Mystery Piles & Action Files
Have you ever heard the organizing rule, “Touch each piece of paper only once”? (a.k.a. OHIO — Only Handle it Once) Well, it’s a myth. But the kernel of truth inside the myth is this: If you sift through a pile of mail, or other type of papers, and if you don’t decide the first time you touch it what ACTION needs to take place NEXT, you will just have to sift through the pile all over again later.
Pretty soon you will end up with what I call a mystery pile. It keeps growing, and who knows what’s in there?
So, what is the easiest way to vanquish mystery piles — and the missed deadlines and opportunities they usually represent? By using an action file!
Use an action file to vanquish your mystery piles of paper!
How to create an action file:
- Get yourself a vertical table-top file. It’s only 6” deep, holds letter-sized hanging files, and has no lid. Keep in mind that these files are for temporary use, not for permanent storage. If you get a bigger one you will be tempted to store things in there that really need to be tossed or filed. You will need 5-7 files. Label the files with ACTION words such as PAY, CALL, FILE and WAIT. Your personal categories will become clear as you sort your own mail. Use action words (verbs) that are meaningful to you. If you have a spouse or roommate, you might want one that says ASK SO-AND-SO.
- Sort your mail as soon as you bring it into the house. It will only take a minute, really! Keep your action file in a very prominent place, so that it will be easier to use than it is to not use. (Hint: Where does your mail tend to pile up now?) Don’t give in to your temptation to use a file box with a lid. You will get tired of opening and closing it, trust me! Toss junk mail directly into the trash or recycle bin, which should be located within arm’s reach of your action file if possible. Shred credit card offers and other unwanted mail with sensitive information on it.
- What goes in which folder? Unpaid bills go into the PAY folder, unless you have a question about one of them, in which case it goes into the CALL folder. Later, when it is time to actually pay the bills you have accumulated, you can remove the entire PAY folder, take it to your bill-paying spot, and pay them all at once. Invitations requiring RSVPs would first go into the CALL folder. Then, once you have called to RSVP — and have entered the event on your calendar — you can toss the paper, or keep it in the WAIT (or “PENDING”) file for the directions or other info you will need when the time comes. Another example of WAIT would be a rebate you have applied for and are waiting for the check to arrive. Or maybe you are playing phone tag with someone and the ball’s in their court. Nothing should go into WAIT until after you have entered a follow-up date on your calendar. Statements, paid bills, project ideas, etc. go into the FILE folder. I have a READ AND CONSIDER file for things that require a decision. (If there’s a deadline for deciding I write it boldly on the paper.)
- This is the time for sorting, not doing. You may have dinner on the stove, or perhaps you’re sorting your mail at midnight, or another inappropriate time for making calls. That’s OK. You don’t need to worry about when things will get done if you have scheduled a regular time to pay bills, make calls, do your filing, etc. And now you will know exactly where the papers are that you need when that time comes.
- Maintain your system. Schedule time to DO the actions, including FILE. How often you file depends on how fast your FILE folder fills up. Maybe weekly, maybe monthly. Don’t let the file folders get so full that you can’t put papers in and take them out easily.
Now you can enjoy your clutter-free counter, and the peace of mind that comes from having a system that works!
Do you have mystery piles? Do you think you could use an action file?
Or, do you have another method that works for you?
Reprinted with permission by Hazel Thornton, 2011, Organized for Life.