Friday, January 11, 2008

Organizing the Paper in Your Life

The following are my notes from a lecture given by Barbara Hemphill on January 10, 2008 at Perimeter Church in Duluth, GA. Hemphill is the author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and Taming the Paper Tiger at Work, and her website is She became a professional organizer before there was such a thing, starting in the late 1970s. As one who loves to organize, I thought it would be fun to attend the lecture, especially since it was free. Hemphill was friendly, funny, and offered valuable advice and insight in one short hour, with time afterward for Q&A. In these notes, words or phrases in quotation marks and italicized are direct quotes taken word for word from the lecture. Words or phrases in bold indicate they are from the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied Hemphill’s lecture.

Barbara Hemphill (BH)
The Paper Tiger Tamed: The Freedom of an Organized Life

-- Romans 13:11 from The Message: “But make sure that you don't get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God.”
--What is “organized”? (answers from the audience:)
-A place for things
-Know where things are
-Be more efficient
-Better relationships
--Organizing is an Art TM (BH’s definition of organization)
(1) Does it work?
-Story of a vice president who had piles all over his desk but “couldn’t find anything” if he cleared his desk; he said the method worked for him. However, one Saturday a month, he had to go to the office to organize all his papers, thus missing kids’ soccer games and family time. After having BH come in to help him get organized, he said she gave him back that Saturday every month.
(2) Do you like it?
(3) Does it work for others?
-If you aren’t there, can others find it/use it?
(4) Can you “recover” quickly?
-If you went unannounced to BH’s home, you’d think, “SHE is an organizer?!” But if you call her to say you’re coming, she can have everything put away in 15-20 minutes – where it belongs.
--There’s an old adage: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” BH agrees with the first part of that; everything SHOULD have its own place. But “everything in its place” is not true because things will always be out – projects, kids’ toys, bills, etc. But you should know where it goes, to its assigned space, NOT to a random closet or stashed under the bed.
--WHY organize?
--“Organization is not about neatness.”
--“Organization helps you do what you want to do.”
--Mission statement for BH’s company: “To help individuals and businesses organize time, space, and information so everyone can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives!”
--“Organizing in and of itself has no value.” You can spend all your time organizing, and nothing happens.
--HOW to organize?
--Transitions in life force your organization to change
--If you want to know what’s important to people, check their calendar and their checkbook
--Everything we do needs a system
--Saying “I want to be organized” – what does that mean to you?
--BH doesn’t like acronyms, but here’s one that a customer of hers from India developed that she loves: “SYSTEM”
--3 Essential Components of ANY System:
(1) Methodology
(2) Mechanics
(3) Maintenance
--Some examples of Methodology:
-Why do people organize photos?
Example 1: BH knows a grandmother who has a trunk full of old photos, just haphazardly thrown in there. When her granddaughters come to play, this woman lets them open the trunk, pull out the photos, and play with them by making up stories about the people in the photos. [There was a huge gasp from the audience here.]
Example 2: BH’s daughter takes lots of pictures at an event with her digital camera. Then she picks which ones she wants to develop. From those, she chooses about 5 pictures to blow up to an 8x10 size. She puts the blown-up photos in a book, and throws everything else away. [Another huge gasp from the audience.]
--BH said that it’s shocking to many of us who hear these stories, but this is what they want. Your purpose determines HOW to organize your photos.
--Paper Tiger Principle #1: Today’s mail is tomorrow’s pile….
-“Organizing the paper in your life is non-negotiable if you want a quality of life.”
-Paper is like the foundation of a building
-You must create a system to manage the new paper. Only then can you organize the old paper. This is so that you don’t have new paper coming in and increasing the size of your piles while you try to organize the old stuff. Plus, by developing a system for the new paper, when you organize the old paper, you may realize that you don’t need to keep all the old paper.
--Paper Tiger Principle #2: Clutter is Postponed Decisions ®
-Think about a time when you tried to clear your desk. You start with the pile on the right side of the desk, and begin to go through the papers. You start with the paper on top – “I don’t want to deal with THAT yet…. We’ll put it over here.” And so on, until you’ve gone through the pile – and all you’ve done is moved it from the right side of your desk to the left side.
--The FAT System TM
File is “I don’t know if I’ll ever use it, but I don’t have the guts to throw it away.”
Organize actions, or what you need to do, in 1 of 3 ways:
(1) By Date:
-Remember tickler or pending files 20 years ago? When a report had to get done by a certain day, a copy of the request went to the manager and to the secretary to file. It was the secretary’s job to remind the manager about the upcoming report and to remind him to send it on the day the report was due. [I’m not sure if I’m explaining this correctly, since this kind of thing was before my time!]
