Change – The Ultimate Organizing Test

A lot has been happening in my family’s life lately. We have already and continue to make some big changes.

  1. In the fall I left my corporate job. It was a necessary move but one we weren’t really prepared for – emotionally or financially.
  2. This month I began a new part-time job in an entirely different industry and career path. I’m very excited about it but there’s a lot to learn and I’m starting at the beginning.
  3. Two kids started their first season of competitive sports – and the time commitments are pretty intense. And these are not sports with a “season” really – they are the kind where you practice extensively year-round (gymnastics & cheer).
  4. We decided to relocate our family back across the country to be closer to family at the end of the school year. This means we have to sell our home, find new jobs, and find something new.

It’s a lot. I have to admit that I’ve struggled to hold everything together some days. But we are making it work. So over the next few months I’ll be sharing this journey with you – the good, the bad, and the very messy.

Life IS messy. It does not always stick to the plans we set out to follow. So I’m finding my routines and organizing strategies are that much more important… and that much harder to stick to. I hope you’ll follow along as I share with you the challenges and successes of organizing through major life changes.


Unsubscribe For Summer

The weather is getting warmer. I’m not sure about where you are but here we had an especially warm weekend. It almost felt like summer. And what happens in summer is that we migrate outside, away from the computer and toward the pool. So when you do take a few minutes to return to your email wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to go through 30 emails that you are just going to delete?

Take some time this week to unsubscribe from a few of those emails you find yourself deleting without opening.  Maybe it’s a store that used to be your favorite. Or an organization you gave a donation to once, three years ago. Or a newsletter you aren’t sure how you got subscribed on.  Before you hit DELETE next time you open your email, go through those emails and click the unsubscribe link at the bottom.  Clear your inbox just a little bit for summer.

Remember… if an email is from an unknown source (i.e. SPAM) please DO NOT click any links on those. Simply mark as spam and delete. But if you know where it’s from the unsubscribe link should be legitimate.

Now get outside!

Work You’re Proud To Share

Across the nation, today is Take Your Child To Work Day. What a great opportunity for children to see where mom or dad spend the better portion of their waking hours! Whether you work at an office (or other place of business) or work at home, I think parents and children should participate. My children are still too young but I am looking forward to when they get a bit older and can attend.

But when your little one shows up at your desk, what are they going to find? Will they see how routines and organization help mom or dad be an effective and highly contributing employee or will they see a mess that could rival the pile under their own bed?

As parents we give our children a lot of instruction. And we want them to learn the skills that are going to help them succeed in life. But as many times as we tell them what to do, showing them is going to be “heard” a thousand times louder. When watching you, is your child learning the skills of routine and consistency?

If you are blushing, don’t panic. There’s plenty of time to turn things around before he or she comes back next year. My favorite tool for staying organized at work is the 3-ring binder.

What does mine look like:

* Weekly Calendar – my binder has a clear cover pocket. Each week I print my Outlook calendar and put a copy there on the cover.  This is helpful when I’m in a meeting and want to see if we can extend the time 30 minutes or if I need to head off to something else.

* Weekly Routine Checklist – simple lists of things to be done at the start and end of each day and week to keep things running smoothly. This includes reminders like, updating time card, checking voicemail, preparing weekly activity reports, emptying recycle bins. Just like you have routines at home (like taking out the trash each Tuesday and emptying the dishwasher every night before bed) having routines at work gives you structure to build an productive day upon.

* To-Do List – first page inside of the binder. I can update as things come up. This only works when work is separate from home. My binder stays at work and the tasks on this list are exclusive to things to be done at my workplace during the work day. If you have a more integrated work-life to-do list you will probably like a more mobile option.

* Contacts – phone numbers of the top 5-10 contacts in my binder. I don’t use a mobile phone for work. And while I can easily look them up when sitting at my desk, I occasionally need a number to call someone for consultation while in the middle of a meeting. This saves the trouble of going out of the meeting to look up the number.

* Planning Calendars – a tabbed section with printed copies of blank calendars for the next 6 months. This is helpful in meetings when planning projects out into the future.

* Tabbed Sections – each current project gets its own tab. While we try to be as paperless as possible, there are some things that do come as print outs. It’s also where I take notes specific to a project while in meetings and during phone conversations.

* Blank Paper – keep a small section of blank pages at the back to be moved to the specific section as needed for notes.

I was a Franklin-Covey planner type of worker a decade ago. But I found that format didn’t work as well for me as a simple binder. I can add and remove all kinds of notes and correspondence. And I don’t have to rewrite the to-do list each day, it just rolls along with me.

I know that most of us work “paperless” in our emails and through shared databases with our colleagues. But tell me, if you are paperless at work, then why is there a huge stack of papers on the corner of your desk? The reality is that paper is part of our work day. The key is finding a way to manage the paper so that it helps you accomplish your work rather than detracting from your productivity.

