Posts Tagged ‘paper management’

Making It A Priority

If you haven't already created an “emergency reference file” for your family, move this to the top of your to-do list (right up there with creating a household inventory and ensuring that your will is updated!) This is one of those “worry about it now so you won't have to worry later” type projects — you probably won't access this file often, but you'll be glad to have it when you need it.

So what do you put in an “emergency file?” Your emergency file should contain all of the most important information about your life — your finances, legal obligations, insurance coverage, health history, and personal data. Anything and everything you might need to access during a crisis.  But you only want to include only the essentials — like a distilled-down version of your filing cabinet, without the clutter! The organizational system you use is up to you (a binder with divider tabs for each section, an accordion file, or a file box with a lid and a handle) — just as long as it's portable. And be sure to keep your emergency file stored within easy reach — you need to be able to “grab and go” if something unexpected happens.

Calling In The Red Cross

When a disaster strikes, the first people on the scene are usually the Red Cross — bringing in supplies, providing aid, and helping people to put their lives back in order. Think of your emergency file as your own personal Red Cross volunteer, there to help you regain control during chaotic and difficult times. However, for this volunteer to be of any use to you, you must provide him or her with the right tools and information up front. So let's get down to brass tacks — a discussion of the actual documents that should be kept in your emergency file. Think about the paperwork you would want on hand during a serious emergency or when trying to recover after a disaster. What kind of information would the police and hospital, insurance agents and mortgage company, banks and financial institutions ask you for? Your goal is to bring these items together into one organizational system:

1)  Vital Records

  • copies of birth certificates and adoption records for each family member
  • copies of marriage licenses, drivers licenses, and passports for each
  • copies of all property and auto records — deeds, leases, titles, etc.
  • copies of all property and umbrella insurance policies
  • document locator (tells where originals and off-site paperwork are stored)

2)  Financial Information

  • list of all bank account numbers
  • copies of the front and back of each credit card
  • list of all investment account numbers
  • list of all retirement and pension account numbers
  • detailed information about any current income and benefits
  • detailed information about any outstanding mortgages/loans

3)  Medical Information

  • copies of health/life/disability insurance cards and policies
  • medical history for each family member
  • list of medications and prescriptions, including dose and pharmacy
  • details about any ongoing medical conditions and treatments

4)  Contacts

  • friends and family to reach in case of emergency
  • neighbors who have access to your house
  • financial institutions, insurance companies, and legal advisers
  • physicians, specialists, hospitals, and other healthcare providers
  • employers and benefits administrators

Remember that most of these documents will be copies — original deeds, birth certificates, insurance policies, etc. should be stored in a fire safe or safe deposit box, as a back up.  And be sure to let the important people in your life like family, close friends, and professional advisers (those who might need to access the information in your file if something happened to you) know where it is stored and what it contains. Just a little bit of preparation can make a huge difference in case of emergency.

Fire, Flood, Or Tornado

I first started thinking about the value of protecting important records when my sister's neighborhood was hit with an F5 tornado. The houses I had grown up around were decimated — in some places, there was nothing left but the foundation. Fortunately, there were very few casualties, but think about how difficult it would be to rebuild your life without the right paperwork. How long would it take you to file a claim with your insurance company, if you didn't know your policy number? What financial challenges would you face if your checks, bank statements, and credit card info was destroyed? How could you get the help you needed without birth certificates, social security cards, and other personal information?

The goal here is not to be pessimistic, but prepared. You should keep a list of all your important numbers (bank account, credit card, insurance policies, social security) and contacts (advisers, account managers, customer service) for any information that you would need if disaster struck. You should also consider storing the originals of your vital records (birth certificates, wills, insurance policies) and your list someplace safe. That means a deposit box at the bank, a locked drawer at your place of employment, your mother's house, or a fire safe in your closet — then keep copies in your everyday files for quick reference. It's also a good idea to leave copies of this information with your attorney and CPA — the two professionals who will be most involved with your situation if you do face a major emergency.

If You Have To File A Claim

Another important piece of paperwork to consider during an emergency is your household inventory. If your personal possessions are damaged or destroyed, the insurance company isn't just going to write you a check for the amount printed on your policy (so don't try to claim a million dollars in coverage for $250,000 worth of stuff!) You will be asked to itemize everything that you lost and estimate its value. If you had to, right now, could you make a list of all your belongings and how much they are worth? Probably not. And it would be even more difficult during a time of crisis when you are stressed out and not thinking straight. So the key is to get things in order before you are put into that situation.

