Essential Systems to Make Life Easier

Once again real life has intruded to change this month’s intended newsletter topic to something that I hope will be of greater use. In talking with someone from one of the workshops, I realized that his situation was such that no matter how much work he did to get control of clutter, that no matter how much work he did, being organized was impossible for him because there were no systems in place to make being organized possible. So, what are the essential systems that everyone needs to be organized and functional? And what the heck is a system anyway?

A system is simply an organized routine for handling any kind of repetitive task. We don’t really want to spend time re-inventing the wheel every time we need to carry out recurring tasks. No one wants to spend a lot of time thinking about how to process mail or wash the dishes. Our systems should ensure that the task is done so we don’t have to live in chaos, but allow us to think about better things than to worry about how to do it each time. The secret is to spend at least one time really thinking it through, with all the pointers I’m going to provide, and then use the resulting knowledge to create a system that will streamline the activity every time you do the task. Each system described below will be covered mostly in outline form as a comprehensive treatment would be the subject (and possibly will be) of its own newsletter or even workshop.

One basic piece of information about all systems: every task that is currently difficult is giving you valuable information: it is telling you that something is not streamlined, has not been reduced to its simplest, most basic function. This means that if you think about a bit, you can probably find a simpler, more straight-forward, easier, cheaper, and/or less-time-consuming way of getting it done.

1. Mail and packages need to be dealt with as soon as they arrive.
2. Divide into two categories, junk (toss) and act (read, or perform some task: respond, deposit, pay, etc.).
3. Post ALL action items on your to-do list on the date you intend to do them (not necessarily today); events are posted on your calendar.
4. Put documents relating to tasks in appropriate containers, such as a tray for financial transactions, another tray for correspondence, or a file where they are saved until needed (such as tax documents).
5. Packages are openly carefully and items checked for number and quality; if not as desired, they go right back into the package they arrived in and moved to the outgoing mail location.
6. Outgoing items such as mail and packages need a spot near your front door where they live until it is time to drop them off.

Everyone needs some form of portable calendar on which events, appointments, and tasks can be posted to ensure that they are remembered. Leaving things in piles does not work for remembering tasks. Many electronic devices have calendar and information tracking systems, are lightweight and comprehensive, but are pain to type on. Ease of entering and tracking tasks is very important. Rather than invest time and energy in something that isn’t easy, it’s better to figure out a system that will be. (Like entering data on your computer then syncing it to your PDA.) Paper systems are cheaper, easier to use, and perhaps more adaptable.

Upfront notice: ALL to-do systems require an initial investment of time and learning to use them well. The learning curve is probably steeper for the electronic devices but use whatever has greatest appeal and you are most willing to spend time with. The best to-do system will let you list your tasks for the day in the same area as your appointments.

All tasks need to be ranked by importance. You can use an A-B-C, 1-2-3, or color-coded system, but you need some method of differentiating between more and less important tasks. Whatever approach you use, do the most important tasks first.

Part of managing to-do’s is keeping track of information that makes doing your tasks possible. You need an organized system for storing names, addresses, and phone numbers (email systems take care of themselves). The best way to track this information is to keep it with your system for tracking your to-do tasks, i.e., in your daily planner or organizer. Backups for this repository of important information are always good.

The simplest way to think about finances is incoming and outgoing. To manage incoming, you need a tray, bin, or similar system for ensuring that bills, checkbooks, receipts and other items are saved where they can be easily accessed.

You also need a schedule that says something like ‘every Monday evening I pay bills, file receipts and other documents for my taxes, update my budget, and do any other finance-related tasks.’ The time slot you choose doesn’t matter. What matters is having and keeping this appointment with yourself to be responsible about this important area. You may think that managing money is the most boring task in the world and you have better things to do. But managing money is the key to living with more comfort and less distress. You can’t really avoid this subject; you can only avoid the opportunity to deal with it constructively. If you feel that you don’t have the skills to handle your finances well, make part of that appointment-with-yourself time learning what you need to know to do it well. There are lots of Internet sites for developing these skills.

To handle outgoing items, such as deposits, keep a deposit envelope in your checkbook and put all checks in it as soon as they come in. The next time you are running errands in the direction of your bank, take it with you and drop it off, or mail it in with suitable safety precautions (for-deposit-only-to-the-account of __ endorsements, your customized deposit slip, and any other measures you deem worthwhile). Outgoing bills just get put with the rest of outgoing mail. Setting up automatic payments for recurring bills such as rent or mortgage, PG&E or telephone makes life a little easier.

The first principle of organizing is to group like things together. This means that all cleaning supplies, all tools, all photos, all books, all clothes, all kitchen items, etc., need to be kept with each other. Once everything is grouped, seeing how to organize them within their group will be a lot easier.

The second principle is to group things by function. This means that everything pertaining to cooking or food goes in the kitchen, everything relating to your computer lives by your computer, everything used for sewing goes near your sewing area, instruction manuals for complex equipment should live near the equipment, and so on for everything you own. Not only does every item need a home, but every regular or frequent task or activity does also. If you don’t already have a home for items, such as a filing cabinet for papers, you don’t stand much chance of being organized until you get or make an appropriate place for them to live. The more items of a type that are lying around unorganized, the more important it is for your peace of mind to find them a home.

The third principle is keep only what you really need and use. If you don’t use it, you probably don’t need it. If you don’t need it, keeping it only drags down any chance of organization and harmony. It’s just too much work trying to organize huge amounts of belongings. Keep it simple.

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