Using technology to organize your life

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
– Charles A. Goodrich

“Your home is a garbage processing center where new things are purchased and slowly demoted through various stages of trashification until you’re done.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

Organization. I don’t know about you, but every time I hear that word in the context of getting organized, I get a small knot in my gut because I know that I lean more towards Seinfeld’s ideal and further from Goodrich’s.

Organization in my life can best be described as various stacks of paper that are grouped by season. I can literally step back into time and view myself as Winter 2006 or Fall 1997.

I’ve taken some small steps toward getting my life organized and clearing out the clutter. It should come as no surprise (since I’m talking about it here) that technology is doing a lot of the heavy lifting –figuratively and literally.

One of the biggest problems I face is the influx of snail-mail. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard – you know how it is, let the mail pile up for a couple of days and before you know it, Mount Mackay has sprung up where your inbox used to be. And then, for me anyway, that pile moves into a mountain range of existing piles while the foundation for a new pile begins.

I’ve found that the easiest way to deal with incoming correspondence is to apply a method I like to call, “scan and shred.” I scan my mail into my computer and shred the original. It’s quick, painless and simple.

Actually, it is a little more involved than that, but not too much, and you can do it, too.

In order to apply my “scan and shred” method, you will need four things: a document scanner, a Dropbox account (www.dropbox.com), a paper shredder or trashcan and about 5-10 minutes each day, depending on the amount of incoming correspondence you have.

There is a multitude of choices out there for document scanners, and you don’t necessarily need a “document” scanner to do this, a flatbed scanner works just as well; I just find that a true document scanner is a more efficient way of scanning loose-leaf documents. I chose the Neat Desktop Scanner (www.neat.com) because it handles the most popular document sizes and it has a small desktop footprint (remember, we are trying to get rid of clutter).

The first step is to create three folders in your Dropbox account: Inbox, Now and Outbox. Then create shortcuts of each folder and place them on your computer’s desktop. I keep the folders in the Dropbox account so that I will always have access to the contents no matter where I am and, as an added bonus, it is a convenient backup system.

At the end of each day (or every other day), I take my incoming mail and scan each item I need/want to save into my system as a PDF and give it an easily identifiable name, like the account name, number and date. I then save it to the Inbox shortcut on my desktop and shred the original.

I like to use PDF because I can easily add notes to scanned items like marking bills paid, or conversations I may have had with the individual or company I am corresponding with. Plus with a PDF, it is easy to share the document with other people or applications. This comes in super-handy if you use Quickbooks or Quicken because you can add attachments for line items in your register.

I should also point out that this system works great if you are already receiving digital copies of statements or bills – just download them into the Inbox to integrate them into the workflow.

At the end of the week, I go into my Inbox and move everything that I want to work with or organize better into the Now folder. At this point in the game, I’m most likely paying bills or updating a financial transaction in another application; it is my “working space.”

Once I’m satisfied that I’ve taken the appropriate action for each item in the Now folder, I move them to the Outbox folder. They still aren’t organized properly, but now I can rest assured that the things that needed my attention got it and are now closer to being in their proper place. Goodrich would be so proud!

From the Outbox, things can get a bit more complex depending on how you choose to organize. I use a nested directory of folders that I begin moving items into. On the first level, I use broad, high-level categories, i.e., Bills, Banking, Receipts, Tax Documents, etc.

As I move down through each of the high-level categories, I begin to segregate items by vendors, accounts, years and months. Like I said, it can get a bit more complex at this level, but I have found that the more segregated you can make it, the easier it is to retrieve items at a later date (I find this incredibly useful for the overly-complicated billing methods utilized by the medical industry).

As an added bit of precaution and usability, every time I update the nested directory, I copy it to my Dropbox account. That way I will have access to all my documents wherever I might be. I’ve also found it to be a great resource at tax time. I can only count to 10 on my fingers, so when my accountant asks me for IRS Form 1024, or 378, or blah, blah, blah 22, instead of drawing a complete blank, I can just share the appropriate folders with her and she can quickly and easily find what she needs. Easy peasy, mac and cheese-y.

When it is all said and done, my clutter is gone, my incoming correspondence is in its place and I can easily retrieve any item I need, at anytime, anywhere. As an added bonus, I can now eat at the kitchen table without the fear of the gravy bowl becoming a victim to an envelope landslide.

Michael D. Wailes is an Interactive Developer at Burns Marketing Communications in Johnstown. If you have questions or would like to suggest a topic for a future Geek Chic column, email him at news@ncbr.com.

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