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My Least Favorite Organizing Products

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photograph by Susan Baier

My Least Favorite Organizing Products

There is no rulebook for organizing products.  These are just my opinions based on my personal experiences and based on my observations of frustrated clients.  I apologize in advance if I am badmouthing your favorite organizing products(s), but maybe I can introduce you to some even better solutions.  Most of the following products fall short of being helpful because of essentially two things:  they are inflexible and difficult to use.

1. All-in-one Date Book. What I’m talking about here (without giving away any brand names) are those big bulky binders that have your schedule, address book, metric conversion chart, calculator, and anything else they can think to pack in.  They’re padded, I guess so they won’t hurt so much when they land on your feet.  My main issue with these is that the larger something is, the less likely you are to bring it with you.  Alternative: I carry [an iPhone] everywhere, but any smartphone will do. With it I have my most up-to-date schedule and phone book in my pocket.  (It even has a calculator.)  A cheaper improvement on the all-in-one is just a simple flat date book that easily fits into any bag.  Don’t get the very small datebook because it is difficult to write in and read.

2. Spiral Notebook. How can I attack the sacred spiral notebook!  My problem with them is they are either too big or too small.  I see lots of wasted half notebooks and what do you do when you run out of pages at the end of a semester? Start another? Or shove a couple loose leaf pages in?  Maybe you decide to rip out the useful pages and repurpose the unused half.  Those ragged useful pages are a filing disaster. Alternative: One inch binders offer much more flexibility with storage; and Pre Punched Writing Pads are easier to write on and they tear off cleanly.

3. String Envelopes. I don’t like these even when they are clear.  The buttons that the string wraps around makes files unnecessarily thick and uneven.  The process of closing the envelopes with string prohibits use and when they don’t get used, they look sloppy and the loose string gets into all sorts of inappropriate places. Alternative: Tuck Flap Envelopes from www.jampaper.com.  Besides being clear and leaving the contents visible for action, the tuck flaps are neat and take up almost no space.

4. Desk Calendars. I believe a clear desk space is the most important tool in keeping an office organized.  You should only store the minimum of office tools on your desk.  This does not include a calendar.  The open space must be devoted to processing work, NOT storage.  Since vital information goes on a calendar, it should not be buried under your work. Alternative: A large wall calendar puts the information you need on a vertical surface where you can always see it.  The same is true with a calendar on your computer screen.

5. Desk Carousel Organizer. If it calls itself an “organizer”, it’s a safe bet it will not organize you.  (Of course that does not include me!)  Again, these things waste valuable desk space by storing more than you need of some items and storing less than you need of others. Alternative: This may take some nerve, but give it a try.  Choose just one favorite pen, keep it on your desk and store a backup supply in your desk drawer.  People tend to take pens from you freely when you have a large supply sitting around.  Also leave out a stapler, notepad, and maybe a calculator.  The rest can go in a desk drawer.  Keep the runway clear for take off.

6. “Magnetic Page” Photo Album. I’ll give these albums credit for being flexible, but that’s it.  They only work a few years before the photos go flying and because the pages are not acid free they actually do more damage to the photos than if they were not “protected”.  Alternative: I like the flexibility of a binder with clear plastic pages of 4×6 slots.  You just have to make sure they are acid free.  For a great line of archival photo supplies check out www.lightimpressionsdirect.com

7. Large Opaque Plastic Bins. These may make your stuff look organized, but they can also conceal a bounty of clutter.  Alternative: Clear plastic bins don’t let you forget what you are keeping and smaller sizes make them easier to lift and easier to use.

8. Baskets. The worst is the round or oval basket with handle.  Not much fits in it well and the basket itself fits almost nowhere.  Even those nice looking square organizing baskets aren’t great because they conceal their contents, making them forgettable.  Finally, the crevices in a basket’s weave represent just one more place to trap dust.  Alternative: Again, the clear plastic bins [and drawers] are a better answer.  For further clarity you can adhere descriptive labels to plastic bins, but with baskets you have to cope with tags.

9. Zig-zag sticky notes with Dispenser. I always find these at the bottom of supply closets, probably because they are infuriating to use.  The dispenser is good because it establishes a structured home on your desk for notes, but the zig-zag stickies are not worth it.  They do, however, make a dazzling streamer when hurled across the room. Alternative: A standard 3×3 sticky pad works fine for taking phone messages.  The 1.5×2 notes are perfect for adding “to do”s to your day’s schedule, but not a good look for your monitor perimeter if they’re not getting done.