-BH heard about a guy who was developing something called a SwiftFile, which organized action files by date. She liked it so much, she bought the company. [More on this later.]
(2) By Type of Action (for example, data entry for addresses & phone numbers)
(3) By Name of Project
--Paper Tiger Principle # 3: Half of any job is using the right tool
-BH promoted her “To Do Book” here, which is a little 3-ring binder about 4x6 size, with tabs for various areas of life, to keep lists and ideas organized. Tabs included Calls, Errands, Fun, Books, Gifts, Numbers, etc.
-After helping 200 individuals get organized, BH tried to figure out what obstacles all of them had in common, what was the same for all. What is the core of getting people’s offices organized? She came up with:
-The Magic 6 TM
(1) Desktop Tools
-Most people have trays on their desk, but they’re pretty random. You need only 3 trays: In, Out, File. These trays fall under the 3rd Essential Component of Any System – Maintenance. When the File tray is full, you file the papers. Whatever’s in the Out tray needs to go wherever it should go. And so on. [I have to say here that with the way I work, these 3 trays would be the death of me. I would let them pile up, and things put in the Out tray would sit there forever and probably be late or miss a deadline, while the In tray would just never be dealt with. Maybe I didn’t hear her explanation well enough. ? This was one of the few things that she said that I didn’t necessarily agree with.]
(2) Wastebasket (Recycle/Shred)
-BH encourages clients to use a shallow desk drawer for items that need to be shredded or recycled. When the drawer is full, it’s time to shred or recycle.
(3) Calendar
-Widely used, of course, but “there is no perfect calendar!” because everyone is different and has different needs; choose the right one for yourself and use it well.
(4) Contact Management
-Addresses and phone numbers. We have little pieces of paper and napkins scattered with people’s info on them; need a system for how to deal with them
(5) Action Files
-“I’m afraid to file it because I’ll forget to do it”
-Put that action in a folder, then set a time on a calendar to do it, with where to find the folder
-BH is working with MS Outlook to develop software for this kind of thing, only you get sent an email instead of having to look at your calendar
(6) Reference Files
-The key to this is an Index
-The problem here is labeling/categorizing. Do you put this paper under Car? Auto? Chrysler? Insurance?
--Paper Tiger Principle # 4: Hemphill’s Principle
If you don’t know you have it,
or you can’t find it,
it is of no value to you.
--“Organization is not a moral issue.” You can keep everything you want if you’re willing to pay the price. Example of one businesswoman who had literally tens of thousands of files and had to hire 2 people full time to maintain and organize them.
--People feel guilty about their clutter; visitors don’t like to go to cluttered homes.
--BH has concluded that clutter is a sign of some type of significant loss in someone’s life
--“Clutter is a sin.” BH believes clutter is a stewardship issue
--We can’t be all Christ wants us to be when we’re drowning in our stuff
--She likes this quote that she heard from someone else: “Having Christ and everything is no better than having Christ and nothing.”
--She’s never met anyone who got organized who said they were sorry!
--The Art of Wastebasketry ®: Worst-case scenario?
-When in doubt, keep the paper. BUT remember Hemphill’s Principle! (If you don’t know you have it, or you can’t find it, it is of no value to you.)
-Identify how you will use this paper or item
-Example: The melon baller in your drawer. When was the last time you used it? Why is it taking up space in your drawer? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I didn’t have this?!
--Paper Tiger Principle # 5: The Next Action Factor TM
-You look at something and it reminds you of all the other things you need to do
-BH’s favorite tool: the index card
-She has several located everywhere in her house
-Write ONE idea or action on each card, then it’s easy to get it where it needs to be because nothing else is written on it
-One index card is less expensive than 1 Post-It note
-BH bought a “pocket briefcase” from a certain catalog [I didn’t catch the name of it]. It looks like a wallet, has 3 slots, and is the size of index cards. She keeps blank index cards in one slot, business cards in another, and written-on index cards in the other. When she gets home, she takes the written index cards and quickly files them in the proper places.
--Paper Tiger Principle # 6: The Focus Factor TM
-Our problem is having more ideas than the physical body can carry out!
-Robert Frost, "The Road Less Traveled," the first line is “Life is difficult.” BH was so disappointed when she read that! Because it’s true.
-Before going to bed, BH identifies the 3 most important things to do the next day. Not a project to do, but the next step in a project. The next morning, she does at least one of the items on the list BEFORE she opens her email!
-Picture of a roadside construction sign: “Prepare for sudden aggravation”
--Paper Tiger Principle # 7: Asking for help brings wisdom!
-She’s concerned about the organization industry; professional organizers are either burned out, or they don’t get paid enough.
-People “get organized,” but after the professional organizer leaves, the office/house goes back to the way it was because there’s no system in place to maintain the organization.
