Purge that Pile: 10 Steps to a Clean Desk

Happy New Year, Midlife Moms!

Did you make resolutions? I skipped them. This year they felt like they would only lengthen an already long to-do list.

 

I wanted to feel lighter, not heavier. So instead I cleaned out the big pile on my desk.

You know the pile. It’s brimming with work ideas, recipes, doctors’ appointment notes, letters, files, investment reports, articles, business cards and . . . who knows what?

That later question was bothering me. With relatives visiting and the kids out of school, I wasn’t going to write. It was the perfect time to tackle the pile.

My first realization: it wasn’t a pile of papers. It was a pile of decisions.

Should I read the mutual fund notice or pitch it – how actively did I want to manage my investments anyway? Was the article worth saving for a blog post – if so, how better to organize those ideas? Should I call the number on the business card for lunch or cut back on my social life to write more? Was I going to make stir-fry seven ways?

Yikes! Who wants to make all those decisions or say no to all those possibilities? But keeping a paper meant filing it, adding information to the computer or doing tasks it raised. No wonder we never get through our piles.

I picked up the first paper from the stack, put it down, picked it up again and stuck it in the bottom of the pile.

Paralysis.

*********

A day later, I realized there was only one way to a clean desk: most of the pile would have to go.

I trashed any information that could be found on the Internet. In rare cases, I saved the web version of clipped articles as PDFs on my computer. (See the tips below for how to do this.)

I turned notes into to-do items in my computer organizer program, setting them to appear under project lists but not on my daily list. (More on the wonders of Omnifocus in another post.)

With momentum, clarity emerged. That $20 Gameworks gift card? Forget it! You can’t get in and out of Gameworks for $20. I mailed it to GiftCardGiver.com, which donates cards to nonprofits.

But of course that was the easy part.

Ninety percent of the papers in the pile are neither urgent nor important. (See Stephen Covey’s Quadrant IV in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People .) That’s why dealing with the pile elicits such ambivalence; this stuff isn’t worth much time. Luckily though, once you get a little ruthless, you can dispense of most items quickly.

Another ten percent, however, aren’t urgent but are important and deserve attention. Take the speech therapist’s letter from September advising that my younger daughter start sessions again.

Ugh – four emails to fit it into the school day. A new expense. But are clear S’s important? I think so.

And then there is that one item that justifies the whole project.

And here I must ask: dear midlife mom, do you even know what is in your pile?

Some backstory. Last fall, after someone stole medical records, our health insurance company signed us up with Debix, an identity protection service. My husband had given me a stack of papers from Debix after he’d completed our registration.

Seeing nothing urgent, I put them in the pile. Reviewing them now led me to an old email from Debix flagging misuse of my daughter’s social security number. (The email inbox is overflowing too.) Debix advised that we contact them to initiate an investigation.

No wonder that pile always gave me a vague sense of foreboding.

Hello Debix! Happy New Year! This is Jennifer responding to your urgent alert from October! Better late than never?

A Virgo without resolutions is a woman in search of a mission. By New Year’s Eve, I’d become obsessed. The pile had to go. I skipped the party and plowed through papers. (Nursing a cold, I wasn’t feeling social anyway.)

Finally, on the first day of 2011 the pile was no more. Every last paper had been pitched, filed, turned into a to-do or completed.

It’s one thing to purge the playroom. But when you clean your desk, you give a gift to yourself. Since eliminating the pile, I feel squeaky clean, like I’d taken a ritual bath. I still have a lot to do. But now I know what it is.

My whole home office feels different. Indeed, in some strange way, my whole life feels different.

For under that pile of small possibilities lay a greater one: a promising expanse of clear, open space.

Results from Cleaning the Pile

I’m going to the BlogHer conference. (Funny how we forget interesting prospects we clip.)

I made a stir-fry the girls loved.

Both Grandmas got school pictures.

My computer files are better organized. My bookshelf has more space. (The pile’s tentacles lead you to purge other places.)

I tossed several business cards but emailed an old friend for dinner.

My daughter starts speech therapy next week.

Debix is investigating our case.

Tips to Eliminate the Pile

Find the right moment. Take on the pile when you have a virus, houseguests or kids home from school. It’s mostly brain-dead work. But on those days, tackling it can feel like a real accomplishment.

Make a conscious decision to pitch most of the pile. Toss the easy stuff first.

Do it bit by bit. I busted my pile over several days in between other activities. That kept the project from feeling overwhelming.

Give away anything that will cost you money to use. Toss coupons for stores you don’t normally patronize.

Throw out most articles you can find on the Internet.

Turn important articles into PDFs. On a Mac, call up the article on the Web. (If it runs more than one page, call up the printer-friendly version.) Then hit print, choose PDF in the print dialog box and select “Save as PDF” under it. Or, on any computer, try pdfmyurl.com.

Create a “Waiting For” hanging file. Stash invitations, kids sports schedules and other small stuff there.

Create a “Waiting to Throw Out” hanging file for papers you’re not quite ready to toss. (Thanks to Getting Things Done by David Allen for these two file ideas.)

Move kids’ artwork to standing accordion files. These My Timeless Treasures files fit into nooks and crannies beside furniture and hold a lot.

Move most pictures to a box. The scrapbook can wait!

