My Minimalist Filing System

Now that I have a permanent address, I once again have a mailbox. Yikes! I forgot how much paperwork can flow into your life through that little rectangular compartment.

To keep things under control, I’ve been employing the strategies I wrote about in The Minimalist Mailbox: things like signing up for online billing, keeping my name off catalog lists, and putting a freeze on my credit report.

However, some papers still make it through my defenses (and with a mortgage, child, and business, there are some I’m obligated to keep). And for that, I’ve devised a minimalist filing system which I’ll share with you today.

It consists of four components:

My Minimalist Filing System

1. Recycling bin. Despite my best efforts, unsolicited mail still appears in our mailbox—but I make sure it doesn’t make it into our house. The recycling bin sits outside our door, and everything we don’t need (like circulars and advertisements) goes straight in.

2. Scanner. Yes, it’s another piece of office equipment; but in my experience, a scanner takes up much less space than the paper it eliminates. I scan paperwork when I need the information, but not the physical copy. This handy little device dramatically reduces my paper storage needs; given the choice, I prefer digital files over physical ones.

3. File box. If you read my book, The Joy of Less, you’re familiar with my Inner Circle (things I need at hand) and Outer Circle (things I don’t need often) strategies. I apply this to my paperwork as well. I keep the current year’s files in a small plastic file box in an accessible place—so that bills, financial statements, tax receipts, medical records and the like can be dropped into hanging folders without much fuss. That way, they’re easy to put away, and readily on hand if I need to reference them throughout the year.

4. Archive box. Once a year (usually in January), I purge my file box: scanning, shredding, or recycling the papers I no longer need, and archiving the rest. I transfer the papers I need to save into 9 x 12 envelopes (labeled by category and year), and tuck them away in a corrugated storage box. At the same time, I remove the oldest archived envelopes (one year in, one year out), assuming I no longer need them for tax, insurance, or legal purposes.

With an infant in my arms most of the day, I simply don’t have much time to deal with incoming papers. I find this simple, four-step system to be an efficient way to put them in their place, and keep them from piling up on the desk or kitchen counter. Best of all, it keeps them flowing smoothly into (and out of!) my life with a minimum amount of effort and energy.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

My Minimalist Workspace

Today I thought I’d give you a peek at my minimalist workspace – in case you’ve ever wondered, this is where the magic happens. :)

From the time I was a child, I’ve never been a fan of desks. When I was young, I used to spread my homework out on the floor; somehow it felt more expansive, more conducive to creative thought. I was always slightly uncomfortable in schools and offices, where I had to conform to a more proper workspace.

When I moved into my new flat, I was thrilled to see the deep, low windowsills – a perfect minimalist office! I love the natural light, and the ability to “people watch” on the street below. And sitting on my cushion puts me into a calm, peaceful mood – helping me achieve a yoga-like mindfulness while I work.

You’ll notice that I don’t have the usual desk accoutrements in my workspace – partly because it doubles as my living room windowsill, and partly because I don’t require much more than my laptop. I do almost all of my work digitally, so really don’t need pens, paperclips, or a stapler standing by. I keep a tiny stash of office supplies in a kitchen drawer, and a folder of essential paperwork in my wardrobe.

I know this setup won’t work for most people, and am certainly not suggesting you adopt it – just giving you a little glimpse into my world, and what works for me!

Miss Minimalist's Workspace

Miss Minimalist's Workspace

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider buying my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

10 Steps to a Minimalist Office

pencilcup(Photo: rhett
maxwell
)

After purging all my office supplies when we moved overseas, I was determined to keep my new workspace as simple and streamlined as possible. Not only do I work better in an uncluttered environment; I don’t want to accumulate anything extra by the next time we move!

Here’s ten techniques to keep things to a minimum:

1. Stop incoming paperwork. Get off mailing lists, cancel magazine subscriptions, and sign up for online billing and statements. The less physical mail you have to deal with (and file), the better!

2. Digitize existing paperwork. Sure, a scanner is one more piece of office equipment; but it’ll probably take up less space than the paperwork it replaces! If you don’t need a physical copy of something, turn it into bits and bytes – that way, you’ll still have the info, without all the clutter.

3. Print as little as possible. Think long and hard before you hit the “print” button – the last thing you need is more paperwork to file! As an alternative, print to a PDF file using free software like cutePDF or pdf995.

4. Use an online fax service. Instead of devoting valuable space to a fax machine, make use of an online service like eFax.com. If you only send faxes once in a blue moon, do it from Staples or a copy shop.

5. Lose the landline and answering machine. If you use your cell phone and voice mail to conduct business, you can do away with these devices and save the desk space.

6. Think multi-functional. The more things you can accomplish with one machine, the better. For example: instead of having a separate printer, scanner, and photocopier, invest in one device that performs all three tasks.

7. Downsize your supplies. If you’ll never use 1000 paperclips, 500 file folders, or 50 pens, give away the excess (to friends, family, or a nonprofit). Instead of buying super-size quantities of office items, purchase only what meets your needs.

