The Best Way to Archive Files

As we’ve discussed in past blog posts, paper and electronic file systems can be divided into three parts: Active, Reference, and Archive.  Active files require action. Reference files are files that have no immediate action associated with them, but that you may need in the near future.

In contrast, Archive files are files you may need to access at some (potentially quite distant) point in the future. Archive files may need to be retained for a variety of reasons: to comply with industry standards, to provide proof of payment, or as backup documentation. Archive files might also include old medical records, memorabilia, like letters and notes from loved ones, old tax documents, and documents that are difficult to replace, like original birth certificates or notarized records.

Archive files in electronic form most often encompass items needed for industry compliance purposes, along with ‘CYA’ (Cover your A**) documents. These types of files may be needed to prove that you completed a task you needed to, or, in contrast, did not do something you were not supposed to do.

Because archive files are accessed infrequently, they should be kept out of prime space but in an area that is still accessible, and via a method that makes sense.

For effectiveness, efficiency, and accessibility, archive file systems, whether in paper or electronic form, need to be:  

  • Specific
  • Indexed
  • Functional
  • Consistent

Specific: For paper files, use nomenclature that is specific enough to be meaningful, but not so specific as to limit function. An ideal file name encompasses several categories of items while still retaining meaning. As an example, the filename ‘Important Documents’ is specific and simple enough to indicate the contents, whereas the filenames ‘Birth Certificates’ or ‘Marriage Licenses,’ are much more limiting.

Indexed: A file index listing the name and location of each archive file will jog your memory and make it easier to retrieve needed items, even after much time has passed. It also saves time if archive files are in alphabetical order. An Excel document, sorted A to Z, works well for this. The Excel sheet can also be color coded to match paper files with different color file folders, making retrieval even easier. If you know a file folder is red, for example, you can ignore all the other color folders.

Functional: To archive files in paper form, use readily available filing supplies rather than one-off, designer supplies. This increases the odds that similar supplies can be procured if needed in the future, provides uniformity and balance to the system, and aids in future document retrieval.

Consistent: Because archive files are so rarely accessed, the nomenclature used needs to be self-explanatory. This is especially true for archived e-files, as a consistent nomenclature will enable you to search on specific keywords, increasing the odds that you’ll be able to locate what you need within just a few seconds. Ideally, the nomenclature used for paper and e-file systems will duplicate each other as much as possible.

A Note on Nomenclature: Nomenclature ensures naming consistency for both paper & electronic files.  Paper file nomenclature is generally descriptive (see above) while e-file nomenclature is both descriptive and locative (easy to locate using the ‘Search’ function.)

Sample nomenclature for electronic files should include:

  • The description of what the file contains
  • Followed by any other needed information to jog your mind as to file contents
  • Followed by the date in Year, Month, Day form.

If you need help with archiving your files, contact Lisa Mark, C.P.O. to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

How To Know What Papers To Keep

Most people have more paper than we know what to do with. How do we determine what we need to keep versus what can be pitched? If you haven’t already read my blog posts about File Systems and Paper Storage, I recommend reading those first.

Click Here To Download The Document Retention Chart

The chart above provides guidelines on which financial documents to keep and for how long. Because of differing statutes and regulations at the federal, state and local levels, there is no simple answer to this question. Everyone has specific requirements, and these, along with storage constraints, need to be evaluated when deciding what to keep and what to toss. As with all document retention, consult your tax provider for the final word on what needs to be kept and for how long, and what can be discarded, recycled, or shredded.

In the chart above, retention periods begin at the end of the fiscal year during which the document was created. This date may differ from the date on the document. The retention period for tax return documentation begins on the later of the filing date of the return or its due date with extensions. Again, consult your tax preparer with questions specific to your situation.

The numbers in the chart represent the retention period in years. AD means after disposal of the asset, AT means after termination, and P means that the document should be retained permanently.

Please note that requirements for record retention vary greatly.  To be on the safe side consider keeping your records for the maximum term suggested.  Consult your tax adviser if you have additional questions and for clarity.

