Coffee heat rising

The Organizeder I Try to Get, the More Disorganized I Am

What is it about basic organization that I seem incapable of mastering? I imagine I’ve kept careful records, I delude myself that four drawers full of carefully categorized file folders have organized every important piece of paper that comes into the house (and thousands of faintly important, maybe-important, and irrelevant pieces of paper). In my mind, it looks good…if sometimes cluttered. I am, in a word, organized!

Well, until someone asks me a direct question. Last night the new accountant e-mailed a few innocent queries.

No. 1. How much is your social security income before taxes and medicare deductions?

Uhm…not very  much.

No. 2. How much is deducted for Federal and AZ taxes?

Too much?

No. 4. Did you receive a statement from the state of AZ showing the taxable amount of your sick pay?  Were any taxes withheld?

You would think so. But if I did, I can’t find it. Yes, taxes were withheld. The only record I can find is notes on a telephone conversation with the lady who runs the RASL program.

No. 5. Please forward a copy of your latest MCCD pay stub.  The one I have is dated 09/24/2010.

Okay. You do realize that through this entire semester, no two community college paychecks have been the same? Does that matter?

No. 6. How much was your Fidelity IRA distribution?  Was it from a Roth or a regular IRA?  Were any taxes withheld?

Who, what? Where, why? When?

No. 9.  Are you getting a new A/C unit that will qualify for the tax credit?

Far as I can tell. The AC guy says it’s worth $1,500.

The only reason I could answer that last one is that the receipt is still sitting on my desk, yet to be filed.

Social Security totally flummoxes me. After they took away an entire month’s benefit check as punishment for my having committed the sin of earning a few bucks more than the earnings limitation, they turned around and announced they had recalculated my benefit and were raising it. I have never been told the dollar amount that is withheld for federal taxes, and as far as I know Arizona doesn’t tax Social Security. If it does, I don’t know how much or whether Social Security withholds state taxes. When I try to figure out what the gross must be, assuming they’re withholding 15% for federal tax and nothing for state tax and $110 for Medicare, I come up with a gross on the new “increase” that’s smaller than it should be if I were paid the original gross the entire year.

Such a vast flood of paper pours into my house that I’ve developed a flinch reflex about any form to fill out, any document from a threatening official agency such as the federal government or an insurance company, and most anything that requires a response from me. Every day I walk past the recycling bin coming in from the mailbox and dump everything that looks like advertising or pointlessness into the trash. The mailman delivers so much garbage that in a week the four-foot-high bin is half-full before I’ve tossed the newspapers and all the overwrapping that swaddles every product we buy.

That still leaves me with mounds of paper to have to sort through, try to understand, figure out what to do with, and file. Right now, after just a week, my desk and kitchen counter are covered with the stuff!

And file it I do. But once it’s filed in those tidy drawers, it’s effectively lost.

Oh god. Just writing about this is giving me another throat spasm. I’ve gotta get up, feed the hound, and go for a walk.

Is this REALLY necessary?

Image: Paper recycling in Ponte a Serraglio, Italy. By H005. Public domain.

Wait. You think I exaggerate? Check this out:

The boggle minds!

Where does the junk come from?

Does junk reproduce inside closets, the same way wire coat-hangers spawn in the dark? How does so much JUNK accumulate, after you think you’ve shoveled out every drawer, closet, and cabinet in the house? Where does this stuff come from?

Well, some of it just blew in from the Great Desert University: a week or ten days ago I hauled the last of the junk out of my office and deposited it in the storeroom, where it filled countertops and shelves, waiting for me to find a place to put it away. About half of it, I should’ve thrown out without ever letting it escape the campus. However, I figured if I get the Glendale job, I’ll need the yard-sale lamps, the battery-run clocks, the odd little Mexican mirror, the useless books, the sweet little fan that fits on a bookshelf, oh god what to do with all this junk?

That’s easy: dispose of the unused junk that’s already in the closets and cabinets to make room for the transplanted unused junk.