10. Accordion File. Number one on this list is the accordion file.  Like the spiral notebooks, the accordion file is either too big or too small.  Sure it’s designed to expand somewhat, but then you have this cumbersome overstuffed thing, which may, at least subconsciously, discourage you from filing.  That’s not good.  It locks you into an alphabetical system, which I often discourage, or it provides categories for you.  Some categories you may not want while others go unrepresented.  And trying to get smaller items from the bottom of the file can be an adventure in frustration. Alternative: Admit you need a proper file cabinet.  A two drawer one is usually enough  in most households.  It is definitely worth it to get a good quality one, with easy glide action on the drawers.  As for files, I like to use box-bottom hanging files to hold categories made up of standard tri-cut manila folders.

There is an understandable attraction to all-in-one organizing solutions, but all too often they don’t make a good fit.  Why?  Because they don’t factor in your evolving organizing needs.  In short, they are not flexible.  When something is not a good fit, it is awkward, difficult to use, and ultimately forgettable.  You need a customized solution geared toward your organizing needs, not to the manufacturer’s limitations.

What organizing products do you absolutely hate? Or do you hate that I hate the accordion file? I’d love to hear from you.

12 Comments
  1. Matt, not sure if these qualify but I hate paper clips. They are I suppose a necessary evil but when I have mutiple files that are clipped together, invariably something latches on where it does not belong

  2. My lifelong journey toward being better organized has allowed me to try every product you just listed. My overstuffed accordian file is very heavy and is held together by rubber bands. It is not convenient nor easy to access but it works for storing product manuals as I do not need them very often. My lease favorite are desktop organizers. The more I have the more I fill.

  3. Ooh, that’s a good one and I agree with the reason. Also, papers in afile often catch on the paper clips and block the tab, making the file hard to find. Too many paper clips will also fatten a file, limiting your file space.

  4. Absolutely. Desktop organizers tend to be clutter traps. I also hate rubber bands. They discourage retrieval and they tend to dry up and snap. Clear Ziploc bags usually work for small bundles of paper. As for owners manuals, you make a good point about how infrequently they are used, but my preference would be a clear plastic box or drawer.
    They offer better structure, findability, and usability.

  5. Easy!! Those terrible Desk Organizer/Sorters that have tabs numbered from 1-30 (as in 30 days in a month) – and then one for each month. So you put bills or papers in there by “the day” and THEN WHAT? check it each day? What happens when you go to the next month? Crazy! It is like an organizing illusion…
    When I find those in a clients office of desk, it’s the first thing to go. The best way to handle your bills is pay them when you get them. No one gets interest in checking accounts anymore so don’t delay, just pay.

  6. Hmmmm… this is a tough one!

    Spiral notebooks and string envelopes drive me crazy, but those desktop carousels? Eeeeek! Aside from being an outdated eyesore, they… no wait. That’s it. They’re just ugly and useless.

  7. Just scan docs into computer and have a folder in the computer.

  8. I will cast a vote for the string envelope. Those wrap arounds are great torture for someone else – especially when you do a figure 8 pattern.

  9. String envelopes, good one! Can repeated string wrapping really be the most efficient technology?

  10. I love a Household Accordion File! I start a new one every year and put transitory items in it. That saves me from having to frequently purge my file cabinet, which I use only for non-permanent or long-term files and documents. What do I put in the accordion file? Paid utility and communication (tv, internet, phone) bills, insurance policies and statements, bank statements, store receipts, purchase orders, etc. Things that don’t need to be saved long-term or that expire. For example, an insurance policy is superseded when the next one comes out — no need to keep it long term. Or quarterly investment statements; when the end of year one comes in, I keep that one only in the permanent file.

  11. I meant… that I use my file cabinet for permanent and long-term file (I inadvertently wrote “non-permanent”.

  12. Hi Maureen, thanks for your comments. If an accordion file helps you file easily (no “to file” pile), find what you want, when you want it in seconds, keeps your file cabinet unstuffed and easy to use and makes it easy to purge old archive files, so there’s no accumulation, then that’s great. I wouldn’t discourage you from using an accordion file. However, every client we’ve worked with who uses one has found that it provides a structural barrier to all of the above.

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