Other Items to Consider when deciding what to keep and what to pitch:

  • Bank reconciliations and deposits should be kept for at least four years.  Keeping these items makes it easier in case of an audit.  Most states have a four-year statute over the IRS’s normal three-year requirement, although the time-frame can be longer under certain conditions.
  • With the advent of technology, many individuals and businesses don’t keep ledgers anymore. Because of this it is likely that you will need to retain these e-documents forever if you backup on a regular basis. You’ll also need to maintain a backup file of old data.
  • Keep cancelled checks and credit card statements for at least seven years if they contain a record of tax-deductible items. You don’t want to end up paying several hundred dollars in fees to get this information from banks and credit card companies. 
  • Retain proof of insurance coverage until 2 years after the policy expires. This ensures that you have proof of coverage should someone file a claim after the termination of your policy.
  • It isn’t necessary to save 401(k) statements year after year unless you want to see a running total of how your account has done, but there’s no harm in keeping them. 
  • And finally—stock & mutual fund purchases outside of retirement accounts. Save the original trade tickets showing the purchase amount for these items for at least seven years after selling the security. Since taxes are paid on the difference between the purchase and sale prices, and since the brokerage is generally obligated to report only the sale price, it’s really important to keep the purchase price handy. If you can’t prove what you paid, the IRS sets the purchase price at $0, and you end up paying taxes on the entire sale.

Please keep in mind that everyone’s situation is different and it’s always best to consult with one’s tax professional for the final word on what to keep and for how long.

If you need help with paper management, contact Lisa Mark, C.P.O. to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

How to Track Multiple Tasks in a Large Project

Project Management is not for the faint of heart. Even expert project managers can get bogged down in the minutia of task management. Below are three strategies to increase the odds that multiple tasks in a large project can be tracked effectively.

1. Create a Comprehensive To-Do list. Whether you use project management software, a Word document, or old school pen & paper, your project To Do list needs to be a comprehensive document which includes all aspects of the project: strategies, priorities, objectives, goals, tasks, stakeholders, and perhaps most important of all, the timeline. Log everything, including reminders to follow up on tasks that have been delayed or deferred in favor of focusing on other things. Update as needed as the project progresses.

2. Set your Strategy. To determine how to move forward, use the POAA Strategy: Prioritize, Organize, Automate & Adjust.

  • Prioritize. Determine which tasks will have the greatest impact on success and prioritize those above other, less important, tasks. Then break these tasks down into manageable pieces and assign a timeline. Finally, allocate priorities to project participants based on participant preferences, talent, and training.
  • Organize. When managing projects, I like to use ‘Clumping.’ Grouping similar tasks together is known as clumping. Clumping tasks that naturally fall together not only reduces the amount of time needed for your brain to switch between dissimilar tasks but can also reduce the time needed to complete a specific type of task. Take a deep look at all of the tasks in your project plan and organize them like with like.
  • Automate. Use templates when possible. Establish a library of templates that project participants can access and update as needed. This reduces the amount of time needed to re-enter repetitive data and frees participants to work on what matters most.
  • Adjust.  Be flexible in adjusting goals and expectations when unexpected issues crop up, (and they will crop up.) Be sure to communicate new developments and edits to the timeline to all stakeholders. Hold regular review meetings to ensure that everyone is on the same page with regards to changing project objectives, timelines, and tasks.

3. Finally, consider using Project Management software. Project Management software enables collaboration among many participants across many platforms, can streamline project deployment, and can help ensure that important items don’t get lost in the complexity of the project itself. There are many types of project management & task tracking software. Below are 3 of the more highly rated ones.

  • Trello helps teams move forward in their own unique ways.
  • HighQ helps you to plan, organize, track, and complete work more efficiently and intelligently via agile project management and productivity tools.
  • Asana organizes individual and team tasks in one task manage software place.

If you need help with project management, contact Lisa Mark, C.P.O. to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

How To Prioritize When You Have So Many Tasks

Everyone alive today has more to do than time to do it in. So how to ensure that what needs to be done is, in fact, completed? And how to prioritize tasks to increase the odds that you’re working on what matters most?