This inspiration led to half an afternoon’s worth of winnowing out junk, cleaning out drawers to accommodate shifted valuables, wistfully going through beautiful old linens made by or belonging to my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, folding them back up, finding a new place for them… Oh, well.

Tomorrow St. Vincent de Paul will get…

a DVD player
an AM-FM radio & CD player that runs on batteries or electricity
a set of electric curlers
an old smoke alarm
two decorative ceramic dustcatchers jars
a Braun electric coffeemaker
4 books
a Bissell hand-held carpet spot cleaner gadget

And as I was about to sit down to tap out this post on the keyboard, I could hear the muted mating calls of the creatures still hidden in the closets:

an old VCR player
a keyboard so old it connected to a now-defunct computer with a pair of plugs, one purple, one yellow
an ancient Toshiba laptop incapable of running any current software of any kind
a straw basketful of old electronic hoodahs and doodahs
a plastic basketful of old PC and Mac software
the Evan Mecham television
an old Mac keyboard
an ancient flatbed scanner
busted JBL speakers still sitting nonfunctionally on my desk
two empty straw basketweave things for holding magazines

Where did this stuff come from? How did it get here? What is it trying to do?

Theme Days: A way to organize time

Ever get the feeling that you just can’t keep up with all the stuff you need to do? That there’s so much ditz to cope with that you can’t get to the important things, but if you do the important stuff first, then there’s no time left to deal with the steadily mounting pile of ditz? Lately, I’ve felt my life is out of kilter because I don’t organize my time well enough to keep up with all the challenges,  chores, and commitments that fill my days to overflowing.

Yesterday I worked from four in the morning to nine at night, with one break to fiddle with the pool equipment, one break to reheat some leftovers for a midmorning breakfast, and…and that was it. When I could no longer type another word or edit another confused sentence, in came an e-mail from the client expressing his wonder that I hadn’t edited two other documents he was in a hurry to get. It was almost 10:00 p.m. before I got up from my desk and stumbled into the kitchen to fix dinner.

Lists have always worked pretty well for me. But recently the sense of being utterly overwhelmed has left me too flummoxed to write lists. What to put at the top of the list? And how to get through all the things that need to be done? And when the stuff on today’s list doesn’t get finished (because there’s just too darned much to do in 12 or 14 hours), what gets lost from tomorrow’s list?

My lists sink beneath an ocean of too-damn-many-things-to-do-at-once.

Lately it has occurred to me that instead of compiling endless lists of tasks to plow through, it would make better sense to devote blocks of time to working on one general type of activity. Anything that didn’t fall into that category would be put off to some other block of time, which would be dedicated to a different kind of activity. “Blocks of time” would be restricted to whole days and half days. Theme Days and Theme Half-days.

On a theme day, all I would work on is projects related to the specific theme. And quite a few themes come to mind.

For example: I need to spend a fair amount of time on freelance projects. Right now, that work gets stuffed in around the many other things that need to get done, and it often suffers because something I perceive as more urgent gets pushed forward. Before long, I’ve fallen behind on the editorial work and then find myself laboring, bleary-eyed and fuzz-brained, to finish a late project—at midnight or one in the morning! The quality of the work suffers, and so do I.

So let’s suppose that instead of resolving (vaguely) that I must get to thus-and-such a project tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow, and so on to infinity…), I had a Copyeditor’s Desk Theme Day. What would happen on such a theme day? Or on any other theme day?

Copyeditor’s Desk Day: Read the current client’s manuscripts, proof detective novels, index page proofs; hustle business

Teaching Day: Prepare for classes, meet classes, read student papers, enter grades & attendance, communicate with students online

Cleaning Day: Do laundry, clean house, wash the car, clean out the garage, organize closets

Shopping Day: Run around the city chasing down food and household necessities

Gardening Day: Clean up the yard, fiddle with the pool

Bookkeeping Day: Enter data in Excel & Quicken, reconcile bank accounts

Social Day: Hang out with friends, go out and do something fun

Choir Day: Sing

Blog Day: Write and schedule a bunch of posts, submit stuff to carnivals, host carnivals, study SEO and AdSense, learn more stuff

Some of these activities don’t require an entire day’s worth of effort at any given time. So a single day could consist of two Theme Half-days. Choir, for example, occupies the better part of Sunday morning but is over by about 11:30. Sunday could be a double-theme day, then: Choir Day and Shopping Day.

