Wednesday 28 October 2009

Big Piles of Paper

Paper is one of the most difficult things to keep organised. I've done two major decluttering jobs in recent months that dealt with this issue; here are some of the processes and ideas arising from them.

After some of those difficult times that many of us go through (you know, that thing called life), paperwork is often the first thing to go out of control. It's small and fiddly, it needs thinking about, and it takes a long while to see any appreciable difference. So it's not surprising that this is the biggest nightmare for many, and neither of these clients was an exception. Despairing of the way that their full and busy lives generated huge amounts of wood-pulp, both found it hard to believe that we would be able to clear the backlog. In both cases, we did it.

First: separate. We pulled all the offending paperwork into one place - away from the bookshelves, away from clothes, away from the rest of the household. In one case, the results filled a small conservatory floor; in the other, it covered a long kitchen worksurface, around twenty feet in length. Now we were ready to divide.

First, we got out the stationary (since when did a box of CDs or a ream of photocopy paper belong in your "things to do" pile?) and relegated it all to a cupboard close to the main working area. Similarly, we found a large amount of reference (no, a map of the local area is not work, and nor is the menu for the curry house; you need to find it only when you refer to it, like a dictionary or the Yellow Pages). Oh, and whilst we were at it, removing letters from the envelopes they came in reduced the size of those piles by at least 50%...

Once these two categories were defined and dealt with, we were left with Keep (action, file, archive) and Throw (we all like that bit!).

How do you decide when to junk? Quite simply ask yourself: if you lost it, or it was destroyed, by mistake - would you care (or, to quote Katherine Tate, "are you bovvered")? Would it cause you either substantial inconvenience or emotional distress? If the answer's a resounding No, then you know how to treat it. Moreover, if the offending paperwork in question hasn't been seen for several years until you began this procedure, it's a pretty safe bet you can cope without it now. In both cases, as we worked through, the Junk pile exceeded the size of the Keep pile by at least double the amount, and sometimes more.

Now it's on to the Keeping pile, and the first of those is archive. This is the stuff that you absolutely don't need every day, nor even every week or month, but perhaps might need to refer to a couple of times a year. This category will include memorabilia (old theatre programmes, sentimental greetings cards) and boring-but-necessary (business records for the last seven years, tax returns). In this case, you need to be able to get at them easily if they are needed - no good just shoving them into an attic space is so full that you haven't a hope of getting at them - but out of the way of your everyday life. In one case, the client was lucky enough to have a basement room with enough space for simple shelving, and in the other, a filing cabinet in the garage; other possibilities might be an under-eaves space, or an [accessible] attic-space.

Well, we separated, junked and archived for all we were worth; and as we went along, we found and isolated our final two piles: Action and Filing.

The Filing, of course, is what most people dread; but once the Junk is out of the way, it's surprising how much sense the Filing started to make. There will be stuff relating to the house ; to the computer; to leisure activities; to bank and finance, pets, children - all depending on the shape of your own life. Separate, Separate, Separate. Put into ring binders or lever arch files (this works best for items with a chronological order, such as bank statements) or drop files (best for small collections that don't need an order, such as paperwork relating to the pets).

The Action pile was (and usually is, in my experience) remarkably small, compared with what we'd gone through: it fitted into two small piles (housed in magazine files, or you could use normal in-trays): Do It Now and Do It Later. (The Do It Later file, by the way, should never become a dumping ground; it needs to be gone through at least once or twice a week and reallocated a place. If it's still there a month later, question whether it will ever need doing at all!)

Both these jobs were hard work, and I won't pretend otherwise. In each case, they took round about three days' concentrated effort - and they weren't short days, either. However, we were dealing in both cases with the accumulated paper that had built up over very nearly a decade, so the fact that we managed to deal with it at a rate of roughly 3 hours per year of paperwork wasn't bad. It's like weight gain: if you've been putting it on for the last year, you're not going to lose it all in a week. (I speak from experience.)