I recommend using a Productivity System to determine which tasks take priority.  Productivity Systems are practices and methodologies that help us get things done more efficiently and effectively. The best productivity systems are structured yet flexible, not overly complex, and easy to implement.  Using a productivity system can lead to better prioritization and make it easier to meet your most important goals. 

Below are 3 Productivity Systems that can help enable better task prioritization.

The 4D System

Originally proposed in the book The Power of Focus, written by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Les Hewitt, The 4D System distinguishes highly important tasks from those that are less vital.

The 4 D System consists of four categories: Do, Defer/Delay, Delegate, and Delete. Place tasks or projects into one of these categories based on importance and go from there.

The 4-Quadrant Matrix

Created by Steven Covey, this matrix helps prioritize tasks for optimal efficiency.

Tasks are divided into four quadrants: Important & Urgent, Important & Not Urgent, Not Important & Urgent, and Not Important & Not Urgent. The goal with this matrix is to spend most of our efforts on Important tasks and leave the unimportant tasks to others, or delete them entirely.  In an ideal world, we’d spend most of our time on Important but not Urgent tasks (Quadrant 2) and as little time as possible in Quadrant 4 (Neither Important nor Urgent). The remaining ~20-25% of our time might be spent in Quadrants 1 (Important & Urgent) & 3 (Not Important & Urgent.)

Created by Steven Covey

The Eisenhower Matrix

This is one of my favorite time management tools. The Eisenhower Matrix was established by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States. Eisenhower was a time management guru before the field existed. The Eisenhower Matrix prioritizes Important tasks over Unimportant tasks. The Eisenhower Matrix can serve as a guide in determining what to work on when there are just too many things to do.

Established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Although there are many similarities among these three prioritization systems, there are also differences. Consider experimenting with these systems and then choosing the one that works best for you.

If you would like to learn more about productivity, click here to get your free ebook, “Nine Common Efficiency Mistakes and How to Fix Them.” Or, contact Lisa Mark, C.P.O. to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing and productivity needs.

4 Tools That Help Free Up Time for Entrepreneurs

Most people alive today have more things to do than time to complete them. This month’s guest blogger, Ashley Taylor, discusses how a few widely available tools can help entrepreneurs be more productive.

Entrepreneurs are busy! There is always so much to do, including networking events, investor pitches, team meetings and actual work. If you’re overwhelmed by the workload, it’s time to start working smart instead of hard. Below are 4 resources which may help to streamline business tasks, improve productivity, and create downtime.

Social Media Management Tools

Regardless of the industry you’re in, Hookle notes that social media plays a major role in business success. Managing social media accounts individually is a cumbersome and ineffective process, and collating performance reports from different social media accounts involves additional time which may be better spent elsewhere.

A social media management tool can provide a unified solution for all social media accounts, including scheduling posts, generating performance reports, and making on demand changes.

Cloud Storage

As reported by Indeed, while email has long been the preferred mode of communication for businesses, it is not always the best solution for sharing information. If multiple teams are collaborating on a project, it is easy for important information to be lost

Utilizing cloud storage applications allows for documents to be stored in a central location accessible to everyone. This makes it easier to track project progress, provide feedback, update as needed, and access information.

Project Management Software

According to Martech, using a project management tool allows you to create projects, assign relevant stakeholders and track progress all in one place. Project management tools can allow users to create project boards which can be further divided into individual tasks, enabling up-to-the-minute status tracking and more relevant business decisions.

Additionally, as many of these tools are cloud-based, boards are shared among stakeholders on all teams, potentially reducing the need for team meetings to bring people up to date on the progress of a project.

Invoicing Software

Manually sending invoices to clients increases the chances of delayed or missed payments. Additionally, as the client base grows, it may become increasingly difficult to track payments. Invoicing software allows you to automate the invoicing process. Invoicing software allows you to set customized billing reminders for each client.

When it comes to communicating with new clients, an invoice can be a unique way to develop brand awareness. Invoicing software can make invoicing clients easier by automating the billing process. There are many customizable templates available to streamline the process.

One of the keys to success for entrepreneurs is to be judicious with time. Incorporating these four tools in your business may improve cross-team collaboration, make supervision easy and significantly increase the time you can dedicate to other more important business activities.