You have several different options for creating a household inventory. The easiest technique to walk around your house with a camcorder, filming everything that you own. Where you can,  go ahead and make comments about your belongings as you shoot — “We bought that TV last year and it cost $600,” or “Grandma Miller gave us that table; it was made in 1865.” If you don't have a video camera, just take still snapshots of each item. Don't forget to estimate the year of purchase and the value of each piece. If you have the receipt, make a copy and clip it to your list. If an item is particularly costly or hard to replace (like artwork or an antique), you may wish to have an certified appraisal done and include that documentation with your list. Your household inventory should be stored with your other important papers, but don't just stick it away and forget about it like you would a marriage license or deed to the house. You need to plan a time each year to update your list — adding on any new items you have acquired since the last inventory.

Making It Easy On Your Heirs

No one likes to think about death, but it is a fact of life. Grief is hard enough to handle, without having to deal with confusion over the deceased's paperwork and final wishes. You can make things easier on your loved ones by getting your affairs in order now. Start by creating a document locator — a list outlining exactly where all of your important papers are stored. If you've got them in a box at the bank, you may want to rethink that strategy — safe deposit boxes are often sealed at the time of death, so keep your funeral arrangements and wills someplace more accessible. And don't forget paperwork that is kept in off-site storage. Your family will need to know the location of the following records:

  • legal (wills, powers of attorney, trust documents, special bequests, safe combination)
  • family (birth/adoption/guardian, social security, citizenship, marriage/divorce, military)
  • banking (trusts, loans, list of accounts, statements/canceled checks, check/passbooks)
  • investments (CD, securities, stock/bond/mutual fund, retirement plan, IRA, annuities)
  • business (incorporation papers, contracts/agreements, computer back-up)
  • deeds/titles/registrations (title insurance, property, home inventory, vehicles)
  • insurance (life, other death benefits, property and casualty, health, homeowners, auto)
  • funeral instructions (burial instructions, cemetery plot deeds)
  • contacts (friends/relatives/business, attorney, CPA, insurance, broker, executor)

Indicate the precise location of each — in a bankers box labeled “vital documents” in the attic at your house, in the third drawer of the big file cabinet in the corner of your office, in a safe deposit box at such-and-such bank (and where to find the key), with your attorney, accountant, or brokerage house. Be sure to include the address, directions, and any other important contact information.

Memories Count As Vital Records Too

Everything we've talked about so far related to legal or financial records. But what about your memorabilia? It's just as devastating (if not more so) to lose years worth of photographs and love letters as it is to have your important files destroyed. But you can take some preventative measures to protect your beloved memories, as well. If you are computer savvy, think about scanning your photos and storing them on a CD-Rom or external hard drive (which should live in your fire safe or bank deposit box). If you don't have access to that kind of technology, at least store your negatives (clearly labeled and organized chronologically or categorically) in a safe location, so you can have your photos reprinted if you need to.

You can also do the same thing with physical objects that have sentimental value. Take photos of your most beloved possessions and stash them all away in your fire safe.  If you have a lot of “treasures” that need protecting, you might even consider getting a unit big enough to hold your most important memorabilia. I purchased a fire safe that looks like a 2-drawer file cabinet — the top drawer holds my photo albums and “keepsakes,” the bottom drawer is for important paperwork. Just remember that photos and negatives are more sensitive to heat than paper — you will want a different grade of “fire proof” for these items to keep them from melting.

Facing a personal crisis is stressful enough, without the headaches of dealing with lost paperwork and missing information. But by taking a proactive stance, and a few preventative measures, you can save yourself and your loved ones a great deal of pain — make the recovery process a lot quicker and easier.

Creating File Categories

What causes the downfall of a filing system? Chances are, it wasn't much of a “system” to begin with. More likely, it was just a random assortment of individual files that really had no connection to each other (aside from the fact that they lived in the same drawer.) To create a truly effective filing system, you need to start with a plan. Simply slapping a label on a folder won't cut it!

Look at your current filing system (or that pile of paper that you've been meaning to file for months) and start sorting your documents into broad categories. “Finances” might be one, “Utilities” could be another — at work, you might be looking at “Marketing” or “Client Files.” At this point, we're not focusing on detail — quite frankly, I don't care if it's a credit card bill or a bank statement right now. We'll worry about those distinctions later on.

Once you've complete that step, pick one of your “major category” piles (any pile) and let's sort through it again. This time, I want you to think about breaking your paper smaller subcategories. For example, your “Finances” stack could be divided into “Savings Account,” “Checking Account,” “Student Loan,” “Visa,” etc. This time, you want to be as specific as possible. Don't tell me that they are “bank statements” — tell me which account they belong to and break each out into a separate pile. We don't want any files “bunking” with other files — everyone gets his or her own separate folder.

