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Declare War on Time-Consuming Clutter with Action Zones

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Does your struggle to be productive at work and at home feel like waging war with yourself and others?

Perhaps it makes sense to perceive that struggle as a battle ground. You are the commander. You are waging war on several fronts – special projects, ongoing skirmishes, and supply logistics.  You have a map of the terrain (the floor plan) and know what your resources are:  equipment,  personnel, and supply lines.

To win the battle, you  must match trained personnel with specialized equipment and ensure that needed supplies are available for immediate use. In other words, you want to have all the components needed to engage the enemy to come together in the same place at the same time.

I’m sure you have decided (as I have) to work on a certain project only to spend 20 minutes or more gathering all the varying pieces of information, supplies, and equipment before you can begin. Whether that is finding your mixing bowl in the kitchen, asking yourself “Where did I put my 3-hole punch this time?”, or just trying to get the kids out the door in the morning, it is time-consuming as well as frustrating!

The answer is to designate action zones.

  1. First make a decision that you are  going to start now! The time you spend in planning for efficiency will be returned to you tenfold.
  2. Brainstorm. Ask yourself what activities you actually DO in the room/area you are organizing. Perhaps the question should be – what activities do you ideally want to do there!
  3. Assign specific areas in the room, or zones, to similar activities. Try to limit each room to 2-3 zones. In an office you might have action zones for:
    • Communication Central – your desktop and shelf above
    • Reference library – bookshelf and file drawer
    • Action/Projects – credenza with In/Out boxes and incline sorter for specific activities/projects.
  4. Place equipment and supplies within arm’s reach in the appropriate zone for each activity.
    • Filing – extra hanging files, manila file folders, labels
    • Enjoying media – TV, Radio/CD player, VCR/DVD player, CD’s, DVD’s, and remotes, of course.
    • Paying bills – computer, bills, calculator, check book, stamps, address labels
    • Baking – measuring cups and spoons; mixing bowls; baking pans; spices, extracts and leavening agents
    • Getting in the car – keys, diaper bag, shoes, coats, hat, gloves & backpacks

Now that you have the stage set for control over each new project, all you need are the trained personnel. Is that you or do you have employees, friends, or children you can delegate the task to?

The beauty of action zones is that whoever is assigned to that battle will have all the tools necessary to succeed! That will save you time in both set- up and in wages paid.

You may find that once you know where everything is to get started quickly, you are raring to take on that project yourself, right now. You are the commander and it is an easy victory!

Benefits of Organizing: A Baker’s Dozen

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Organizing isn’t only about downsizing possessions, developing filing systems, and creating easily-accessible storage.
Getting out from under visual clutter and overwhelm can have a much deeper impact in our lives, both physically and emotionally.

When I started listing the life-changing results I see as an organizer, I couldn’t stop at an even 10 as I had planned, so you get a baker’s dozen.

Clearing the clutter and organizing those things you need/use or love/find beautiful will…

  1. Give you hope for the future; you don’t have to stay stuck in chaos and defeat.
  2. Set you free from the burden of clutter (of things, their past, negative emotions) so you are able to move on.
  3. Let you know you are capable of maintaining order with the system that matches your personal bent.
  4. Give you a safe and healthy environment so you can thrive.
  5. Allow you to pass on a legacy of order to your children.
  6. Affirm your competence on the job when you can find info quickly, get started on today’s projects, and reach for tomorrow’s opportunities.
  7. Empower you to take back control of life and your environment, one area at a time.
  8. Make you feel valued for the unique individual you are, not based on some preconceived notion of what you should be or do.
  9. Boost your self confidence knowing you will remember appointments, be on time, and have what is needed at that moment.
  10. Allow you to experience a calm retreat at the end of a fast-paced day.
  11. Enable you to accept less than perfection, while striving for “good enough.”
  12. Free up time for you to fulfill your dreams.
  13. Underline the truth that we each fail at times, but that each mistake is a new chance to start over.

The great thing about organizing is, when you clear a path in one area of your life, the positive feelings ripple outward and you are energized to repeat the process for even greater success.   That is what my clients see and experience.  Love it!