8. See what you can live without. Don’t own things simply because they’re “expected.” I never thought I could go a year without a stapler or paperclips — but I’m happy to report that I have. (I guess attaching papers isn’t as important as I’d thought!) I also haven’t had need of a highlighter, hole punch, or rubber bands (all things I used to own).

9. Ditch the desktop. A laptop takes up much less space, and gives you the freedom to work anywhere. You may even end up ditching the desk! :-)

10. Do less work. Just kidding (sort of). Instead of taking on every project that comes down the pike, leave yourself a little free time. Not only will you be less stressed; you’ll have an emptier inbox, desk, and file cabinet to boot!

What techniques do you use to create a minimalist workspace? Share them with us in the comments!

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider subscribing to my RSS feed, or signing up to receive new articles by email.}

Minimalist Dilemma (or Blessing?)

It is 10:55pm here, I’m working on our tax return, and the ONE pencil we own has run out of lead.

Instead of staying up to the wee hours mired in the fascinating intricacies of the US tax code, I’m going to finish my glass of wine and go to bed.

Who says minimalism doesn’t have its perks? ;-)

Minimizing Paperwork: Print to PDF

stackpapers(Photo: FeatheredTar)

Like many people, I make the majority of my financial transactions online: from shopping to paying bills, from retrieving statements to managing bank accounts.

In the past, I used to print off a paper confirmation of each one. For some reason, I thought I needed physical “proof” every time money changed hands—be it a deposit into a savings account, or a receipt for a sweater ordered over the internet. So although I was conducting the majority of my business electronically, my files were still bulging.

Then I discovered the three magic words that eliminated 90% of my paperwork: “print to PDF.”

Oh, how I love this option! It gives me the satisfaction of documentation, without the clutter.

No longer do I have a stack of receipts from online purchases I’ve made or bills I’ve paid. Yet if I ever find the need for a paper copy, I can easily print one off. (Recently, however, I’ve found electronic documents to be more valuable in resolving issues than printed ones!)

Similarly, when I come across an interesting article on the web, I no longer feel compelled to print it out and squirrel it away–just in case the web page or content disappears in the future. Instead, I print it to PDF, and voila!—I have a virtual library of “research” on my laptop.

To “print to PDF,” all you need is software such as CutePDF or pdf995. Both are free, and easy to install.

Once it’s installed, it’s a snap to use. To “print” the current page in your browser window, do the following: select “File,” then “Print,” and choose the PDF program from the dropdown box next to “Printer Name.” Click on the “OK” button, navigate to the folder in which you’d like to store the document, and name your file.

Of course, you don’t want to make your computer a digital dumping ground! Be selective with your “printing,” and set up folders (such as “Receipts” or “Articles,” for example) to organize the documentation you generate. Most importantly, make regular backups of your files in case of data loss.

My goal is to live as paperless a life as possible—and this simple feature has gone a long way towards helping me accomplish that. This year, I have more incentive than ever to avoid accumulating paperwork—I have no idea where I’ll be living this time next year, and don’t relish the thought of dragging a stack of documents around.

Therefore, I’ll be attempting a zero net gain of paperwork in 2010. Would anyone like to join me?

Minimalist Office: Downsizing Supplies

paperclip(Photo: bbaunach)

Back in our former house, we had a plastic bin filled with office supplies. I can’t begin to recount all the contents, but know it included more envelopes, rubber bands, paperclips, staples, pens, pencils, markers, and sticky notes than we would ever use or need.

The cache had slowly accumulated since our college days. And, as is often the case with office supplies, we were hesitant to declutter them–because we were sure we’d find a need for the neon highlighters or A-7 envelopes the day after we threw them away.

The main problem: it’s difficult to purchase most supplies in small quantities. When we had a need for something specific, we had to buy a corporate-size stash of it. The leftovers would then be thrown into the box, “just in case” they’d come in handy in the future.

So the supplies multiplied over time, following us around from state to state, and home to home. It took an overseas move to finally get rid of them.

When we settled into our apartment in the UK, we intentionally did *not* replenish our stash; instead, we made a conscious decision to purchase things only on an as-needed basis.

For the first few weeks, we required nothing more than a pair of scissors and a roll of tape (the latter borrowed from my travel bag, where I use it to secure liquids). Then we had need of a single envelope–but of course, had to buy a whole package. The smallest quantity we could find was a package of fifty. Three months later, we have forty-nine left. At this rate, we’ll use less than four per year; meaning we are currently sitting on at least a twelve-year supply. (!)

Fortunately, we have not yet required a stapler (and the thousands of staples one must purchase to fill it). Nor have we had to buy a lifetime’s supply of paperclips or rubber bands; our strategy instead is to save the stray ones that come into our lives, so that our stash consists of two or three, rather than two or three hundred. We’ve also managed to score two large envelopes and a couple of file folders this way.

When we moved here, the only office item I brought with me was a single pen/pencil combo (I was trying to travel light!). In retrospect, it would have been wise to pack a small ziplock of various supplies (a handful of paperclips, rubber bands, envelopes, etc.), to save us from having to purchase large quantities of them here.

