has a reputation for frequent billing errors then it might be worth keeping more, but otherwise it’s safe to toss them.


When the transaction has been entered in your checkbook and has cleared your account, you probably don’t need those little slips of paper any more.  The only reasons to keep them would be:

  • the possibility of returning an item
  • insurance valuation for expensive items
  • for taxes, such as sales tax credit or home upgrades

Almost all other receipts can be tossed after you’ve checked your bank or credit card statement.

Pay stubs

Only keep the most recent few until you get the last one for the year.  Then compare it to your W-2 before you toss it.

Bank or Credit Card statements

I’d say this one is a personal judgement call.  Most statements probably do not have long-term significance, but keeping them helps me to toss other paperwork.  I can easily throw away paid bills and receipts because I know there is a record of them on the bank statement.

Retirement Account statements

You don’t need the monthly statements if you’ve received a quarterly or annual statement.  It’s also fine to toss the Annual Report and Prospectus for an investment. Never toss a letter or document that confirms your right to a future retirement benefit.


In most cases, you should keep tax returns for at least 3 years, since that’s the time limit to amend a return or for the IRS to audit good-faith returns.  (There’s no time limit for the IRS to audit fraudulent returns.)

Auto Records

Keep maintenance records until you sell the car.

Auto and Property Insurance papers

When you get the new insurance card in the mail, throw away the expired cards.  You don’t need to keep insurance paperwork that expired or that covered property you no longer own.

Health Insurance Papers

Instead of storing a bulky directory of physicians, see if your insurance company lets you search online for network doctors.  You can likely find the list of preferred prescriptions online as well.  Keep medical bills for the current year, and then toss them if you don’t need them for tax deductions.

School papers

Are you keeping old school notes or research papers just because you worked hard on them?  (You’re not keeping them to show how smart you are, right?)  Unless you actually use them in your current career, you don’t need them anymore.  They have already served their purpose.  Keep a small sample if you must, and then let go of the rest.

Warranties and Manuals

If you have any warranty paperwork that is expired or manuals for appliances that you no longer own, give them a toss.

What about cards, letters, and keepsakes?

Papers with sentimental value are challenging just by themselves. I also want to share more ideas for going digital with paper storage.

If you still have a lot more to clean out, that’s ok! Just take a look at how many papers you’ve ALREADY managed to toss. Later you can pick up right where you left off.

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PAPERS—To Toss or Not To Toss (Simple)

Where to Store Documents
Emergency Kit Filing Cabinet
Birth/death certificates Tax returns
Social Security cards Credit card statements
Passports Medical records
Emergency contact information (insurance agents, doctors, family) Retirement savings statements
Marriage certificates/divorce decrees Investment records
Wills Bills
Copies of your driver’s license, green card, and other identification cards Paycheck stubs
Copies of lifesaving prescriptions (like insulin, asthma inhalers, etc.) Bank statements
List of bank account and credit card account numbers Warranty/rebate documentation
Inventory of household goods Legal documents
How Long to Keep Documents
Document Length of Time
Tax documents Keep tax returns, as well as supporting documents like W-2 forms, receipts, and real estate closing statements for seven years. The IRS may audit you within three years if it suspects good-faith errors; six years if it believes you underreported your income by at least 25%; and unlimited time if you did not file a return or filed a fraudulent one.
Investment records Keep as long as you own the securities, plus another seven years [Rich]. You’ll need them to prove capital gains and losses.
Bank statements One month. You just need these long enough to check the accuracy of the transactions [Williams]. Unless the statement is your only record for a tax-related transaction, there’s no need to keep them longer. Plus, your bank will have them available online.
Retirement plan statements Most, one year, for tax purposes [Rich]. Keep Roth IRA statements until you retire, to prove you already paid tax on your contributions [Rich].
Credit card statements Shred immediately after checking the accuracy of the transactions [Williams]. These documents are a prime source for identity theft. Unless the statement is your only record for a tax-related transaction, there’s no need to keep them longer. Plus, your issuer will have them available online.
Paychecks One year, until you receive your W-2 [Rich].
Bills One year, for tax purposes [Rich].
W-2 forms Until you begin claiming Social Security. They’re the best estimate of your earnings and entitlements.
  1. Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer group on privacy and identity theft issues. Web: Office phone: 619-298-3396.
  2. Alicia Rockmore, co-founder of Buttoned Up, Inc., a company that provides organizational tips and tools. Web: Office phone: 734-477-5020.
  3. Kate Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, which oversees the Consumer Credit Counseling Service agencies. Web: Office phone:1-800-698-6512.
  4. Sharon Rich, a fee-only financial planner based in Belmont, Mass., who specializes in women and families. Web: Office phone: 617-489-3601.
  5. IRS Publication 552; Recordkeeping for Individuals. Web:
  6. Identity Theft Resource Center report; The Aftermath 2006. Web:
  7. American Red Cross publication, Disaster Supplies Kit. Web:
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