Clear Piles of Paper with Speed Sorting

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Do you need to clear clutter and clean for your holiday company but are afraid to move your piles of paper for fear of losing something important?

Where do your paper piles collect? Are they on your desk, kitchen counter, or dining room table? This area must be where you tend to keep bills, projects, invitations, and all the other reading materials you want to get to. The problem is, important papers get mixed in with the “not so much” papers and you miss an opportunity or deadline.

To level the piles right away, try SPEED SORTING. The goal is to see quick results and to find that work surface again! Another plus is we will be identifying those papers that still require action and separating them from the piles that you kept to refer to in the future.
Gather supplies and set aside approximately 45 minutes for the speed sorting process.

The supplies you will need for this exercise are:

  • An IN BOX
    I like the attached, tri-level letter boxes for this, simply because you can label the middle box OUT, and the bottom box TO BE FILED. Then you have three options for handling paper in a relatively small footprint.
  • Colorful File Folders.
    Choose files with stripes, flowers, or buildings in Paris to make your projects stand out.
  • A Banker’s Box or other sturdy box to hold papers.
  • A Desktop Vertical File (optional)

Now, set aside time to begin your sorting. You will need approximately 1 hour to clear your desk with speed sorting. Determine not to answer the phone or leave your work area until you are done with this section.

STEP ONE: Create distinctive PROJECT FILES  Tool #1

To begin, find any supporting documents for projects you are currently working on. A project is a temporary action that has a beginning, middle and an end. [Example: mailing holiday cards to friends and family]

Use one of the colored PROJECT FILES for each project so you can see at a glance where they are in your work area. Label the folder with the name of your project and expected date of completion.
If you want to see the files easily on top of your desk, use the optional incline sorter to hold them. Keeping your PROJECT FILES in a desk file drawer will work also. You want to have these files within arm’s reach to grab quickly.
When you can’t see any more papers that apply to current projects, set the PROJECT FILES to one side. You can add any other relevant documents to the files as they are unearthed.

STEP TWO: Separate ACTION papers and place in the IN BOX   Tool #2

To encourage you to keep moving, set a timer for 30 minutes to complete this step. Stay focused and work quickly.

In this step, you will look at each paper still on your desk briefly and determine the answer to this question:

“Is there something I have to DO with this paper?”

If the answer is YES, you will put the paper in your IN BOX, indicating that it represents ACTION that has to be taken.

If the answer is NO, that means any action associated with that paper is FINISHED and the paper will be kept for reference only. Put that paper in the box you have standing by.

Remember, you are not allowed to leave the area during this process. You may not begin taking action on any paper that you find in the piles. Simply place it in your IN BOX with an “URGENT” note on it. GO!

Done? Hooray! You found all of the papers that you need to take ACTION on. Did you find a few that were URGENT?
The box of FINISHED papers can go under your desk for now (or some other hiding place, preferably not the oven!) You will be able to access anything you discover you need before filing time.
Now you can finish your cleaning to get ready for your holiday company or just breathe a sigh of satisfaction that you can see that surface again. Whew!

NOTE: Speed sorting is only the first step in creating a paper management system that cuts your paper piles down to size… permanently! In my eBook “7 Tools to Conquer Paper Piles Forever!” I walk you through the entire process step-by-step. That resource is available now on my website.

Great Ideas on How to Focus… Now!

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Don’t critique the job you’re doing until you’ve completed it.

Christine Adamec, author of “Moms with ADD”
Adult ADD

Adult ADD

This is just one of the “8 Ways to Focus at Work & Home” from the article in ADDitude Magazine online.

If you are distracted by bright and shiny objects, are a raving perfectionist,  or simply have to move NOW or you will die, you will find hope in these simple tips from ADHD experts.

While you are there, sign up to have the newsletter delivered to your in box. We all can use the additional nudge to simplify desktops, write lists, and ask for help from a friend. Common sense? Yes! Do we do it? No!

Clear the Clutter! Part 3 – Keeping Stuff Contained

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

This past Monday I was giving a presentation at a local Senior Center. I met Terry who found me online and had several printed copies of my blog in her hand. Then she asked, “I found your blogs Clear the Clutter Parts 1 and 2, but not Part 3, did you write Part 3 yet?”