The to-do list would contain only tasks and goals related to the day’s theme, plus of course the basic survival chores. So a Sunday, to continue that example, would be mapped out with a list like this:

Feed dog
Walk dog
Change clothes
Bolt snack-like lunch
Write shopping list
Go to Costco, Target, WalMart, Safeway, Trader Joe’s or Sprouts, AJ’s or Whole Foods, & Ace or Home Depot
Unload car, unwrap & repackage bulk items, and store purchases
Feed dog
Walk dog
Read & answer e-mail
Check blog
Fall face-forward into bed

Other types of activities need only be done once a month or once every couple of weeks. Bookkeeping, a half-day project, can wait until all the bank statements are in hand and then be combined with some other activity that can be completed in half a day: light housecleaning, for example.

Some activities need to be done every day or nearly every day—but they may or may not need to occupy an entire day. These themes could be assigned to days as activities need to be addressed, and shifted as workload demands shift. Hence…

Blogging, Socializing

Choir, Cleaning

Copyediting, Teaching

Teaching (grade papers)

Gardening, Teaching

Copyediting, Shopping

Blogging, Teaching

Copyediting, Teaching

Here’s the beauty of this scheme: it eliminates the gestalt. The frantic, scattered Brownian motion-like activity that consumes every day is replaced with focus on a set of closely related tasks.

To-do lists are focused instead of impossible agglomerations of disparate jobs that are running late.

And they’re shorter. Anything that’s not related to the day’s theme doesn’t appear on the to-do list. That helps to rein in the sense that you have so many things to do that you don’t even want to get started.

I haven’t tried this plan yet, but starting tomorrow I’m going to.

Think it’ll work? Do you have a system that works for you?

Image: Alvesgaspar, Shepherd Gate Clock, Royal Observatory, Greenwich. GNU Free Documentation License. Wikipedia Commons.

Get (re)organized: A better way to store current paperwork

The other day it occurred to me that I was constantly digging through my file drawers to pull out the same folders full of material I’m wrestling with on a regular basis. The stuff falls into two major categories: the Layoff/Retirement hassle (phone numbers; the 403(b) rollover; COBRA; RASL; back vacation pay; relevant official policies; unemployment insurance) and the upcoming Social Security/Medicare hassle (estimated benefits; tax & earnings information and ancient W-2’s proving SSA’s errors; identifying documents). I hate dorking with pieces of paper—just hate it. Consequently, I try to be as organized as possible. That urge has led me to create altogether too many files stored in altogether too many places. Time to reorganize this stuff and make it a lot more accessible.

Some time back I’d realized that printing out my online Rolodex and storing it in a three-ring binder simplified life significantly: no more waiting for the Mac to grind away at the speed of a galloping snail to open the online file, and no more having to reboot if the machine was off.

So…why not organize the mounds of paper associated with the two current projects into loose-leaf binders, too? These can be stashed with the reference works atop the desk and grabbed whenever they’re needed. No more pawing through one, two, three, four file drawers in search of that one elusive sheet of paper!

This afternoon I dug out all those files and organized them into two binders. Original, official documents that I didn’t want to submit to the three-hole punch got photocopied; on the photocopy I noted where the original is stored.

I made dividers by sticking one edge of a mailing label to the edge of a piece of notebook paper, then folding the label over and sticking the back side to the paper sheet’s verso side. I’d bought some cheapie dividers at Target, but because the labels were supposedly erasable, ink smeared on them—covering the slick labels with pieces of mailing label fixed that problem.

