I was working with a client recently to organize her home papers. We were purging papers that were no longer needed, and sorting the keepers into categories so that we could put them into files for future retrieval. So far, so good. My client confided that she considers herself organized at work, and actually likes a fairly clutter-free environment. She shared that at home, however, she has a really hard time dealing with paper. This is not uncommon. Some clients can maintain organizing systems at work, and not at home, while others can keep it together at home, but things fall apart at work. There are many reasons for this organizing disparity, and I assumed that as I worked with this client, the reasons would surface.
And surface they did. As soon as we started to set up the filing system, I noticed that my client lacked confidence in her decisions. When I would ask her what to name a certain file, she would get very nervous, mention a possible name, then second-guess herself almost immediately. She became visibly distressed, and started to lose steam. We took a break, and started discussing what she was feeling. She was feeling overwhelmed with choices, and was scared that she would make the wrong choice (her words) and not be able to find papers when she needed them later on. This, my friends, is what happens when someone does not trust his or her instincts when organizing.
It is not a surprise that my client became overwhelmed as soon as we got to the implementation phase. This is when you set up the organizing system in a way that makes sense to you, and can be integrated into your life (for more information on the stages of organizing, check out my unique approach to organizing, DECIDE). For many people, this is the toughest part, as it requires the person to make decisions and own them. If a person lacks confidence in his or her ability to set up a system or to maintain it, that lack of confidence usually manifests itself through indecision. For my client, this reared its ugly head more at home than at work. At work, often the systems are already in place and an employee merely has to follow them. For some, this makes it harder as the system may be far from what he or she would have created. However, for others, following a ready-made system is easier as it takes the decision-making part out of the equation.
So what to do? Use your instincts. Go with your gut.
If you were unfortunate enough to have to sit for the SAT exam in high school, you may remember the common tip that people would give: do not change your first answer, as it is usually the right one. You can say the same thing when it comes to organizing systems. I often will say to a client when they are having a hard time choosing a name for a file, “Quick, what file name would you think to look for this paper under?” I am trying to make my clients use free association, and not over-think the naming process. File names are only important when it comes to retrieval, not storage. Most people get caught up in what to name a file because they are focusing on the front-end – the storage process. But filing is most important on the back-end, during the retrieval process, when you need to access something quickly after time has gone by and your memory is not as fresh.
I am amazed how often clients will fight their natural organizing habits and tendencies. For example, a client will explain that he is having a hard time with mail being everywhere in his home. He will advise that he has a mail slot system but is not using it. I ask why. He tells me it is hanging by the front door, but he uses the back door. I then suggest moving the mail slot to hang near the back door. My client will say, “Oh that makes sense, why didn’t I ever think of that?” Sometimes the easiest solution is staring you right in the face, but you don’t trust yourself to grab it. Organizing systems should be intuitive, not difficult.
Back to my recent client. She realized that she wanted to set up her filing system by using each family member’s name and then using sub-categories within each person’s file area. For example, let’s say her son’s name is Tom. She wanted to have a main category called Tom, and then file folders within that category for Tom-Auto, Tom-Education, Tom-Medical, Tom-Work, etc. The reason for this, she explained, is that she tends to think of each person as a universe unto him- or herself. Once she is within that universe, then she wants to break it down by subject matter category. Others set up their filing systems based on main subject matter categories of Auto, Education, Medical, Work, etc. and then use each family member’s name as the sub-categories and file folders within. Which is right? Well, both, actually. It depends on the way your brain thinks about and processes paper. For my client, this system worked. As soon as we set up her filing system in this manner, I could see her confidence come back and her spirits rise. This felt “right” to her. She just lacked the confidence to try it before.
So, when organizing, trust your instincts. They usually guide you to a great solution.