Ashley Taylor is a disabled mother of two energetic children. Ashley runs DisabledParents.org, a website dedicated to providing resources for disabled parents.

The Time Butler specializes in the design and implementation of organizing and productivity systems for corporate, small business, and residential clients. Contact us today for more information!

The Best Way to Manage Your To-Do List

Most people alive today have way more to do than time available to do it. This is one of the reasons a well-managed To Do list is so important. Effective To Do list management enables us to:

  • Track outstanding projects & tasks
  • Determine what’s important and what can wait
  • Maintain control over items we need to address
  • Increase the odds of completing projects on time and within budget.

Below are 14 quick and easy tips to help you create and manage your To Do list.

  1. Create a separate To Do list for each project or set of similar projects. The To Do lists can be paper-based, electronic, via an App, or any combination of these that works best.

  2. Include both small and large tasks on your To Do list, as well as any recurring tasks, and the frequency within which they recur.

  3. Split each project into individual and measurable tasks & goals using the SMART system. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. For more information on the SMART project management system, click here.

  4. Calendar a firm due date for each project.

  5. Working back from the project due date, create a due date and calendar reminder for each project-related task. Be sure to consider wait times from others involved in the project, as well as the amount of time needed to complete the task, and any other items that require time and resources necessary.

  6. Build in extra time where possible to account for the unexpected.

  7. Design your day, week, and month so that you can work on time- and brain-intensive tasks when at your best. Aim to do this 75-80% of the time.

  8. Understand that emergencies happen, and can impact your deep-thought, brain-intensive project time. If stuff happens, resume brain-intensive work at the next available opportunity.

  9. Schedule project time on your calendar and then honor this appointment with yourself as much as you would honor an appointment with anyone else.

  10. Share project due dates, goals, and tasks with all stakeholders involved in the project. This can be done via email or via calendar appointment, or both.

  11. Create a ‘Waiting For’ section on your To Do list. This section includes items that you need from others to proceed. Calendar a recurring appointment to remind you to reach out to those on whom you are waiting.

  12. If possible, create a deadline, after which no new input can be accepted. Remind all stakeholders of this deadline via regular emails and calendar reminders or appointments.

  13. Check off completed project items and transfer them off the To Do list. This shows progress and may increase motivation to move forward.

  14. And finally, understand that this is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s impossible to account for everything that might happen. The purpose of a To Do list is to minimize disruptions and ensure that you can get back on task at the soonest opportunity.

If you need help managing your to-do list, contact Lisa Mark, C.P.O. to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

Never Store These Four Things on Your Desk

Desk space before and after organizing
Before and After Organizing by The Time Butler

With the rise of work from home, our work surfaces have become ever more important. Storage spaces & usable spaces are two different concepts. We store items we need for use later, and we use items that we need right now. Because desk space is at a premium, make sure that your desk contains only what you need for the work at hand.

To ensure you’re using your desk space effectively, consider refraining from storing the following items on your desk.

  1. Old papers & documents. If you don’t need it, either downsize it or find another place to put it. Downsize what you can and keep what you need, just not on your desk. Documents that need to be kept can be archived into labeled banker’s boxes and stored somewhere else. Unneeded documents can be shredded, recycled or pitched. If you need more help in identifying types of paper that don’t belong on your desk, you might find last month’s post helpful. This post discusses how clutter is created when papers come to rest in a pile to manage later, rather than being integrated into the established system. 

  2. Food. Yep, we all need to eat. And snacks are great! And it’s so nice to be able to grab a bite while working. But food is better stowed in a desk drawer if it’s not perishable, or in the kitchen if it is, rather than on your work surface.

  3. An excess of knickknacks or tchotchkes. Décor can be beautiful, but not if it clogs your work surface. Keep décor to a minimum – a photo or two of family or pets, a paperweight given to you by your best friend, or a decorative holder of writing implements. Ditch the rest or store it elsewhere.

  4. Obvious non-desk items like kitchenware, clothing, books you’re not using for work, shoes, toiletries, make up, and pet supplies. If these items land on your workspace because they don’t have a spot, set up a home for them elsewhere and then use it.