How about you? Did you make resolutions or do something different this year?

How do you tackle your pile? Do you use a scanner? Is it helpful? Please share your comments here. I’d love to hear from you.


Photo Credit © Erol Berberovic/Dreamstime.com

Disclosure: I use some affiliate links. If you click and buy a product, I make a small commission. Thanks for your support!

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Comments

  • Janine Adams

    January 9, 2013 at 1:28 am
    Reply

    Jennifer, what a wonderful blog post! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "It wasn't a pile of papers, it […] Read MoreJennifer, what a wonderful blog post! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "It wasn't a pile of papers, it was a pile of decisions." Recognizing that is the key to keeping that pile from emerging. If you (all of us) make decisions, rather than putting paper aside, you'll have a lot fewer piles. I have a ScanSnap too, and I have to admit while I'm glad I have it, it doesn't get a ton of use. It pretty much acts as a copier and fax machine for me. (I scan and email stuff I used to fax.) I'm off to tweet a link to this great post! Read Less

  • Kathy Sena - Parent Talk Today

    January 22, 2011 at 11:33 pm
    Reply

    Jennifer, I was inspired by your post! I got a ScanSnap scanner and I'm trying to scan a lot of "the pile," but I have […] Read MoreJennifer, I was inspired by your post! I got a ScanSnap scanner and I'm trying to scan a lot of "the pile," but I have to stop and decide what is really worth keeping first. Otherwise, I'm just creating a useless digital mess of papers! I loved your specific suggestions and examples here. thanks! Read Less

    • JenniferHull
      to Kathy Sena - Parent Talk Today

      January 23, 2011 at 5:06 pm
      Reply

      Glad you liked the post, Kathy! I've been thinking about getting a ScanSnap scanner myself. But then I fear I'll have one more thing to […] Read MoreGlad you liked the post, Kathy! I've been thinking about getting a ScanSnap scanner myself. But then I fear I'll have one more thing to do: scan! Also, I'm not quite sure what I'd scan. I can make PDFs of articles on the internet and save them to my computer so I don't need a scanner for them. I could scan legal documents but I'd probably keep the paper copy anyway. I'm afraid I'm a dinosaur who doesn't quite get the scanning thing! I'd love to hear what other people use scanners for. Read Less

  • Kathy Bold

    January 15, 2011 at 2:39 am
    Reply

    I struggle with paper. I just cleaned it out and took care of all of it. But the problem is in another week […] Read MoreI struggle with paper. I just cleaned it out and took care of all of it. But the problem is in another week or two, it will be back. How do I keep the pile from developing all over again??? Kathy Read Less

    • JenniferHull
      to Kathy Bold

      January 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm
      Reply

      Hi Kathy! Great question! I'm struggling with it myself as papers pile up again. Here's how I'm trying to keep the pile at bay: -Use little breaks […] Read MoreHi Kathy! Great question! I'm struggling with it myself as papers pile up again. Here's how I'm trying to keep the pile at bay: -Use little breaks from the computer to file. I'm trying to take more breaks from sitting anyway so this is a nice, quick way to stretch my legs and get something done. -Resist piling in the first place. This morning I was going to clip an article from the paper but instead noted the title. I'll look it up on the internet and save it as a PDF if I really want it. -Have some catch-all hanging files. I'm very visual so I'd rather have stuff in a file than on my desk. So I have files for business cards, decorating ideas, warranties and instructions, etc. David Allen's "Maybe Someday" category can be a great catch-all. -Err on the side of throwing it out. Saving anything comes with a cost. I'm really trying to pitch more and more stuff before it gets in the pile! But believe me, I'm in the struggle with you! Jennifer Read Less

  • Marla Beck

    January 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm
    Reply

    p.s. - So thank you for the inspiration!

    • JenniferHull
      to Marla Beck

      January 12, 2011 at 9:21 pm
      Reply

      Hey Marla - thanks for your comment! How cool is that - you cleaned out the drawer and then, finding the gift card, you got paid […] Read MoreHey Marla - thanks for your comment! How cool is that - you cleaned out the drawer and then, finding the gift card, you got paid for your time! Best wishes, Jennifer Read Less

  • Marla Beck

    January 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm
    Reply

    I loved this post, Jennifer. It was interesting to read your results and last night I somehow found myself standing in front of my […] Read MoreI loved this post, Jennifer. It was interesting to read your results and last night I somehow found myself standing in front of my junk drawer, ready for action. An hour later I had a big smile on my face (not to mention a $50 gift card I'd forgotten about). Looking forward to reading more, Marla Read Less

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About Jennifer

A former journalist for The Wall Street Journal and Time, Jennifer is the award-winning author of Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life and pens the MidAge Mom blog.

She’s profiled exceptional women from the Middle East to Latin America. Widely published, her essays have been included in two anthologies.

Jennifer is also a frequent radio and TV guest. Full Bio

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In Beyond One, Jennifer chronicles her leap from one child to two, describing the enormous impact the second child has on a woman’s body, marriage, family life, friendships and work.

"Hull is the kind of woman many moms long to be friends with. . ." -The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Credits

The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, CNN.com, MS., Parenting, Real Simple, Salon.com, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Working Mother, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, American Way, Brain, Child, The Christian Science Monitor, and more.