Two Steps to Cutting Clutter Once and For All

Two Steps to Cutting Clutter Once and For All

If you already have a stellar organizing system—with nary a paper or computer file out of place—we applaud you.

However, most of us have at least one "junk" table, or drawer (or closet) where everything from our kid's finger-paint handprints to important mail we know we need to deal with is left to be tackled ... sometime in the future. And that's to say nothing about the state of our computer "desktop."

Well, the new year is here, and it's the perfect time to get to the bottom of all your clutter once and for all.

We know, we know: Most of us never start because, despite our good intentions, we don't know what to keep (all your medical records? Seven years of bank statements?) and what to toss in the first place.

Which is why we're here to help you create a foolproof system to organize your computer and your filing cabinet.

Trust us, haul out ten boxes of mental detritus and you'll definitely feel lighter—consider it two resolutions for the price of one.

Computer Files

The clutter on your computer makes searching for necessary files a lot more time-consuming. Follow these steps to make sure that important docs don't get lost among the hundreds of family photos from Christmas '06.

1. Create Folders (and Sub-Folders)

Look through your Documents folder and create folders that cover the categories of most loose documents you have floating around ("School," "Photos," "Work," "Videos" and more). Then, make folders within those folders to organize by event, project, date or even child. After you've created your ideal foldering system, file all the documents accordingly.

Is De-Cluttering Part of Your New Year Resolution?

How do you plan to de-clutter in 2012? What are some of your other resolutions?
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If you store your financial records and important information digitally, organize them extra carefully. Here's our advice on how to go paperless on everything from medical records to electricity bills. If you'd rather store your paper documents, keep reading for our advice on how to cut that clutter, but still keep all the important stuff you need.

2. Name Your Files

When you finish foldering all of your files, look back on any files you couldn't easily organize in a folder. Click in to those files. If they're junk, drag them into Trash. If not, rename them with very clear, explicit titles (for example, "Joey English Homework 12-5-11") and file into the appropriate folder.

3. Clear Your Desktop

Drag all the files taking up space on your desktop into their appropriate folders, then tackle the extra program links you don't need (if you're using a Mac, this likely takes the form of cleaning up your dock). Deleting a shortcut to a program won't delete the program itself, so remove any random desktop shortcuts, like that shortcut to Photoshop you never click on. If you haven't used it in over six months, it can probably go.

4. Uninstall Unnecessary Programs and Applications

Go through your program and application list and uninstall any programs you no longer need. Remember Napster? Winamp? Snood? Unless you're using them, opt instead to clear up more space on your hard drive.

5. Use an External Hard Drive or Cloud Storage System

Back up important files to an external hard drive or cloud storage system, which enables you to store files from your computer. Make sure to back up any work documents or family files, like photos and videos, that you would not be able to replace. The perk of cloud storage is that you can also share files with others, if you want to. One of our favorite cloud storage services is Dropbox, which gives you 2 GB of storage space for free.

This is an especially great option if you're a digital packrat. Consider an external hard drive or cloud storage system as an archive for documents and files you're not currently using but can't (or don't want to) throw out. Moving files you want to save for posterity will free up more space and help your computer run faster.

6. Clear Out Your Trash

Empty the recycle bin on your computer. We tend to hang on to too many documents (even the ones we've already decided were trash-worthy) in the unlikely case that we'll need them someday. But remember: There's a reason you decided that file was junk in the first place, so go ahead and delete it permanently.

7. Update Your Programs and Software

Now that you've freed up more space, update your programs and software on your computer to make the time you spend using it more productive. For the most part, these updates improve usability and speed and fix security bugs. Most programs feature a button on the menu bar, often in the Help tab, to search for updates. Do this for the programs you use most frequently as well as for your operating system. If you have been ignoring that popup to update your operating system, make sure you install your updates immediately!

8. Defrag Your PC

If you have a PC, defragmenting your hard drive will help your computer run faster and more efficiently. In a sense, this is the deepest, most internal way for your computer to organize its clutter. For more on how to defrag your PC, read this.

Paper Files

One easy way to de-clutter your home is to go digital by scanning receipts, financial statements and records, then storing them in a digital database, shredding and discarding the original documents afterward. Find out more about how to go paperless and digitize your household.

In meantime, here are easy rules of thumb on which—and how many—documents you need to keep.

Financial Records

Place the following original documents in labeled manila folders and store them in a filing cabinet or a plastic storage bin. After the recommended time period has passed, shred and toss out. If you've scanned and digitized these records, hold onto those digital files for at least the time periods listed below.

Item How Long to Keep?
Receipts 1 month
Bank Statements 1 year (save annual statements for 7 years in case you get audited)
Credit Card Statements 45 days/7 years. Throw out monthly statements once you confirm that receipts match up with statements; keep for 7 years if tax-related
Loan and Mortgage Statements For the length of the loan or mortgage, plus 7 years
Medical Bills 1 year after they’ve been paid off (see below for how to organize medical records)
Tax Documents 7 years
Home Improvement Receipts Until your house sells. Proof of spending can sometimes be used to lower your taxes, and you may need proof to the buyer of how recent the improvements or repairs were
Investment Statements Indefinitely
Closing Documents Keep closing documents for mortgage and/or loan

Medical Records

Create a binder of medical records for each child, and keep a three-hole puncher handy to add any incoming files from your child's physician. Store all your records permanently; this will be especially important if you end up moving or if your child switches physicians. By anticipating the possibility of human (or digital) error in the transfer of your child's records, you'll ensure the effective and safe medical treatment of your child in the future.

Here's what to record in the binder:

  • Names and contact information of your child's doctors and specialists
  • The date and reason for each doctor visit
  • Detailed descriptions of procedures and treatments, including the hospital and the date
  • Medications, treatments and immunizations, including the dosage, duration of treatment and any side effects experienced

Another way to keep track of immunizations—which may be required by your child's school, childcare, sports teams or other activities—is to join your state's Immunization Information System, or IIS. An IIS will remind you by mail or telephone when your child needs shots and will help you get a copy of your child's immunization record from the doctor more quickly. Find your state's IIS contact here.

Lastly, if you have a new baby, record all developmental milestones as they happen, including rolling over, crawling, walking, etc. This will help your child's physician determine if your baby's development is on course.

School Records

Keep another binder for your child's school records. Hold on to report cards, progress reports and standardized test results, as well as any documents related to behavioral or disciplinary concerns.

If your child has special needs and has an IEP, or an Individualized Education Program, further documentation of your child's schooling may be necessary. For more information on what records to keep, read this.

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