-Remember the 3 Components of Any System: Methodology, Mechanics, and Maintenance. In terms of prices, Methodology should cost the most. It’s the Big Picture level, requiring lots of experience and knowledge, and costs $100-200 an hour. Mechanics is the middle level and should cost $50-75 an hour. Maintenance is the lowest level, worth about $15-35 an hour. Most people in the organizing industry put their price in the middle and do all three levels at that price – this is what causes the burnout and in some cases the improperly low wage.
--The Productive Environment Process TM
(1) Design your vision
(2) Eliminate your obstacles
(3) Commit your resources (time, energy, money, space)
(4) Select your tools
-80% of what an organization consultant does is to help people choose and use the right tools
-Organization isn’t about stuff but about the people; you can’t do #4 without learning about #1-3
-We all organize in different ways, therefore we need different tools
(5) Maintain your success
-If 2 years after a professional organizer came through, the organization isn’t maintained, the professional organizer failed.
--The Freedom of an Organized Life TM: How does that sound to you?
From the Q&A:
--Q: I used to work in an office and was organized because I reported to someone. Now I’m at home and I have a 2-year old, and can’t get organized!
--A: Kids cause “circumstantial disorganization.” What worked in one situation will not work in another. Example for kids: After Christmas, I watched what my kids played with the most, and put the rest in boxes in the attic. 3 months later, I got out the other toys and it was like Christmas all over again. You can have kids pick the toys they don’t want any more and give them away. Use colored shelves, boxes, etc. for toys. Have a “grab shelf” in the kitchen – anything on the shelf is ok to eat without worrying that mom had other plans for it.
--Q: How long do you keep bills? When do you shred them?
--A: The question I get asked the most. There isn’t one answer; it isn’t the same for everyone. Ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Example: You have a 15-year warranty. Throw it out after 15 years; you don’t need to keep it anymore.
--Q: How to cross-reference various calendars?
--A: Have 1 master calendar and duplicate it to the others. Example: She has a second calendar in a certain spot just for her husband, which shows BH’s travel schedule for the year.
--Q: I have file cabinets and drawers in my office that I inherited that are full, but they can be emptied. How to go about this?
--A: Empty the most accessible drawer first and fill it with action folders. For companies, I encourage them to have a Company Production Day [I didn’t catch the actual title she gave it], where everyone takes a day to organize their desk, go through things, and throw stuff out. Turn it into an event, make it a party. Feed everyone, hire a professional/industrial shredder. Are there things in your office you can comfortably throw away? The answer is probably yes….
--Q: What about the trend for companies to go paperless?
--A: It’s usually a combination of paper & paperless. The question is, how far back to go paperless, and what goes paperless? Think of obstacles, develop a plan, etc.
--Q: What are some common tools for organizing spaces?
--A: Choose tools based on space, how many are needed, etc. And leave space for room to grow, especially with files. A label-maker! A lower-level organizer puts like things together and labels things.
--Q: How to organize tax information?
--A: There’s a chapter about this in Taming the Paper Tiger at Home. It depends on your style. One example: Keep a file for any tax-related items and deal with it later, in April! Maybe not the best way. Best thing to do: This year, think about what made it hard to do taxes this year? Then make changes and create a system for next year.
--Q: You mentioned a SwiftFile earlier. What is that?
--A: It’s a portable file folder box that holds 31 folders (one for every day of the month) and 12 folders (one for every month of the year). You put action files for specific dates into the appropriate folder, and deal with the right folder each day. You can watch a free 1-hour video on my website on how to use the SwiftFile. []
--Q: [This was my question!] I used to be a teacher and now have 20 file boxes of all my teaching stuff. I’m slowly going through it, but it’s hard to throw stuff out because I worked so hard on it and because I might return to teaching some day. Any tips?
--A: If you have room for the boxes and it doesn’t bother you, then deal with it later. If you have kids and move and life changes, you’re going to have to deal with it sometime…. Or take a sheet of recycled paper and write “Do 1 teaching box” on it. Then put it in the first Monday of the month in your SwiftFile. Then move the paper to the first Monday of the next month, and so on. If you’ve moved the paper 20 times and nothing has happened, what does that tell you?
--Q: How about organizing reading material, coupons, etc.?
--A: I sort my reading material by where I read it. I have a magazine rack by my hot tub, and put certain reading material in there. I have material that I read only when I’m traveling, and by the time I come back home, I’ve read it and gotten rid of it, and filled the space with the papers I collect on my trip. You need a system for catalogs and medical records, etc. – there’s a different solution for each one.

In addition to a copy of the PowerPoint presentation, we also got a copy of BH’s Productive Environment ScorecardTM for Individuals. BH said she completes this every January to evaluate her progress. Some things go up and some go down.

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