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Yesterday I sat down to start my taxes, and quickly realized I didn’t have everything I needed. In theory, all the documents I need to do my taxes should be in a folder labeled “tax documents” which is always easily accessible. The idea is that throughout the year, I put anything in there that I will need at tax time – property tax bills, donation receipts, dmv renewals and so on. Except, you know, somewhere around the middle of the year, the system breaks down. Largely this is because the system is dependent on me.

In the past I made my system too complicated and therefore too hard to keep up. But I’ve made a concerted effort to simplify and these days I can’t really justify my failures. I’ve done a lot to reduce the amount of paper that comes into my house. I get electronic statements whenever possible, I pay every bill online that gives me the option. I’ve requested that all the companies I interact with contact me by email. This year I finally got around to removing my name from direct mail and prescreened credit offer lists. Most recently, I finally removed myself from the mailing list for all but two catalogs that I receive. This is the only task that caused me some pain, because I like looking at catalogs. However, I really don’t use them for shopping and I just can’t justify the waste. I let myself keep two (Crate & Barrel and West Elm) so that I don’t feel totally deprived. You can always make phone calls to stop these things, but if you’re like me and hate talking on the phone, the opt-out websites are useful. Having to deal with stuff over the phone is one of my primary motivations to procrastinate. Anyway, it feels really good to reduce the mountains of paper that were coming into my home, but what I find now is that the exceptions to the rule no longer work with my system – they interrupt my streamlined, mostly online workflow.

The upshot of this is that I had piles of miscellaneous papers to go through yesterday to find the missing tax items I needed. To make it worse, I neglected to finish my annual file clean-up last year, so I had some of last year’s stuff to deal with, too. Every year when I do my taxes I go through the files and shred everything I no longer need. It’s another good way to keep paper clutter under control, if you actually do it. Somehow I got distracted before finishing last year and must have forgotten to go back to it, so my shredder overheated a couple of times yesterday and my recycling trash can is almost full. Shredded paper takes up A LOT more space than than unshredded paper.

But, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I’ve figured out a new, not-too-complicated plan for dealing with the remaining paper that comes in, so my hope is that next year when I start my taxes I won’t be dealing with this mess.

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I decided that I’m going to try to post a daily recommendation – might be a book, movie, website, song, whatever. I’m considering this a target and not a moral obligation, so there will inevitably be days missed, but I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the new stuff I come across along with some older favorites and thereby resist the temptation to post about what I ate for lunch just because I can’t think of anything else to say. So, with no further ado:

It’s All Too MuchAlthough I don’t make resolutions, this book seems like a good fit for the beginning of a new year. It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh is a handbook for clearing out the clutter in your home and organizing what’s left. There are lots of practical tips and how-tos, but what I really liked about this book was Walsh’s emphasis on how clutter and the proliferation of stuff affects your quality of life. The entire book is informed by the idea of living the life you want to live instead of being controlled or overwhelmed by stuff you possess (or stuff that possesses you).

Eric and I have both had the past few days off, so in addition to plenty of relaxing we’ve been clearing out some of the accumulated clutter that has built up since we moved into our house 10 years ago. We have a garage, an attic and a basement, so there are lots of places to stick stuff and forget all about it.

Now, I THOUGHT that I had done a pretty good job of sorting through all my personal memorabilia and getting that down to a box or two, so I’ve been mainly concerned with clearing out the crap that has no sentimental value and just piles up because we don’t know what to do with it. But yesterday we found a couple of boxes that I didn’t even know we still had, which turned out to be filled primarily with memorabilia from my high school and college years. I found a couple of things that I thought had been lost (a scrapbook made for me by my first college roommate; autographs from Tori Amos and Mary’s Danish), but also tucked in there were some relics from the days when my organization system consisted of “I don’t want to deal with this now – throw it in the box and I’ll figure it out later.” In this case, about 14 or 15 years later…

Poison This is an unopened box (still wrapped in plastic) of Poison perfume, which I wore through high school and college. It was the only time of my life when I had a “signature scent,” and I have to say that was not a good thing as I wore way too much and somehow failed to pick up on the not-so-subtle hints from friends that I might want to tone it down a bit. Anyway, I basically OD’d on the stuff in college, so I haven’t worn it since. This box still has a Nordstrom price tag on it ($45, in case you were wondering), so Eric thinks I should put Nordstrom’s famous policy to the test and try to return it!

