Category Archives: Organization

How to (Eventually) Sort Greeting Cards

This morning I decided it was time to finally organize my greeting cards. More specifically, my greeting cards insisted on being sorted when they were so over-stuffed that it was getting difficult to open and close all three of the shallow drawers I’d been shoving them in.

What!? You mean that Professional Organizer Katrina Hamilton didn’t already have a perfect and codified system for sorting incoming cards and letters? That she just haphazardly tossed them into a drawer?

Yes, of course. Because I didn’t need a system until now and I wouldn’t have known what to implement even if I’d tried. A system that isn’t needed is just clutter, and one that’s established in ignorance is doomed to fail. So I waited until my drawers were bursting, and then I got to work.

The important first step was to determine why I wanted to keep these cards in the first place. A lengthy letter or note from a dear loved one makes sense as an obvious keepsake, but a generic Hallmark card my aunt and uncle sent me on my birthday? Do I need to keep that? If so, why? For me, I wanted to keep a card like this because I knew that there would come a day when my aunt and uncle wouldn’t be around anymore, and I would treasure having a few pieces of paper with their handwriting on it.

One of the reasons it was important for me to define all of this first was it told me a lot about how I should sort things, and what I could immediately discard. I was sorting by people, which means everything from my grandma went in the same pile, regardless of if it was for Christmas, Easter, or birthday.

In addition to regular cards from friends and family, I also had some related to organizations. So all the cards from my old coworkers were in one stack, all the thank you cards from people at church were in another.

And then there were the weddings.

The last 10 years have brought me a lot of wedding invites. At first I put them all in one big stack, but I quickly realized I needed to spread them out more, because some weddings had multiple cards: save the date, formal invitation, shower invite, thank you card, etc. So I dedicated one side of the floor to weddings, and made sure the names were all facing up so it’d be easy to match thank you with invites as I found them. Seeing all these wedding invites laid out on the floor filled me with so much joy and gratitude. All those happy days, all those wonderful people who asked me to be a part of their commitment.

It also came with a lot of grief. One of the faces is no longer with us – he died less than two years after the wedding. One of the weddings was for March of this year – right when we all went into pandemic lockdown. The wedding still happened but in a much smaller way than the invite suggested. Three of the weddings got completely postponed to next year or later. So in addition to the joy, there was a lot of disappointment and sadness on that side of the floor.

Since the drawers had been overflowing and more cards will come in the future, I knew I couldn’t put everything back. I had to decide what would stay in my handy drawers and what could be moved to permanent storage. Piles of cards from my immediate family and close friends would continue to grow over time, so ideally they would stay in the drawers. But other piles, such as the one from my old job, were never going to grow again. I had all the cards I was going to collect from that category, so I knew it could be stored away in a box somewhere.

This moment of decision turned emotional quickly. The piles from my grandparents will not be growing anymore. I have all the cards I will every receive from them. I’m thankful for all the years we got to spend together, and thankful I can still see their handwriting when I need to. While most of the wedding invites can be stored, I will keep the three postponed events in the drawers as the start of my wedding pile. Those events will happen some day. They remain an open book.

Since the three shallow draws are wide enough for two stacks of cards per drawer, I can comfortably maintain six categories. I looked at the piles of individuals and events and settled on these:

  1. Immediate Family
  2. Aunts & Uncles
  3. Weddings/Babies/Graduations
  4. Christmas (from anyone who doesn’t have their own pile)
  5. Friends & Letters (AKA meaningful cards with longer, heart-felt notes)
  6. General (catch-all for the remaining thank you cards, well-wishes, etc.)

These categories make since for me because of who I receive mail from. I would never impose these categories on someone else, and I wouldn’t have known to make them for myself without the piles in front of me. They provided the evidence I needed to see what categories I really had.