Home Office Reorg in 7 Steps

I recently had the pleasure of working with Mrs. W. on organizing her home office.  This is a true home office where she does a variety of tasks for the family business.

What you see in the before pictures is just a lot of stuff.  Not bad stuff, and really not un-necessary stuff.  Just things that didn’t have a proper home.

Why were so many things out in the open, because, as it turns out, Mrs. W is a visual person.  She is the out-of-sight-out-of-mind sort of person.  Some people like everything neatly tucked away in piles.  But many of us, love to be able to SEE what’s important to us.  That’s why so many people keep their to-dos in their email inbox, because it’s immediately visible upon login.

We talked a good deal about rearranging the room but the layout actually works well for Mrs. W.  From her desk she can see the door and the window.  And since she’s left handed, having her open table top to the left of her computer was the natural option.

Mrs W’s business happens to be significantly paper-based, even in today’s digital age.  That means a lot of files, at least 5-7 in-work at any given time and lots of mailing of legal sized files.

How did we reorganize the space?

1. We added a desktop file sorter for her to store her currently in-work items.

I loved this one by Peter Walsh for Office Max because it allows you to pull out the dividers for larger files like you see in the picture.

2. We created a mailing station where she could bring any documents, weigh them and add postage easily. Above the mail spot we added a metal strip to put up shipping rates and other relevant documents with magnets.

3. We cleared the bookcase of things that belonged in other parts of the house and added a basket from The Container Store to hold the miscellaneous small things that needed to stay.

4. We made sure that printer suppliers were stored directly near the printer (in the filing cabinet underneath).

5. We made sure Mrs. W. had a spot within reach on the desk to hold the tools she uses daily but still keep them corralled. This metal letter tray is designed to hold papers but works great for keeping these everyday tools together and making them easy to move as a group to another spot on the desk.

6. We added clear wall pockets to allow her to keep papers related to upcoming events for her children and herself.

7. We added modular drawer dividers in the desk drawers for all the little extras… power cords, push pins, paper clips, etc.

photo credit {Container Store}

There you have it.  Total cost was around $50 for these changes.

One other addition for Mrs. W. wasn’t a change to the space at all. I suggested that she use the wonderful window seat she has and the floor space in front of it as a “work” space for her children when she needed to spend a few minutes on work but wanted to keep them in site but out of trouble.  Perhaps even adding a basket of small toys or crayons and paper to the bookshelf just for them so they would keep their grubby little mitts adorable little hands off her things.
As it turned out, the week after we worked one of her children had to stay home sick from school.  And she knew right away that she had the perfect spot for him to stay entertained for 30 minutes or so while she answered a few critical emails!

Ever wonder what suggestions a professional organizer might make for your space?  Contact me today to schedule a free consultation!

Quick Tip Thursday – Packing Tape Insanity

Today’s tip is less about being organized than it is about not making yourself insane over something small. Do you ship packages? Ever? With family out of state, selling things online and returning online purchases I actually ship more things than I really imagine. I like to use clear packing tape for my boxes. I’ve been using the stuff for at least 17 years, since that first time I had to send myself boxes at college. And in those years I’ve found one trick that is basically fail-proof and always, always saves my sanity.

When you’re done with the tape, tuck under one teeny little corner. This gives you a tab to pull it back up again when you need to use it next time.

It sounds so small, and it is.  But if you don’t do it the results may not be pretty.  I know you’ve been there… your tape has stuck to itself and now you’re trying to peel it apart in one piece.  But it’s ripping into shredded pieces and you’re getting little strips of tape.  Your frustrated and want to toss the whole thing in the trash.  (Yes, I know, I’ve had it happen too.)

But once you get that tape back to its full state do yourself a big favor and tuck under a corner.  You might lose 1/2 an inch of tape but you’ll save your sanity and your fingernails the next time you need it.

Retirement Record Keeping 101

Today’s post is a guest post from someone very special – my dad! Dad is not a blogger, but he is an avid writer of letters to the editor. He retired one year ago and has had to navigate the murky waters of retirement record keeping by himself. He’s currently putting together a workshop for his former colleagues to help them make the transition easier. As soon as I heard about that, I knew it was a great topic for this blog.

I know most of you aren’t close to retirement (perhaps to your dismay) but you might have a parent or aunt that’s nearing that next phase of life. Please pass along this information to help them.


Good record keeping is an absolute need for persons preparing to retire or recently retired.

It is impossible to keep track of all the details that have to be sorted through and need to be handy for update and review without some sort of tool for organization. The information is all too important to chance misplacing and time wasting as you rifle through stacks of paper. It’s too easy to forget where things are or should be.