The trick to developing a workable reference file is choosingcategories that make it easy to a) know where to put a piece of paperand b) know where to find it again. The problem is that most peoplefocus entirely on the “where to put it” side of things — they don'tenvision the day when they will need to retrieve that file. Then, whenthey go hunting for a specific document, their mind is thinkingdifferently than on the day they filed it — so they can't rememberwhat they labeled the folder. As you are deciding on a category for apiece of paper, ask yourself where you would look for that piece ofpaper when you need it again — this will help you create a logicalfile label that makes sense to you both now and down the road


After you've completed the sorting, each major category of paperwork should be assigned a different color (your choice) — and then we're going to put each of its subcategories into an individual hanging file folder. So in the home filing example above, “Finances” might be green, and each of your accounts gets a separate green hanging file folder. Then perhaps “Utilities” are in red, and each different service (“Gas,” “Electric,” “Water,” “Trash,” “Phone,” etc.) is assigned a separate red hanging file. It might seem like a small thing, but color-coding your system will save you a huge amount of time in filing and retrieving papers. Being able to look in your file drawer and see distinct bodies of information broken out by color just makes sense to your brain. And when you know that your financial statements are in green and your utility bills are in red and your car papers are in blue you don't even have to think — your hand just naturally goes to the appropriate section your file drawer.

Now that everyone has their own colored folder, we need to label each file. When creating your labels, move from general to specific. Don't tell me you are filing paperwork for your “Visa Credit Card” — call it “Credit Card: Visa”. When you arrange your folders alphabetically, all of the “Credit Card” files (no matter how many you have) will be together alphabetically in your “Finances” section, rather than scattered hither and yon. Our goal is to keep related files in close proximity to each other. Do this again and again for every grouping of files until you have labeled every file in each major category.

Setting It All Up

All you have to do now is put the files within each major category in alphabetical order, and then put the major categories themselves into the drawer in alphabetical order. Whenever you need to find a document or put something in a folder, just look first for the correct major category (identified by both the labels and the color) — then it's easy to put your hands on the correct file without a lot of searching.

Remember that we're setting up “reference” folders — these files contain documents that don't require immediate action, but that you do need to access regularly. They could be client files, financial records, phone lists, health records, marketing resources, personal hobbies, you name it. But the one thing each piece of paper has in common is that you have to be able to find it quickly on demand. In order to make that happen, here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you set up your system:

  • pick a category that is broad enough to encompass more than just acouple of pieces of paper — it's quicker and easier to search through afew thicker folders whose contents are all related, than a dozendifferent “onesie and twosie” files which have nothing in common witheach other
  • choose one type of filing system and stick with it — it doesn't matter if you file chronologically, alphabetically, or another way — just be consistent and do it the same way, all the time, throughout your entire system
  • when your files get overstuffed, it's time to divide that category out into a couple of smaller subcategories — if your “Client File: Marjory Jones” folder has gotten way too big, you can break it out chronologically (“Client File: Marjory Jones 2009”, “Client File: Marjory Jones 2010”) or topically (“Client File: Marjory Jones Communication”, “Client File: Marjory Jones Contracts”, “Client File: Marjory Jones Expenses”, etc.) so that the documents are still all together, but you have fewer pages per folder

Follow these simple yet effective steps for creating reference files, and you'll discover that your system takes most of the work out of filing (and retrieving) your important documents.

What Is A Fingertip File?

It doesn't matter whether you're a mom trying to keep track of yourkid's classmates, soccer schedule, and PTA activities — or if you'rea corporate executive struggling to stay on top of your company's products, vendors,customers, and staff. You need a good system for organizing commonly-used reference items within arm's reach. That's where the fingertip file comes into play.

A fingertip file is exactly what it sounds like — a place to store papers that you prefer to keep close by. You know the kinds of documents I'm talking about — those bits of information that you need to put your hands on at a moment's notice (possibly even several times a day), and don't want to have to dig through a file drawer to find. This includes phone and contact lists, printed schedules and calendars, directories and rosters, cheat sheets and important memos, pricing, product, and vendor lists, and blank forms you use all the time. The goal is to set up a distinct home for these sorts of “quick reference” items, outside of your main file drawer.

However, let's also be very clear about what a fingertip file is NOT — it's not a dumping ground for homeless papers you don't know what to do with, and it's not meant to store action items or “to-do's.” These kinds of documents will clog up your fingertip files and cause you to misplace important information, overlook deadlines, or stop using the file altogether. It's like The Offspring says, ya gotta keep 'em separated!