For long-term storage I wanted to find a box where I could store them all upright like files, however I didn’t have the right size box in my house. Everything was either much too big or much too small. So I grabbed a shoebox and lined them up inside, using post-its to delineate the sections. I can’t put the lid on because the box is too short, but the other dimensions work fine.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not permanent. This is only half of the project. I know that I still have several stacks of old cards in bins at my parents’ house that never quite made it to my apartment, and I’ll have to combine them all before I can consider buying the right box. What’s more, I’m not committed to keeping every single one of the cards I currently have. Once they are all together I can start to assess which ones matter the most to me and recycle the others.

Knowing all that, it could have been easy to put off organizing the cards until I had everything all together and knew exactly what I needed. But putting it off is exactly why there are still cards at my parents’ house. I’ve never wanted to bring them to my apartment because I knew I didn’t have a plan. But then I couldn’t make a plan because I didn’t really know what I had. The drawers hitting their breaking point was the push I needed to complete this first step, and everything will be easier now that it’s done. Sorting the remaining cards will be easier. Finding the right storage box will be easier. Keeping the incoming cards organized will be easier.

We can’t always wait for everything to be perfect to act. We can’t wait for every other project to be finished before making progress on this one. I certainly had other, more important things I was “supposed” to do today. But this had been nagging at me for a long time and it feels like a weight has been lifted now that it’s done. Those other things I had to do will still get done – they always do. And I got to spend my Sunday morning going through old memories and preparing for new ones.

Inbox Zero: Emails You Keep as Reminders

We’ve all had an email that we left in the inbox to serve as a reminder for something. Perhaps we even marked it as unread, thinking that would bring more attention to it. Maybe it’s a task we still need to do, maybe we can’t deal with it until next week, or maybe we’re worried the other person won’t get back to us in time and we’ll have to nudge them again. Regardless of the reason, we leave the email in the inbox as a reminder so we won’t forget.

The problem is, this is the exact opposite of how reminders are supposed to work. The brain is triggered by novelty (things that are new or different), and the brain adapts to repetition (things it sees all the time). The longer an email stays in your inbox, the more often you’ll choose to ignore it, the more it will become part of the scenery.

In contrast, a good reminder shows up when and where it is most useful. If an email can’t be dealt with until next Monday, that’s when you want it to appear in your inbox again. If it’s related to something you have to do at work tomorrow, that’s where you should see it. If you want to get those reminder emails out of your inbox, you’ll need to find a better system to remind of you things. Here are some of my favorite systems:

1. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook

Boomerang is a free program (as a Chrome Extension for Gmail or in the Microsoft AppStore for Outlook) with two main features: 1) It gives you a Send Later button, allowing you to write emails now that won’t be sent until a specific time in the future, and 2) It has a boomerang function that will remove an email from your inbox but send it back to you under certain circumstances, such as “send this back to me if they don’t respond in two days”.

2. Calendars Reminders

In addition to adding date-specific reminders to your calendar like any other event, most calendar programs have the ability to set reminders for existing events. For example in my early days of employee reviews, I would set my Google calendar to email me 10 days before an employee’s anniversary so I could set up their annual review.

3. Task Management Apps

Any task manager worth using will include reminders as part of the system. My favorite is Asana. I can create a task, set a date for it, and throw it on the very bottom of my “Later” list, hidden from sight. A week before the due date Asana will automatically bring it into my “Upcoming” section, and on the due date it will show up in “Today.” This means I can throw any long-term tasks into Asana and forget about them, confident that I’ll be reminded when it’s time to do them.

4. Waiting Folder/Label

In my previous accounting job I often ended up with small issues that needed to be reconciled but were temporarily on someone else’s plate. For these things, I had a Waiting folder. Items that were currently someone else’s responsibility went in the Waiting folder, and I went through the folder every Friday to see who I needed to nudge. The key to making a Waiting Folder work is scheduling a regular time to look through it, otherwise items may get forgotten permanently.

5. Siri / Okay Google / Cortana

The majority of modern phones and computers have some kind of built-in digital assistant, and this feature can be great for capturing thoughts for later. I use Siri on my iPhone, and I’ll often tell her things like, “Remind me to email Brian when I get home” or “Remind me about tote bags tonight at 7PM”.