I was embarrassed to have to answer, “No, I have not.”

So, you know what’s coming… by golly, this is Part 3! Maintenance doesn’t have to be a bad word. Use these tips to keep your newly organized space contained and going strong.

Room to live

7 Keep it Organized Tips to making “main-tain” more than two rhyming four-letter words:

  1. Store items by categories. Name the category so you and everyone else know what goes in there. Label, if necessary. Sample categories: first aid kit, cold weather accessories (hats, gloves, scarves), everyday office supplies, Stationery/Bill paying supplies, hair care.
  2. Keep items close to where they are used so you don’t have to travel very far to put them away.
  3. Use containers that fit the item to be stored in size, convenience of access, quality of décor. Ask, “Does this container make me want to put things in it, or is it too hard?”
  4. Set limits on how many you truly need. You are the manager here. Too many extraneous things make it hard to find what you really use and love! How many margarine tubs can you use in a month? That’s enough.
  5. Commit to putting things in their homes that you have designated.  Think “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.” Click your ruby slippers and let that object go home.
  6. Gather things that have escaped, or are on permanent vacation from their homes into a “Move” box. Then walk around your house delivering them to the doorstep of the room where they belong. Put each one in its home the next time you enter that room.
  7. If you have kids, make a family play date to do some straightening. In each child’s room let him/her be the manager and tell the “employees” where things go. Hold your tongue, mom or dad. Any headway you make is an improvement on what was before. Other children may make some good suggestions that can better be heard by their sibling.

Maintenance issues often are solved in the organizing process.  When systems are put into place in deference to personality and present habits, the odds become much greater that we can “keep it up.” If you are having lots of difficulties maintaining your organized space, it could be that the system itself needs tweaking.

Organization doesn’t have to be boring. Use color and style to ratchet up your desire to keep your space appealing to the eye and inviting as a fun place to hang out.

Final thoughts:

  • Enjoy your space as you currently have it arranged.
  • Be present in NOW.
  • When you leave an area, look for something that you can deliver to the room you are headed to.
  • Try to spend 10 minutes a day putting things away.
  • Devote a concentrated 2 hours per month working on one area in particular.

Living and working in an organized space is more a process than a destination. Over time as you find systems that work for you and are committed to keeping it up, you will see the gradual change. If you need more support, find a professional organizer in your area on the National Association of Professional Organizers webpage. We are a diverse group but all have a passion to help others live balanced and productive lives.

Maybe Not Paperless, Definitely Less Paper

Friday, March 19th, 2010

As a professional organizer, I want to communicate how organizing makes life simpler. I often speak at community events in libraries, Mom’s groups, and civic organizations. Most often I am asked to talk about organizing home or office spaces. However, during the closing Q&A portion, someone inevitably chimes in with, “What am I supposed to do with all the paper I am bombarded with?”

I have to laugh. Never do I say what I am thinking, “I could have spent the last hour giving you a system to help with that.” Instead I ask for one specific area where paper is a problem and try to give a tip or two.

We all struggle with the ubiquitous paper piles.

The piles pop up everywhere – in the kitchen, on the dining room table, on our desk in the office or at home. These are some startling facts about paper that do not even surprise us anymore:

  • The world consumes five times more paper now than in 1950.
  • Each person in the United States uses approximately 750 pounds of paper each year. This equals approximately 187 billion pounds per year.
  • The average American receives 49,060 pieces of mail in their lifetime; 1/3 of it is junk mail.
  • The United States annually consumes 4 million tons of copy paper, 2 billion books, 350 million magazines and 25 billion newspapers.

Perhaps the most telling statistics about the proliferation of paper are those describing the meteoric rise of the paper shredding industry.

In 1982 there were about two dozen document shredding companies. That number grew to between 500 and 600 in 2002 according to the Petersburg Times, Feb 2002.

As of 2008, the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) reported that document shredding was a $1.2 billion a year industry in the U.S. and is growing at a rate of 35 percent per year. NAID membership grew from 150 to more than 1,000 in the span of five years. (Sacramento Bee, May 2008)

What does this rise in paper generation mean on a day-to-day basis?

