How to organize just about anything

Repost from LinkedIn article by Mel Reyes

A little background

From my very early career days of hitting the shelves of the King’s Daughters Main Library as a Page, to being an office assistant at the Rockland Teachers’ Center, and then through every library, online article, eBook or a scrap of any paper worth reading, below I will share how I’ve been able to build what I perceive as one of the most efficient and effective habits to clearing up mental, digital, and physical clutter.  It all started while I was in high school and read “The Organized Executive”, the (gulp) 1985 edition, by Stephanie Winston which contained the TRAF method of organizing.  I didn’t realize it then but nearly 30 years later this book, like many others, dug deep into my psyche and became a part of how I process the chaos of life.

In my last LinkedIn post, I wrote about getting the voices and myriad of questions around managing tasks and projects out of my head.  No, I don’t actually hear voices but in that article, I mentioned, “if you’re spending more than 5 seconds trying to categorize, you’re trying too hard”, well this is a directive that I picked up from “The Organized Executive” along with many others.  While I’m probably not doing the process, nor the book, it’s full due diligence, I do know that these basic techniques have yielded incredible results and continue to preach them.

So what is TRAF and why should you care?

TRAF (Toss, Refer, Action, File) is the core mindset when it comes to organizing thoughts, ideas, paperwork, digital files, wardrobe, yeah you get it, just about anything.  The most effective way I’ve found to leverage TRAF is by categorizing everything that you are trying to organize into similar piles.  By categorizing like objects you can take on what may seem like a hoarding nightmare and systematically break it down into chewable bites and smaller deliverables.  So if you’re looking at a wardrobe it can be by piles of jeans, dress pants, casual shirts, dress shirts, etc or even simpler by pants, shirts, and sweats.  If it’s digital files it may be by taxes, career, selfies, family photos, etc.  Only once you’ve created these massive piles is when you can efficiently and quickly apply TRAF.

Through the years, I had transposed the TRAF method, accidently dropped the R, and worked on the principle of FAT to organize both physical and digital materials.  I’m not sure if dropping the R was subliminal or on purpose but I’m glad I haven’t been going around preaching the FART method all these years.

How much time do you waste looking for something?

Have you ever calculated the cost incurred in trying to find something?  Figure out your hourly rate and then calculate that out, it may shock you.  Now here’s the hard part and the one that takes the longest to break out of, you have to be willing to let go of things.  Most of us aren’t hoarders (or at the very least wouldn’t admit to being a hoarder) and we value the hard work or craftsmanship of the goods that we’re collecting.  So the anxiety of dealing with the separation of what could be incredibly sentimental items is the hardest part of this process, but one that you have to overcome.  I transpose the TRAF method and ask the questions from File, to Action, then Refer and absolutely Toss because I think it’s an easier pill to swallow for folks with extreme separation anxiety.  Once you start you may not be able to turn back.  Try testing yourself by getting to your answer in three seconds, push yourself if you have to.

The first step is to pick up one item and ask yourself these set of questions:

  • File It: Is this item something sooo important that I should file it
    Things like passports, insurance paperwork, child’s first-grade school hand turkey.  Just know your limits and ultimate goals to gauge how much to keep.
  • Action It: Is this something that needs to be actioned?
    Um, bills, school forms, college applications.  Be truthful to yourself and the process, if it’s six crates of Bazooka Joe cartoon inserts you collected and you need to make room, then it may be time to let go.
  • Refer It: Does this belong to someone else?  Can someone else benefit from this?  Can I have someone else do something for me?
    For example, the sixty cat food coupons your mother-in-law gave you, that you can’t use because you’re deathly allergic to cats and just holding the coupons are giving you a rash, yeah give them to someone else.  Or the college application that you can refer to your child or an expert to help navigate you through the process.  This is the most underutilized step that I’ve had to force myself to push through, asking others for help can be a challenge for some. Now I say, get over it.
  • Finally, Toss It: If you can’t answer all three questions in 3-5 seconds total, then the answer is to TRASH IT.
    This is the hardest part of the whole process, especially if you just went Rambo on a massive pile and guilt starts to settle in when you see the trash pile as high as Mt. Everest.

This is great, don’t look back, don’t cherry pick crap out of the Trash mount, just let it go, step away from the pile, and no one gets hurt.  Soon you’ll begin to forget the pain you’ve just gone through and you’ll be able to repeat this for any and all piles.

Once you’ve created your new FAR pile you’ll need to develop the discipline to carry through in categorizing, filing, and then actioning these items into tasks. Even though you think you can handle the easiest one, Filing, make sure you create a system of putting like items together where they make sense and where you’ll know to find them.  When needed, create a hierarchy with subcategories to make organizing easier.  For example, I have nearly 17 years of photos organized by the same simple folder naming structure: “2016-06 (Jun) – The Big Event”.  I can easily sort these folders and visually scan down for a specific month by number and fragment of the name.  I even bucket the massive collection of backed up family mobile photos and selfies into a generic bucket by month, “2016-06 (Jun) – Photos” and archive them once a year.

It takes work, a lot of work, for some years but you have to accept the fact that unless you change your ways you’ll never get out of the rut you’re in and could be the next house featured story on A&E or TLC for hoarding.

So what book have you read that changed your life or has had a deep impact on your thinking?  I’d love to know so that I can build up my summer reading, please do share?