You may find yourself needing to use several different systems to account for all the different types of reminders you need in your life. I’m currently using four of the five I listed above. I would recommend starting with the system that feels most intuitive, and exploring the other options as needed.

We leave emails in our inbox to nag us, to keep being a bother until we finally do something about them. But if we can’t take action on it right now, that nagging is just another form of distraction.

Your Mission:

  1. Choose the reminder system(s) that seems most appropriate to your life and your emails
  2. Identify 1-3 emails you’ve left in you inbox as reminders
  3. Ask yourself “When and where will I need to see this next?” and replace each email with a reminder
  4. Check back in a week to see if more reminder emails have appeared, and if your current system(s) can accommodate them

When Life Maintenance Collides with Life Events

I recently worked with a client on her home office. She explained that the space used to work quite well for her – she could pay her bills, invoice clients, do her writing, etc. It was perfect. Then she got caught up in a legal dispute, needed surgery that limited her mobility for months, and had an existing medical condition worsen. On top of all that, her cat died. For about a year it was just one thing after another. Pretty soon her office wasn’t perfect anymore. Things stacked up. Paperwork wasn’t filed. The desk got covered in junk. She found herself avoiding the room completely. By the time I got there, she didn’t even want to go into the office if she didn’t have to.

It happens to everyone at some point. An interruption or major life event happens, and slowly the parts of our lives that used to work stop working. The problem is that once things have gone off the rails, we can’t bring them back using our old habits. Asking your maintenance systems to fix a year of built-up stress is like asking a handyman to build you a new house. The recurring processes and habits of daily life, such as dealing with the mail quickly or getting the desk clean at least once a week, only work so long as they keep moving. Interrupt those systems and habits for long enough and the machine gets clogged: the stack of bills is so tall you just avoid it, the package of paper towels begins to live on the floor. Your old systems can’t run anymore, and the clog only gets worse.

The life events that cause these interruptions don’t have to be huge. I just experienced one myself in these last few months. I had been blogging consistently during the summer, and I’d settled into a good routine of posting every two weeks. I had set up my writing program with ideas for upcoming topics, I’d color-coded it to ensure there was variety, and I had a procedure for doing final edits, posting, and promoting. But November was coming, and with it came National Novel Writing Month. I knew I wouldn’t want to be working on blog posts while also trying to write 1667 words every day for NaNo, so I tried to do a little extra work in October to prep the November posts. But this was an interruption in the system. It didn’t fit with the workflow I’d established, and I was only able to get one November post written and scheduled ahead of time. I decided one post in November would be fine, and went ahead with NaNo as planned.

But once November was over, I was burnt out on writing. That burnout kept me from jumping back into my old blogging habits. The system was interrupted, the old maintenance habits were clogged, and suddenly it was January 1st and I hadn’t posted anything in over a month. I was disappointed and embarrassed.

It was around this time that my client, fed up with her unusable office space, called me. She couldn’t say how or why it had gotten so bad, just that it was a big enough source of stress in her life that she needed help. And it wasn’t until I articulated the cause of the problem to her that I was able to see it so clearly in myself. What she needed was an outside professional to help her clear out the physical spaces that were getting in the way of her routines and habits. What I needed was to be reminded that I am susceptible to the same traps my clients are, and that I don’t need to be ashamed of that anymore than they do.

The skills and habits of maintenance won’t pull you out of the hole, just like they couldn’t pull me or my client out. We both needed something a bit bigger, a bit more drastic to happen in order to reset the system and get the machine working again. If there’s an area in your life that used to work but isn’t anymore, it might be because some big event got in the way. You need to match a big event with a big response. I can’t tell you for certain what that response is, but I can tell you how it starts: Acknowledge that being interrupted is not the same as failing. You can’t control what interrupts you, only what you do to get back on track.

Why I’m the Last Organizational Product You’ll Buy

I think a lot of people assume one of the main things I do is recommend specific organizational products to my clients. While I certainly can make purchasing suggestions, I rarely need to because most of my clients have plenty of organizational products and furniture pieces in their homes already. They have tried to buy their way out of this problem many times before, and it is only now, as a last resort, that they’ve finally decided to buy an expert.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Container Store as much as the next highly leveraged professional. And there are times when the right product is the perfect and only answer to your organizational problem. Shoes, papers, pot lids, sewing notions – some things just need a good storage solution or they will never feel organized and useful.