Remember the basic rule: keep only what you need for the work at hand. Anything that is a distraction or hides your work needs to have a permanent place elsewhere. If you need help establishing a clutter-free workspace, contact Lisa Mark, C.P.O. to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

The Best Way to Control Paper Clutter Permanently

Before and After Organizing by The Time Butler

Last month, we examined how to set up a paper management system. Now, let’s discuss how to increase the odds that the system will continue to work long into the future.

My spouse is like the character Pig Pen in ‘Peanuts.’ Imagine if you will a man followed not by clouds of dirt and dust, but by paper. Paper is his nemesis, and he hates it. Couple this with the fact that he’s an ‘outie’ – someone who likes things out, rather than put away, and we have the perfect storm of what I’ve come to refer to as ‘the paper situation’ in the home and offices we share. Piles of paper everywhere – in the kitchen, in the bedroom he uses to WFH, and on his desk in the home office. They are organized piles, and he can find things, which is what makes the system work for him.

Although there is nothing wrong with being a piler as opposed to a filer, piling or filing in all but the most organized manner makes it very difficult to find things. When your desk contains a mix of reminders, project notes, and things to file, toss, or shred, knowing what to prioritize can be problematic, and important items can get lost.

Most paper pile or file systems fail not because the paper doesn’t have a home, but because of a lack of follow through. Paper pilers often don’t follow through when they have finished the task at hand. Whether making a phone call, engaging in research, brainstorming a new project, paying a bill, or crafting a To Do list, papers generally come to rest in a pile to manage later, rather than being integrated into the established system.

Every organizing system needs to be maintained. Without maintenance, the system itself, no matter how good, will ultimately fail. Entropy affects everything, so good maintenance is the key to setting up an effective system that lasts.

Use the “4C Process”, below, to increase the odds that your system will continue to be successful long into the future.

CALENDAR. Set aside 30-60 minutes every week for maintenance. Plunk a repeating ‘maintenance’ appointment on your calendar on a ‘quiet’ day at a quiet time.

  1. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays tend to be quieter than Mondays, when we’re attempting to catch up from the weekend, and Fridays, when we’re prepping for the weekend.
  2. Likewise, early in the morning or late afternoon/early evening tend to be quieter  than during the mid-day rush.
  3. When the reminder pops up, honor it as much as you would honor an appointment with anyone else.

CATEGORIZE.  Gather papers together and sort like with like. Make corresponding piles of the following:

  1. To Do’s, to be added to your To Do list.
  2. Financial items that need to be addressed, corralled in a labeled file or basket on your desk. Once addressed, mark these with the date paid & the reference number, and then file them.
  3. Items that need to be filed, corralled in a file or bin, and placed on top of the filing cabinet.
  4. Handwritten project notes, to be added to project management software and then discarded or filed as needed.
  5. Anything else that needs to be addressed, added to your To Do list or to project management tasks, or delegated to support personnel.

CLASSIFY.

  1. Add To Do’s to your To Do list.
  2. Update project management software with goals & tasks.
  3. Set a calendar appointment to address financial items, or delegate these to support personnel if possible.
  4. File or Pile items in the filing cabinet.

CLEANUP. The goal of the maintenance exercise is three-fold:

  1. To clear your work area of anything that doesn’t need to be there and open up the space for the things you need to focus on;
  2. To categorize items so that retrieval is easy;
  3. To ensure tracking of To Do’s, financials, project tasks & goals, and items that need to be delegated.

Whether you’re a filer or a piler, or a little bit of both, the best way to control paper is via follow through. Every time you work on a task that involves paper, ask yourself where does this paper belong? Then, when you’re finishing up your projects for the week, make time for follow through and to classify.

Taking the time to make this into a habit will save you time in the long run. It is a mind-set that will help you keep track of your task list, prioritize what is most important, increase efficiency, and decrease stress.

Lisa Mark, C.P.O. is a productivity expert and Certified Professional Organizer. Contact Lisa if you would like to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

How To Set Up A Paper Management System

Office before and after organizing by The Time Butler

Maintaining an organized office requires a system. Last month, we discussed ways to organize your office using SPACE and SAVE methods. Both strategies can be utilized to organize your workspace.