Both clients were thrilled with the results; one has since been in touch, first to ask me if I could remember where we had filed her recent bank statements - and then, a few minutes later, to say that of course I wouldn't know, as the statements she wanted had been issued since my visit! - and it was only the establishment of the filing system that meant she knew they were missing at all...

Approach to learning

My resolution is not to moan I don't understand something, or passively wonder what it's all about, but to find an expert and get informed.

We could all learn from this! Thanks to Judy Heminsley.

One room - dual purpose

A delightful farmhouse in rural Norfolk. A lovely family - mum, dad and young daughter.

Mum & dad (she works for herself, he is a farmer) attempting to share a study space next to the kitchen. Let's just say that neither is naturally the tidiest person in the world, and as the room is internal (no natural light), it was a depressing place to spend time in, to say the least.

We needed a separate space for mum. (Dad can keep the downstairs room, and ask me if he needs help with it!) Two guest bedrooms dedicated to that purpose. One is frequently used; the other only occasionally for "big events" (Christmas etc.). For the rest of the year, it was a double bed, other abandoned furniture, and a dumping-ground. Not a large room, but big enough; lots of natural light, and beautiful views over the fields.

So the bed found a home with a friend. The rest of the furniture was used elsewhere in the house. The clutter (of which there wasn't actually very much) was cleared to more appropriate places. Empty space and off we go.

Two very nice bookshelves were already available in the downstairs study, so these were purloined for mum's new room. The same range was happily still available from John Lewis, so the new desk, over-desk shelving and filing unit were purchased to match. We spent a happy session assembling it all - with the help of one of the family Norfolk terriers, who decided that the new filing drawer was clearly provided for him to sleep in - and, hey presto: a beautiful study.

Those extra guests were accommodated with a futon, which for most of the year is folded up as a settee, for reading or gazing at the lovely view.

Finally, we extracted every item from downstairs that belonged to mum, and carefully created the filing system in the new office. De-junking as we went, we ended up with files labelled in a way that made sense to the user - so much so that I received a joyful phone call when dad needed the car registration document, and was totally dumbfounded when mum was, over the phone, able to direct him immediately to its precise location. Result!

NB: All this happened in 2006. Three years down the line, it's still a working haven, and the filing still gets done!

One bookshelf = three clear rooms

A lovely family home in South London. Victorian era, meaning high ceilings. Three rooms: living room, dining room and kitchen, connecting one into the next. A brand new kitchen, with a half-wall dividing the cooking part from a separate space.

The new kitchen looked fantastic, and also provided a bar-stool-eating-space. The separate space, however, looked wasted, with a small dining table and scattered toys belonging to the toddler of the house.

The dining room simply wasn't used. Too much furniture, including a large sideboard, took up so much space that it wasn't possible to sit and eat in comfort. So the table had become a dumping ground for "I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-that". And that sideboard was full of CDs, DVDs, videos - which of course, were never used, as the equipment they were played on was in the sitting room.

The sitting room had two recesses, one each side of the fireplace. One was used, logically, for the tv, audio equipment and the like; but the other contained a table. Just one surface. No shelves, no drawers. And masses of wasted space above and below that one shelf.

So we started with a bookshelf. Good old IKEA (so easily accessible during my days in London, less so in Norfolk!) and a sturdy, flexible, nice-looking dark brown Billy bookcase. OK, so we bought one more item: the matching CD tower, which fitted perfectly in the last few inches of width in that wasted recess.

The scattered books went in there. The ornaments and picture frames went in there. More importantly, the contents of the sideboard went in there. Which meant two things: (a) the media was more likely to be used, and (b) the sideboard was empty.

So we cleared away the breakfast table in the kitchen (no longer needed, as the family would be able to eat in the dining room or at the breakfast bar); and moved the sideboard in. Toddler toys went in and on said sideboard, which was an ideal height for a small person to reach. Little plastic baskets within divided up dolly's clothes from Lego from jigsaws (small people, in my experience, love tidy places to put things).

And once the sideboard was out of the dining room - guess what? It was suddenly possible to move in there; to walk around the table without squeezing; to turn it into a proper, beautiful eating space.

One bookshelf (plus CD tower). Three rooms. Job done.