A first attempt at record keeping might be to use files for each different subject. The problem with this is the number and logistics in the file cabinet. You cannot imagine the number of files required until you have 5 or 6 files in hand and don’t have an order established. You will have to dig though the stack of files looking for the correct tab label. There must be a better way.

The solution I have found is to use a single binder with numbered tabs. Starting from the day you decide to retire, you need to keep notes and decision paperwork. The amount of detail involved will be according to your desire. The key is knowing that the information you collected, whether last week or 6 months ago, is in the binder and will always be there. It will always be there because any time you need to remove something to send away, you’ll make a copy to send or take and replace the original immediately back into the binder.

Here’s a quick and easy way to set up your binder:

* Begin with a 1″ binder and a set of 5-10 tabs.
* Between each tab place a lined sheet of paper for taking notes
* Add an index page at the front to give a quick look at which tab number to go to for each subject

Your list will fall into place as you go through the process. You will be amazed how fast the binder will start filling in.

Within each tabbed section you’ll keep important direct phone number that can take 20 minutes to an hour to secure. Once you have a direct number, you you do not want to misplace it. Going through the 800-number phone tree every time you call with a question or clarification is brutal. And there will be email addresses for your contacts.

Your index page may look something like this:

1. Income In Retirement calculations (all expected income worksheets)
2. Pension Selection & Amount (there are more than a few choices!)
3. Health Insurance Selection & Costs (for self & spouse) Pre-SSI
4. Social Security Benefits & Amount (when to start, what is expected)
5. Medicare Coverage & Cost (cost will be deducted from monthly SSI payments)
6. 401K to IRA Conversion
7. IRA to Managed IRA Accounts (could be more than one)

Those last few will fill in quickly enough as well.

You will probably want to keep other binder for IRA managed accounts. Most send quarterly reports that are good to store in a similar fashion.

The exact order of the tabbed sections is not important. Information retention is the issue.

A few other tips for staying on top of things:
* Keep a log of all phone calls. Include date, time & the name of the person on the other end. It’s a great idea to write down the name of the contact and thank them using their name as you hang up.
* Use your lined paper in each section to log any calls and notes. Record direct numbers here as well. The more notes the better.
* Your lined pages in each section will hold phone numbers, email addresses & web addresses along with your call logs.

A note about electronic record keeping…
All of this record keeping could be done on your computer. However, being able to just go to the file cabinet and pick up the binder is really quick. It makes it easy to take notes as you talk to an agent on the phone no matter where you are. And you can grab the binder and take it with you if you are on the go.

Oh a final tip…
You will need to have a 3 hole punch. Get ready to punch a lot of holes.

Good fortune to you in your retirement.

Jon B.
Feb 2010


Suzanne here again…

It seems so simple. But truly the amount of information thrown at retirees by their employers, health plans, retirement accounts and the government is overwhelming. Without some kind of record keeping system details are certain to be missed. I would hate to see someone miss out on key benefits because they missed a filing deadline or forgot to mail back the right form.

I’d like to add just a few more tips to this excellent plan:
* Use a view binder like this. You can put your primary list of key information in the front of the binder for quick reference. This is a great place to put a phone number & website listing.
* Keep a pen attached to your binder.
* As soon as you receive anything in the mail, take action! If it requires something to be filled out and mailed it, do it immediately. If you need to gather information or make a decision before you can mail it back, put a reminder on your calendar 2 weeks before the due date so you get it mailed in on time.
* Decide on a place to put anything that requires mailing back. One option would be to use the back side of your view binder cover. Check through this pile every Sunday night and prepare anything that needs to get in the mail on Monday morning.

I hope you and your loved ones find some use in this easy organizational system.  If you would like more information specific to organizing for retirement, let me know!

Remember, once your retirement paperwork is organized, you can enjoy life like a day at the park!

Yes – this is my dad, enjoying Christmas day with his grandkids at the playground.

My Life In One Place

My newest favorite organizational tool is my Spring Pad account.  I’ve been using it for almost 2 months and I can’t get enough of it.  The reason it took me so long to let you all in on it is because I wanted to make sure I really loved it before I raved about it.  But I do.  I really, really love it.

What is Spring Pad, you ask?  Only a totally awesome web tool and mobile app that you can use to track every thing you need for all sorts of different projects.

Here’s a brief description from their company website:

Things I love About Spring Pad:

  • I can add items while at my computer and pull them up later on my phone.  This is amazing for shopping lists (make at home, use at the store).
  • I can add items from my phone and pull them up later at my computer.  This is perfect for when I see inspiration at the store and want to blog about it later.
  • There are only a few background choices – I don’t feel compelled to waste spend hours designing a cool background for something that no one will ever see but me.  The designs they offer are simple, modern and attractive.
  • I can type in the name of a product or book and it will find an exact match for me.
  • It gives me alerts when I have deadlines coming up.
  • I can keep all of the areas of my life in one place – my family, my job, my blog, my other organizations.
  • I don’t make notes in 10 different spots and lose the notes later. 
  • It’s free!