The average desk worker has 36 hours of work on his or her desk and spends 3 hours per week sorting piles trying to find the project to work on next. (Richard Swanson, The Overload Syndrome)

The paper piling problem is not limited to the average Joe or Jill.

Studies have shown that some executives will pick up a single piece of paper from their desk thirty or forty times before acting on it. “Don’t use your desk as a storage place for items awaiting action. If you can’t dispense with it immediately, at least keep a follow-up pile.” (Michael Woolery, Seize the Day)


Without a plan, paper will win.

We can be overwhelmed, finding ourselves debating which information to act on first, crippled by visual and mental clutter. The best defense is a good offense. These are three strategies every office and household must plan and carry out to eliminate paper piles.

  1. Establish a paper flow system with standard operating procedures (SOP) for the three main categories: reference, action, and junk. When you make decisions ahead of time on how to deal with incoming information, you don’t have to think so hard or reinvent what to do with that everyday-the-same-old-stuff paperwork.
    Get more in depth instruction and a step-by-step system to get the mountain of paper under control with the e-Book [intlink id="1090" type="page" target="_blank"]7 Must Have Tools to Conquer Paper Piles Forever![/intlink]
  2. Schedule regular times for follow-up activities. Some actions are never ending: to phone, to write, to email, to delegate, to discuss. Make standing appointments with yourself to “bundle” like actions into one time slot for completion. This approach can save you a bundle of time!
  3. Reduce the volume of incoming paper as much as possible. Let friends and colleagues know you much prefer an email to a written note or a phone call (where you have to take notes.) Cancel magazines and newspapers you do not read.
    Use these websites to cut down on unsolicited advertising and credit offers:

The information age has changed the way we think and live. Like any tool, ready access to information can be a good thing when we are careful to wisely regulate its use. Take steps now to implement these three strategies to be more productive… and to maintain your sanity!

Jill’s Story, Behind the Scenes Coaching on De-Cluttering

Friday, March 12th, 2010

You want to soar, stuff gets in the way

You want to soar, stuff gets in the way (neoliminal/Flickr)

Over the last month or so, Jill and I have been emailing back and forth. She shared that she is finally motivated to let go of all the paper she has been storing with her business.  I hope you will be encouraged by her story. I asked Jill if I could share our email correspondence. She was surprised that I thought she could be of help to someone else, but agreed graciously.  I will post her “Before” pictures soon. Jill has promised to show us her “After” pictures when she gets more work done. I think she has come a very long way already!

Hello Martha:

I have enjoyed reading your 60 tips.  Nice to know that I am on the right track and not as bad as I thought!!!

I have my own business as a graphic designer/marketer/printier and I am a paper hoarder.  I save samples of my work, sayings, books, reference materials, magazines, business journals, catalogs, postcards, etc. I have the thought of “just in case”

In my office, I have 5 file cabinets with 15 drawers, book shelves, cabinets, etc.  with these items stored.  I even have the paper piles on the floor in my office which I can’t seem to get through and is driving me crazy….I know it is a bit of OCD. …but I am trying to plow through.

Here is my Serious question:  How do you deal with samples, catalogs, etc.?  I have had them on file for their information and use as photos of an item, like a magnet, shirt, signage, etc.  Do I input all of the info about the catalog/company in a database and pitch the catalogs?  Keep them?  ETC?  I was just trying to make room in my files for other info and to reduce the weight on my floor!

Help!  I could really use your advice.  Thank you so much.


Hi Jill!

I am so glad you found the report helpful.  Yay! You have systems in place already!

It sounds like you have a filing system for your work-related papers. Before I answer your question of  “How do you deal with samples, catalogs, etc?” I want to get a little clarification:

  1. How often do you use what is in the files in your present projects?
  2. Are you able to find what you need when you go to look for it?
  3. Do you replace the old catalogs with the latest version when it comes?

In principle, you probably use only 20% of what you have.  The only trick will be to figure out what that percentage represents in your mix.

I may be able to get some hints from your answers to the questions.

You are brave to ask the questions, Jill.  Kudos!

Martha Clouse
Professional Organizer and Speaker

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