floppy disks Wow, I’m so glad I saved these 5 1/4″ floppy disks. You just never know when you might need…yeah, this one is just embarrassing. I have absolutely NO idea what’s on these disks or why I thought I needed to save them. The labels mean nothing to me. But they have been taking up a little cube of space in my attic all these years. Oy.

thank you cards Okay, this is just plain hilarious. These are thank you cards that I wrote for college graduation gifts and never sent (I graduated from UCSB in 1993 – do you think it’s too late to drop these in the mail?). I actually wrote the cards, and some of them were addressed, so it’s hard to figure out why they didn’t get mailed. My excuse is that I left for Texas the day after graduation to do the Shakespeare at Winedale program through UT Austin. We were living on a farm and had little contact with the outside world, and I just never made it to the post office to buy stamps. I found these cards in an accordion file with a bunch of other similarly significant paperwork – 15-year-old utility and credit card bills, graduation cards, stacks of flyers for a play I was in. Yeesh.

Okay, well, now that I’ve started the New Year off by embarrassing myself thoroughly, it can only get better, right? Have a laugh at my expense and feel better about yourself. Happy New Year from me to you!

Today I put away all the Christmas stuff. A few years ago I got my act together, got rid of a bunch of holiday crap that I was storing and not using, and organized the rest. Now every year around Christmas I think to myself “I wish the rest of my life was as well-organized as my Christmas stuff.” It used to take me all day to take everything off the tree and put it all away. This morning I woke up, read the paper, had breakfast, went for a nice long walk in my neighborhood, then started taking down the decorations and putting them away. By lunchtime I was done.

Christmas boxesMy system is pretty simple. Everything is stored in clearly marked boxes, which go in the attic during the off-season. I mark all 4 sides of each box, so I don’t have to worry about which way they get stored. I try to store stuff that gets used at the same time in the same box, e.g. all the stuff that goes on the tree before the ornaments is in one box (lights, ribbon, garland, tree topper). The ornaments are together in 2 boxes. I have one box with the other decorations that go out every year (advent calendar, clothespin garland that I hang Christmas cards from, wreath). I have one box that never came down from the attic this year because we sold our piano which was our mantel-substitute. I knew I didn’t have a place for the items that used to go on the piano, and they were all in one box, so that was one box fewer to pull down from the attic.

Although I am a total sucker for organizational tools – special bins, boxes, folders, etc. – I have to confess that I’ve never really found them to make much of a difference, with the exception of the Christmas stuff. Christmas lightsI use a box with cardboard inserts to wrap the lights around. It works great! The lights are never tangled and are easy to put up and take down. Since I only use 3 strands of lights I took out the extra cardboard inserts and use the rest of the box for garland, etc. I also use special ornament boxes with dividers to keep my ornaments separated and safe. This year I had too many ornaments to fit on my tree. The ones that didn’t make the cut are stored in a separate box. These are ornaments I still like, but if they don’t make the cut again next year they’ll be given away, and it’ll be easy to do because they’re already separated and marked. Simple!

In the grand scheme of things, the Christmas stuff might not be very important, but it gives me hope that I might someday achieve this level of organization in the other areas of my life and home, and that would just be so awesome!

I am not a fan of resolutions. I like to take the end of the year and the beginning of the next one as a time to evaluate and so on, but resolutions just seem like a set-up for failure so I avoid them. In fact, I studiously avoid starting anything new (exercise routines, organizing systems, what have you) on January 1st, even if it’s something I really want to do. I either start before January or later in the month just to avoid the psychological association with resolutions and failure. (I don’t know how much good that actually does, but…).

Having said that, I was totally inspired by Merlin Mann’s posts on clutter and feel like using the New Year to get control of this area of my life. Merlin posted links yesterday to a good Ask Metafilter discussion on literary clutter (Librarians, take note!) and his series on his own “War on Clutter.” The one that really kicked my butt: Never “organize” what you can discard – oh my gosh, how many dollars I have wasted at the Container Store doing exactly that!