Keeping paper and electronic records organized is a key process in frugal financial management. You can’t manage your money easily unless you know where your information is. Searching through drawers and boxes of files is a pain in the tuchus, and so is trying to find a single file or datum hidden deep inside a computer.

Yah, I know; Spotlight. Very nice: it brings up 87 gerjillion files for you to rifle through. Argh! Not to say $#%@&@*@*#$D!!!!! Eventually you’ll probably find what you’re looking for in a computer search, but it may be a long eventually.

Lots easier to organize this stuff efficiently at the outset than to do searches every time you turn around. Though there may be a better way, I’m fond of folders and subfolders:

Every now and again you should go through your files, toss or shred the junk, and tidy up the organization. This means more paper-pushing, virtual and real, a hateful process. However, sometimes it can be instructive. Today, for example, I discovered that the ancient piece of cardboard I thought was my original Social Security card is not; it was a “stub” that came with the card, issued in 1967. So now I’ll have to go in person to the Social Security office and order a new SS card—good thing I found that out before I went in to get SS benefits started! I also reviewed some old W-2’s my ex- sent a couple of years ago and realized that they show earnings for several of the years Social Security claims I had no earnings. That may jack up my benefits!

As exercises go, today’s project was less than fun. But the result, I expect, will make life a lot easier. And if that little revelation above increases my retirement benefits, the past two hours of ditzy work will pay for themselves many times over!

Incoming! How to get the paper flak under control

Bills. Junk mail. Credit offers. Catalogs. Magazines. Insurance statements. Reminders. Envelopes full of coupons. Bank statements. Investment prospectuses. Mutual fund statements. Business correspondence. Greeting cards. And heaven help us, an actual letter from a friend!

Where does all this stuff go once it gets out of the mailbox? If you’re like me, it lands in stacks on the kitchen counter, where it mounds up until it finally starts to fall onto the floor. Eventually you carry it back to your desk and plop it on top of the last two or three weeks’ worth of paper. There it turns into a stress time bomb, set to go off the minute you “lose” a bank statement or a credit card bill and have to spend ten or fifteen minutes pawing through a mountain of trash in a frantic search for a document you need right now. Each piece of this stuff has to be opened, handled, acted upon, thrown out or filed away—a time-consuming task when you’re looking at a Mt. Everest of loose paper.

Here’s a Method to take control of the mailbox blizzard. First, you’ll need these things:

  • 3 file folders
  • a box or basket large enough to hold an 8 ½ x 11-inch file folder
  • a trash basket or recycling bin
  • a shredder or pair of scissors

Set the trash or recycling container near the door through which you enter carrying the mail. Have the shredder or scissors nearby.

Label the file folders as follows:

  • Bills
  • Financial Statements
  • To File

Place the folders in the box or basket and put it in a convenient place near where you bring the mail into the house.

As soon as you pick up the mail, go immediately to the trash or recycling container. Throw out all obvious junk mail, except for credit offers, without opening it.

Next, run the credit offers through the shredder, also without opening them. If you have no shredder, use the scissors to cut each offer into small pieces and drop them into the trash or recycling.

Before doing anything else, place the bills and financial statements in their respective file folders. Place any items that need only to be opened and filed in the To File folder.

Voilà! You’ve sorted the mail, thrown out the trash, and put away the things you need to attend to. The statements and bills can sit there until you’re ready to deal with them—without making a mess on the kitchen counter, the dining room table, or your desk. When you’re ready to reconcile accounts or conduct business, you know exactly where to find the paper you need, and you’re rid of the junk mail. You’ve decluttered, organized, and cut stress in one swell foop.

Four other strategies to deal with incoming paper:

  • Retrieve your financial statements online and ask to have mailings canceled.
  • Go to and register to opt out of credit and insurance solicitations.
  • Go toNew American Dreamand use the free form to remove your name from major junk mail lists.
  • E-mail the Direct Marketing Association with a request that you be removed from marketers’ mailing lists. You can also reach them by snail mail:

Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512

Either way, this request will cost you a dollar.

decluttering, organization, stress control