Fingertip “Options”

The nice thing about a fingertip file is that it can take any form you choose, depending on how you like to handle your paper. If you prefer to store reference sheets out of sight when you don't need them, consider a “flip” style document organizer. Just get a sturdy pressboard classification folder with fasteners at the top of each divider, and attach your pages (one front and one back). You've created a fingertip file that can go anywhere you do! You can also accomplish the same goal with a ring-binder and a set of clear plastic storage sheets — using divider pages or adhesive tabs to label your documents, and you'll be able to easily access any piece of information in seconds.

What if your fingertip file doesn't contain a collection of loosepages, but a number of larger documents? Simple — set up an expandingfile or set of hanging folders in a file rack, and assign a category toeach section. You can organize your paper by the area of your life itrelates to (ex: school, church, marketing, billing) — or the specific document being stored (ex: order forms, phonelists, memos). And, of course, color-coding and labeling each section takes theguesswork out of locating a specific document. If the fingertip items you need to store are bigger than willfit in a file  (like product catalogs, professional journals, magazines,etc.),  you still have plenty of options. You can either store these in magazine holders that sit upright ona bookshelf (one holder for each title) — or pick up a set of file barcatalog hangers to store your publications spine-up in a file drawer.

If you're one of those people who needs to have things in plain view,consider a bulletin or magnetic board for your most important bits ofinformation. Just be careful to clean out when it gets too crowded –an overloaded board is no more useful to you than a pile on your desk.A good rule of thumb is once you start to overlap items and create asecond layer, it's time to purge. Color-coding your paperwork (ex:price list in green, department directory in yellow, vendor contacts inpink) will also make it easier to locate information quickly.

The trick to creating the perfect fingertip file is paying attention to what documents you use most. For the next few days, every time you touch a reference item, put a small dot or a sticker on the back of the sheet — those items with a large number of marks should be included in your fingertip file. Then all you have to do is choose the system that best matches your work style and the type of paper you are organizing. Easy as pie!

Organizing For Forward Momentum

I often feel that the number one challenge people face with paper is not the quantity (although there is way too much of it about) — it's lack of motion. When you've got a good system for processing, a big pile of to-do's is a piece of cake. But when any amount of paper lands on your desk and just sits there, it's going to create problems. The goal is forward momentum — that's why they call it “work flow,” rather than “work stop!” If you want to keep paper moving through your system (instead of stagnating and clogging up your in-box), you need to “verb” it — that means sorting according to the action required. Start with the nearest pile, ask yourself what you need to do with each item, then create a folder for each answer. You'll probably come up with categories like:

  • “to pay”
  • “to file”
  • “to contact”
  • “to buy”
  • “to read”
  • “to enter in computer”
  • “to reconcile”
  • “to give to _________”

Set these folders up in a file box or rack, placed in plain view. The goal is to break that pile down into just a few action categories — and to give new paper a place to live until you have a chance to tackle it. Each day, take just a minute to go through the incoming to-do's and file accordingly.  Of course, you may have multiple steps to take with each item (like a credit card statement with an error on it — where you need to make a phone call, then pay the bill, then file it.) Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. Just ask yourself, “What is the NEXT step I need to take to clear this item up?” You start by putting it in “to contact,” and you may only have time for that one step today. Not to worry — simply move it to “to pay” and it will be waiting for you on your next round of to-do's (plus, you won't forget where you were in processing that document.)

Rethinking The Way You Do Things

How do you make sure that everything you put into a file comes back out again? Schedule a regular weekly appointment with yourself (maybe an hour or two, once or twice a week) and block off that slot for “admin time”. During admin time, your goal is to go through each folder in order and try to complete every item inside. If you can't complete that item for some reason, put it back in the folder and tackle it during your next admin period. And if you finish one step, but then realize that you have another step to take with that paper, make a note or attach a sticky so there's no confusion later on.

Why would you worry about working through one folder before moving to the next? You will accomplish more in less time when you complete each activity in sequence (paying all of your bills at once, then making all of your calls, then doing all of your filing) — as opposed to bopping back and forth between different tasks. Take a “mass production” tip from Henry Ford — your work will get done faster and easier if you focus on one category at a time. Plus, completing a folder allows that weight to lift from your shoulders — you know that all the bills are paid or all the calls are made, and you can forget about those to-do's until your next admin period. If you follow this system, you will never accumulate more than a week's worth of paper at any time, you have no reason to miss a deadline or get hit with a late fee — and you don't have to continually worry, “When will I get it all done,” because you know that any to-do's will be taken care of during your next regular admin period. Is that genius, or what? Wink