To maximize productivity in your office space, you’ll also need a way to manage paper. To create a custom paper management system that is effective, efficient, and streamlined, follow these six steps.

  1. Make a pile of your Action Items, and calendar time to address each one. Then honor that calendar appointment with yourself as much as you’d honor an appointment with anyone else. After you’ve addressed these, file them.

  2. Gather reference information that you use regularly. Store it in a binder, on your computer, or in an easily accessed file cabinet rather than on your desk.

  3. Create a project folder for any task that has more than 3 or 4 documents. Depending on frequency of use, this can be stored at your fingertips, on a shelf, or in the file cabinet.

  4. If you don’t need it, pitch it. Most of us keep way more than we need to keep, especially where paper is concerned. Unless the document is critically important or tax-related, when in doubt throw it out.

  5. Consider going paperless for financial statements, bills, and notifications.  These can then be downloaded and filed in your electronic filing system. And because they are not actual paper, they don’t require physical space. And if you don’t have an effective e-file system, there is always the Search feature.

  6. To make downsizing easier, keep recycle, shred, and trash bins at your fingertips. Having things within reach removes barriers to moving forward. We are less tempted to delay something if we don’t have to get up and walk across the room to do it.

Lisa Mark, C.P.O. is a productivity expert and Certified Professional Organizer. Contact Lisa if you would like to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.

How To Maintain an Organized Office

Your office can go from this…

Clients often ask me why their office doesn’t stay organized. My response is always the same: office organization, like any other type of organization, requires upkeep. Upkeep is described as “E” in the SPACE system. “E” stands for Equalize, which is the maintenance required to keep the system working once the organizing project is complete. Like paperwork, email, calendar management, or any other task, organizing is not a one and done thing. It requires regular work to maintain.

As a reminder, SPACE stands for Sort (like with like) Purge (unneeded, unused, unwanted items), Assign a Home (figure out where items will live) Contain (prevents one group of items from negatively impacting another group of items) and E (Equalize.)

I also use the SAVE process to create organizing systems. The best organizing systems, and those that last the longest, employ Simplicity, Accessibility, and Visibility, Every day. 

Both strategies can be utilized to organize your workspace.

…to this!

So, how do you maintain an organized office?

First, SPACE your workspace. SPACE everything – the desks, the drawers, the shelves, your file system, and, if it’s used as storage, the floor.

  • Set a timer for 15-20 minutes, and then do as much as possible in the area in which you’re working.
  • Establish your decision matrix. If something is broken, out of date, no longer relevant, makes the office look cluttered (say, excessive décor), or you otherwise do not love, use, or need it, consider downsizing it.
  • But, do be aware of any industry compliance issues when downsizing. Industry compliance applies mostly to documentation but can apply to other things as well.
  • Remember that sometimes documents need to be kept even if there is not an immediate (or potentially ever) use for them.

Once an area is SPACE’d, set up Zones.

  • Determine which type of work happens where and set up zones to facilitate this.

Use the ‘Fingertip Method’.

  • Items used regularly should be within reach so you don’t have to get up to retrieve them.
  • This includes writing implements, a stapler, phone stand, scissors, tissues, places for coffee or teacup and water, Post It notes, a note pad and your To Do box. And of course your desktop or laptop, or both.
  • Items not needed on a regular basis can be stored elsewhere.

That takes care of your physical space. The final step to maintaining an organized office is organizing your virtual desktop. A cluttered desktop reduces productivity because it takes longer to find what you need. It may even render the search function less productive.

  • Use the same principles to organize your virtual desktop that you use for your physical desktop.
  • SPACE each file, downsizing items you no longer need, want, or use.
  • Then place the remaining files into organized folders.
  • Consider setting up a File Index so you know where items are located.
  • Do this in small chunks of 15-20 minutes on a regular basis to avoid build up.

Lisa Mark, C.P.O. is a productivity expert and Certified Professional Organizer. Contact Lisa if you would like to find out if she is a good fit for your organizing or productivity needs.