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.

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.


  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.

Office Space Planning: Where to Start

Most business owners spend a LOT of time in the office. Office spaces that are easy to navigate, designed strategically, and well set up increase the chances of worker collaboration, productivity, and business success. Below are four tips to enhance office planning and setup.

  1. Strategize. Figure out where things will go, what the budget is, and who key decision makers are. Ask yourself what’s working, what tasks are difficult and why, and which tasks are most frequent. Then build your office space around these constraints and considerations. Strapped for space? Consider smaller work areas. Need more storage? Use wall space to increase storage options. Does your business scan a lot of documents? Place the scanner in an accessible area to make frequent scanning easier.

  2. Collaborate. To increase the likelihood of success and cooperation among workers, create spaces that enable people to communicate effectively. Open spaces work if there is sufficient storage and workspace.    Where possible, consider open desk areas instead of cubicles, soothing colors instead of jarring colors, and ergonomic chairs or standing desks to make it easier to work for long periods.

  3. Ascertain. Determine which tasks are the most important and most frequent and build your office space around them.  Have a lot of paperwork? Ensure there is enough space to catalog it all for easy use and retrieval. Use a lot of plans that are difficult to see on a computer screen? Ensure sufficient flat space is available to work on these. Deal with a lot of email? Have sufficient online storage and backup processes in place. Use a lot of supplies? Build in storage options to keep these tucked away but easy to get to.

  4. Reduce. Nothing is more distracting or difficult to work in than an office space filled with unused and unwanted items. Spaces that are cumbersome, overfull, and difficult to navigate detract from worker success. Don’t have a use for something? Don’t like something? Don’t have room for something? Sell it, donate it or otherwise remove it from the space.

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 Make Virtual Organizing Work for You

Virtual organizing is done via a remote work session between organizer and client. Communication is generally via video conference platforms like Skype or Zoom and may occasionally be done via phone as well. 

With virtual organizing, clients get the same teaching, guidance, and support of a hands-on organizing appointment. Virtual organizing also enables clients to access organizers outside of their geographical area, which may increase the availability of organizing services in a busy market. Finally, because virtual organizing appointments are generally shorter than hands-on appointments, it may be possible to obtain a virtual organizing appointment sooner than a hands-on organizing appointment.

During virtual organizing, the organizer provides the guidance and support necessary to accomplish the organizing project while the client puts the plan into action. Virtual organizing is less about doing the hands-on work and more about using the organizer’s experience, education and knowledge to help the client implement the organizing systems. During COVID, virtual organizing services have skyrocketed.

To determine whether virtual organizing is right for you, ask yourself the following questions.

Continue reading “How to Make Virtual Organizing Work for You”

How To Choose the Right Organizer or Productivity Consultant: Part 3 – Personality

Lisa Mark, C.P.O. Coaching a Client

In last month’s blog post, we discussed how to ensure your productivity consultant has the right qualifications. This month’s blog post addresses what personality traits to look for when hiring a productivity consultant.

  • Identify her problem-solving skills. A good productivity consultant not only has strong problem-solving skills but also can explain why she’s doing what she’s doing. She can see the big picture without losing sight of the details. She’ll be able to identify your goals, create a plan of action, and then work with you to get to where you want to be.
Continue reading “How To Choose the Right Organizer or Productivity Consultant: Part 3 – Personality”