How to Make Those “Sweeping” Changes
By Natasha Hunter

The Harvard Resource: News and Information
for Harvard University Faculty and Staff
July 2005 It’s a beautiful afternoon and you’re standing glumly in your office, staring at seemingly endless stacks of, well, stuff. When did those piles get so high? What the heck is in them, anyway? And how are you going to dig yourself out?

While the time may not be less busy, summer months can be a moment to take on special or neglected projects. Many Harvard employees choose summer to attack the previous year’s accumulation of papers, files and miscellany, in order to face the new academic year afresh. Moreover, as Harvard’s supervisor of recycling and waste Rob Gogan points out, “This is the season for moving, renovations and office cleanouts – plus a lot of dorms are cleaning out and upgrading.”

Not all Harvard employees are clutterbugs, but for anyone who can use tips on getting more organized, here are a few, along with several Harvard services that can help you face this sometimes daunting task.

Baby steps will get you organized

Sunny Schlenger, a professional organizer who is teaching a workshop on organization at the Center for Training and Development (CTD), reminds employees that everyone’s style is different, and that organizing is not the same thing as making everything “neat”.

“Your surroundings can have a very powerful effect on you,” she says. “If you prefer uncluttered surfaces, stacks of paper can make you feel nervous or claustrophobic. If you function best with visual cues, having everything put away can be paralyzing.”

Schlenger advises hanging on only to things that have a specific use of value –not those that merely “might come in handy someday.” She recommends ranking one’s items as follows: essential to have, nice to have and everything else – and then saving only items in the first category.

Sage advice is also offered by Pamela Kristan, a “time-and-stuff management consultant” who has worked with various groups and individuals around the University.

The first thing Kristan recommends, before anyone even starts sorting, is to figure out how to stop. “You look at a situation and it’s overwhelming, and you think, “I’ll never find time to do any of this,” she says. “People don’t do the work if they feel they’ll have to do it for an hour.”

Keep the things you use frequently closest to you, Kristan advises, and put items near where they’re used.

“If you have a data entry file, store it near the computer,” she says. “If you have copies, put a chair near the door – give the stuff legs, keep it moving.”

Where you put your belongings is a reflection of how you sort them in your mind, Kristan says. “At first you don’t know what your categories are,” she adds. “When you’re filing, you’re shaping up your thinking as well as your stuff.

Schlenger agrees. “Organization should be a means to an end, and not an end in itself,” she says. “It will free up your time and space so that you can use them for the things that give you pleasure.”

Files, files everywhere

File management poses a common obstacle to organization, says Jennifer Jacobsen of the Records Management Office (RMO), a division of the Harvard University Archives. The RMO maintains the General Records Schedule, which lists the commonly held records Harvard offices create, and gives a retention period for the records based on statute, use or best practice. Do you toss the record of that employee who left five years ago? What to do about that drawer full of financial docs that you only use in March? The RMO staff can answer these questions.

“People are afraid of throwing things away,” Jacobsen says. She offers a few easy tips on getting one’s files in order. First, get familiar with the General Records Schedule (available on the RMO website). Second, remember that the office that created a document is responsible for filing it; if you’re done with a memo you received, recycle it. And last, do the easy things first, e.g., recycle duplicates, or work on files that fall into clear categories.

The RMO offers workshops on filing, housekeeping and record storage at the Archives, and its staff are also happy to visit departments or individuals and teach these skills on-site.

If you’re feeling snowed under by files, Jacobsen says, “Give us a call, because the best thing is for us to come over and discuss it in person. It’s very reassuring, because we’re used to this, and it’s all workable.”

People often call the RMO with questions about legacy files – those mystery files that your predecessor left behind. Although sorting through these files can be difficult, Jacobsen says, the RMO can help determine what the files are, and whether they should be stored or discarded.

Files used infrequently (once a month or less) can be stored at the off-site records center; the RMO will guide employees in deciding what files to send, and arrange their transfer. And if you need them back, the RMO can retrieve them within 24 hours.

Anything dirty or dingy or dusty…

So now you’ve successfully sorted the piles in your office, and you’re left with a manageable amount that you’ll keep – and a mound of trash. That’s where waste management supervisor Gogan, informally known as Harvard’s “recycling guru,” comes in.

Gogan’s office coordinates recycling and waste disposal, and can deliver extra recycling barrels to offices – in fact, he says, “We can receive any kind of paper material: entire contents of file drawers, entire contents of bookshelves; anything with printed paper we’re glad to recover for recycling.”

Gogan also urges employees with unwanted furniture (e.g., those file cabinets that are now, thankfully, empty) to contact their office or building manager, who can arrange to have it sent to 175 N. Harvard St. That’s where Gogan holds a weekly furniture giveaway on Thursdays from 11a.m. to 2 p.m.

Employees who need that extra filing cabinet or workspace can start their search here – although they’ll find a lot more than office furniture amassed on the northwest corner of the parking lot at 175 N. Harvard. Cots, mirrors, chalkboards, and even stoves sit alongside the familiar swivel chairs and oak desks.

“The variety is what draws people”, says Gogan. “It’s only trash because someone has decided they don’t want it anymore. It doesn’t mean it’s still not useful”

If at first you don’t succeed

If you’re still struggling, you can call in an expert like Kristan – or take advantage of Schlenger’s course at CTD, “Time Management: How To Be Organized In Spite Of Yourself.”

Schlenger reminds her students to keep a sense of humor about getting organized, because, as she puts it, “Murphy’s Law will get you every time.”

People’s natural tendencies toward neatness or chaos may vary, Kristan says, but getting organized is a skill anyone can learn: “Some people do this with great ease, and others struggle mightily with it, but everybody can get better at it.”

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