If, like us, you’re an infrequent user of such items, it’s probably better to bum a few off friends or family than hit the local Staples. Alternatively, you can split large quantities with others in need of the same item. (The latter method, however, would require some minimalist friends; others are unlikely to be as enthused over a joint purchase of paperclips!)

I’d love to know if anyone has further strategies for keeping office supplies to a minimum!

The Minimalist Mailbox

a(Photo: jchatoff)

The key to being a minimalist is controlling the stuff that flows into your life. In most cases, this power lies in your hands: you can refrain from shopping, refuse freebies, and ask friends and family to stop giving you gifts.

You can, in effect, shut the door on stuff.

The problem: in that door lies a mail slot. And through that slot will pour all kinds of useless, unwanted, and uninvited clutter, almost every single day.

Short of boarding it up, here’s what you can do to limit the postal deluge:

1. Put a freeze on your credit report, or sign up with optoutprescreen.com. Companies will no longer be able to run credit checks on your name, and send you pre-approved credit offers. This one step eliminated the bulk of my junk mail.

2. Sign up for online bank and credit card statements. Paper statements usually come stuffed with a handful of advertisements and offers. Retrieve them online instead, and print them to a PDF file.

3. Sign up for online billing. Your desk will stay much neater if you get your gas, electric, water, sewer, telephone, internet, insurance, and cell phone bills by email instead of snail mail. In many cases, you can choose to have the amount you owe automatically debited from your bank account.

4. Don’t give out your name and address to retailers. Don’t sign up for in-store rewards programs; your contact information, and buying habits, will be used to send you targeted mailings. If asked for your contact information at a checkout register, decline to give it.

5. Don’t participate in surveys, sweepstakes and giveaways. More often than not, this is a sneaky way for marketers to get your contact information (and sell it to other companies).

6. Stop the catalogs. I use the brute force method—calling the customer service number on every catalog that appears in my mailbox, and asking them to remove my name from their mailing list. If you prefer, you can sign up with catalogchoice.org; they’ll contact mail order merchants, and express your mailing preference, on your behalf.

7. Don’t subscribe to magazines. They become clutter when they pile up, because you don’t have time to read them. Worse yet, your contact information is often shared with other magazines and companies—creating even more incoming clutter. Go to your favorite magazine’s website, and read the same articles online instead.

8. Stop the newspaper subscription. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of physical newspapers. They’re awkward to read, they leave ink on your hands, and the bazillion sections make a big mess. I prefer to save some trees, and read the news online.

9. Don’t send in product registration and warranty cards. They’re usually seeking demographic information, which is then sold (along with your name and address) to other companies. Your receipt is usually sufficient proof of purchase to obtain warranty service.

10. Review Privacy Policies, and opt-out of communications. Don’t throw away those Privacy Policy notices that come with your bank and credit card statements. Take the time to call the appropriate number, and tell them you DON’T want to receive marketing offers from them or their partner companies.

11. Make sure you’re not listed in the phone book. Keeping your name and address out of your local phone book will go a long way towards eliminating the mass mailings (and unsolicited phone calls) you receive.

12. Don’t fill out U.S. Postal Service change of address forms. When you fill one out, you’re authorizing the USPS to share your contact information with partner companies—and guaranteeing that your junk mail will follow you to your new home. Contact the people and companies you do business with directly, and provide them with your new address.

13. Stop the direct mail. You can contact the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) to opt out of direct mail from their member companies. Your name will be put in their “Do Not Mail” database. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have NOT done this—mainly because the credit freeze stopped the majority of my junk mail, and I’m extremely cautious about adding my name to ANY database.

14. Visit junkbusters.com. You’ll find more information on how to opt out from list vendors (companies who profit by selling your name and address), as well as sample letters with which to do so.

Mail takes up our time (and desk space) on a daily basis. But if you take these steps to minimize the contents of your mailbox, you can significantly reduce the clutter that comes into your home—and your life!

Minimizing Magazines

The Internet is such a wonderful source of information, that I no longer feel the need to subscribe to any magazines. In fact, many publications make the same content available on their websites, rendering paper copies largely unnecessary.

That said, I know many people prefer to kick back with their favorite glossy rather than stare at a computer screen. Fair enough! As long as you keep current with your incoming subscriptions, you can keep magazine clutter under control. Commit to reading each one the month it arrives. When the new one appears in your mailbox, out goes the old!

If you have a backlog of unread issues, limit the number of publications to which you subscribe. Once you’ve fallen behind two months or so, you’re unlikely to catch up—and the magazine piles will grow and grow. Remember, it’s only possible to read and absorb so much information; anything beyond that only leads to mental clutter. It’s important to keep your mind as clear as your space.

And by all means, do not keep an entire magazine for one interesting article. Tear out the article and file it; or better yet, scan it into your computer. The less paper clutter the better, and the information will be at your fingertips when you need it.

One more thing: if you are going to receive paper subscriptions, please don’t let them pile up in a landfill. Recycle them, or donate them to your local library, physician’s or dentist’s office. And when you’re feeling “greener,” think about giving up the paper copies altogether—you’ll not only save money, but a whole lot of trees!