But too often people assume a product can save them from a deeper problem. Nothing you can buy at Storables will help you say goodbye to your grandmother’s scarves. There are no specialty racks or drawers that will change how frequently your spouse does laundry. Ikea doesn’t have a drawer unit for hobbies you never seem to get around to.

What’s worse is when these same products prove useless and end up stuffed into a hall closet or piled up in the garage, clients feel guilt and shame. They wasted all that money on something that didn’t work, and now they just have more stuff.

I don’t need to recommend products because everything we need is usually in the house already. The good products can be repurposed and used as the base for the newly cleaned space. The bad products are just another form of clutter to let go of – along with the guilt of buying them in the first place.

A Solution (or two) for That Drawer of Mysterious Power Adapters

Nearly every home I visit has a drawer, a bag, a box, or a pile of power adapters for unknown electronics. Power adapters usually don’t have many identifying marks on them to tell you what device they go to, and there’s no universal standards for plugs, which means some adapters work on multiple devices and others don’t. Once separated from their original device, usually the only way they will ever be returned is if you want to use the device and go searching one by one through the drawer until you find what you’re looking for.

The thing is, the bulk of what’s in the mystery adapter drawer is no longer needed. The electronics that you actually use have their adapters plugged in throughout the house. This drawer contains only power adapters for things you rarely use, or more often, things you don’t even own anymore.

There are two ways to handle this drawer. One is an easy way that lets the problem persists but will help in the long run. The other is a lot harder but will allow you to get rid of the mysterious adapter drawer permanently.

Let’s start with the easy answer: adding dates. When you know for a fact that one of the random adapters in your drawer is 10 years old, it’s a lot easier to part with it. But because you don’t know what they’re for, they all look the same, and they show little signs of age, the ones you got 6 months ago are indistinguishable from the ones you got 7 years ago.

So do your future self a favor and add dates to all of them (I usually use painter’s tape and a sharpie). Since you don’t know how old they are, you can start with today’s date, since they are at least that old. Or if you know you haven’t touched this drawer since last September, you could put that date instead. The point is that next time you come across the drawer, whether it’s one or three or six years from now, you’ll know that everything in it is at least as old as today.

The more difficult but ultimately permanent way to take care of this drawer is to gather together all of your electronics together. And I do mean ALL of them. Go through every closet, into every drawer, behind every piece of furniture, and across every shelf in the garage. You’re on a hunt for anything electronic that may have needed a power adapter at some point. You can ignore electronics that you use regularly and are currently plugged in, since you already have those adapters. You’re only looking for the lesser-used items.

Once you have all your electronics together, it’s simply a matching game. Find a device with no adapter and start plugging each one in until you get a match. You’ll likely end up with several adapters that don’t go with any device, which you can confidently send to the electronics recycler knowing that they don’t match anything in your house. With everything else, you can now store the adapter with the device itself, rather than jumbling them all together. I would even suggest you label the adapter itself with what device it goes to so that if ever it gets separated again, you’ll be able to match it up easily.

However I’d also suggest that this is the perfect time to cull some of those miscellaneous devices you found throughout your house. Consider how deep you had to search to find it, how long it’s been since you’ve used it, and how likely you are to ever need it again. With electronics specifically, the longer you hold on to it the less useful it will be to anyone else. A device that could go to Goodwill today will barely be of use to the electronics recycler five years from now. Many people feel guilt over throwing things out. The best way to avoid that guilt with electronics is to make sure your unwanted items leave your house in time to be wanted elsewhere.

Your Mission

Either put dates on every adapter in your drawer this week, or match them with all your current electronics. The first task shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes. The second one depends a lot on the size of your home and how much you own, but even with large homes shouldn’t take more than an hour if you stay focused on looking for electronics and don’t let yourself get sidetracked with anything else.