***Note – Suzanne has not been compensated in any way, monitarily or otherwise, for this review.  This is my personal opinion of a product that I personally use. 

Get ready to work!

Most of us have a bag we carry for work. It may be a laptop case.  It may be some kind of tote that holds your lunch and other necessities for the day.

In any case, if you are like most people, that bag gets messy over time. We never intend for it to get messy.  It just sort of happens.  We think we’ll clean it out when we get home.  Or tomorrow.  But we never do.

So our first task of January’s refresh & renew series is to clean out that work bag. 
1. Pull everything out. 
2. Quickly sort out the trash and throw it away.
3. Pull out anything that needs to get filed at work and file it
4. Find anything that needs to be filed at home and set it aside
5. Anything you need to take action on?  Add it to your to-do list and put the item/document in your “in work” place.
6. Miscellaneous stuff that doesn’t belong in the bag?  Find it a new home.
7. Clean out the bag.  Dump out the crumbs and the little bits of paper.
8. Replace everything necessary in some kind of organized manner.

Now do this at the end of every work week and it should never be that bad again!

Minding The Money

As we turn the calendar to a new year it’s time to start thinking about everyones favorite topic – taxes!  Wait, you don’t like working on your taxes?  You aren’t sure where to start?  You have no idea where to turn?
Let me give you a very very very simple place to start.  Grab a folder.  It can be any kind of folder – a binder, a manila envelope or a simple file folder (like I used, pictured above).  Label it for 2010 Taxes.  Simple.  These are taxes for the year 2010 that you will file in 2011. 
On the front of the envelope or folder make a list of all the tax documents you THINK you need for this year.  This should include (but is not limited to):
W2 forms from your employers
1099 Forms for wages
1099 Forms for interest income for each and every financial institution where you have an interest-bearing account (any savings account)
Taxes Paid
Real Estate Taxes (property taxes on your house)
Vehicle Ownership Taxes on all vehicles (not sure if all states allow you to deduct these but mine does – you can find the amount on your car registration in your glove box)
Taxes Refunded
You Tax Return from last year.  If you received a tax refund from your state for year 2009, you have to claim that income in 2010.
Deductible Interest
Mortgage Interest statements from all mortgage companies you had a loan with in 2010
Student Loan Interest
Child care expenses
Write all of these expected forms on your folder.  As each form arrives in the mail or in your email put a hard copy in the folder and put a check mark next to the item so you know you’ve received it.  If you get something that wasn’t on your original list, add it to the folder and write it on the front (checked as received) so you remember to include it when you are filing.
This simple task should take you about 5 minutes right now.  And about 1 minute each time a new document arrives.  But it will save you hours when you are finally ready to file.  If you file by yourself (either long-hand or electronically) you’ll be glad everything is in one place.  And if you use a tax professional, he or she will thank you for being so ready to go.
Before we go, let me clear up one thing.  Many of you know this and will wonder why I’m saying it.  Many more of you will wonder how you didn’t know this before.
A tax RETURN is a form you file with the IRS stating your income, deductions & credits from the prior year.  This is something like a Form 1040.  It is NOT the money the government “returns” to you that you overpaid from the prior year.  That is a tax REFUND
Also, if you owe the government $3000 on your tax return you did not pay $3000 in taxes.  You really paid something much more – specifically, whatever was withheld over the course of the year PLUS the $3000 you still owe.
Your tax liability is your tax liability based on your income, deductions and credits.  Whether you choose to pay that through withholdings out of your paycheck or as an additional amount owed on your return doesn’t change the liability (penalties for not paying notwithstanding).  If you owe $3000 it’s because you underpaid out of your withholdings.  If you get a $3000 refund it’s because you overpaid out of your withholdings.  It’s not like winning the lottery.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to convey specific accounting advice.  Suzanne is not a tax professional and does not want to be one.  Please speak to a competent licensed CPA for answers to questions about your specific situation.

Quick Tip Thursday

It’s time to get those gifts in the mail!!

If you have anything that needs to be sent out of town, please take time today and tomorrow to get it packaged up and put in the mail.  If you plan to ship using the United States Postal Service their last day for Christmas delivery of first class mail is Dec 20. 

See the complete list of deadlines here.
You can find the last days to ship with FedEx here (it’s Dec 23 unless you want to pay for overnight).

To help you stay on track this season, avoid going to the post office or shipping store to get those packages sent.  Instead schedule a pickup right from your front door.  You weigh your package, pay for the shippng online, print out the shipping label and tape it to your package and then place it on the porch for your mail carrier.  It is actually quite easy.