To get organized and stay organized, here is a simple rule of thumb: sort out, store in. Here are some examples.
Instead of trying to free up some space INSIDE your file cabinet, get the files OUT and sort them on a clear open surface. This way is much easier to see whether you have only statements from 2011 or whether you’ve also got statements from 2010 (or earlier) that could be archived more remotely. It is much easier to see if you have your current insurance policies easily findable, so that you can safely toss the old ones. Inside a packed file cabinet it is difficult to see what you have and difficult to get perspective.
Perhaps you are saying you have no clear surface to work on. In my experience that is usually because there are a lot of files out on the surface that don’t actually require action, but just require finding reliably. In other words, they should be STORED IN the file cabinet. If the contents of the file cabinet have been properly sorted and edited, the files from your cluttered surface should have plenty of room and should be easy to find.
A clear work surface is your most important organizing tool because it gives you room for processing, which includes sorting. The more you STORE OUT on a clear surface, the more you are forced to SORT IN a storage cabinet. In these circumstances it is impossible to stay organized.
Another example is organizing a cluttered closet. It’s not enough to grab a couple of junky things to throw out. You need to sort, like you need to think: OUTside the box. Get it all out and start fresh. For one thing, you will be amazed at how much you have been packing into this little space. Also it’s often the items in the very back that are the quickest wins. Closets are valuable when the contents are visible, findable, and accessible. Reconsider the awkward items that compromise that and reconsider excessive items. For further closet tips, see my closet series.
Finally, if you want to organize an entire room, SORT OUT the contents in another room (if you can). It’s easier to rethink how you are using things in a space if you start with a clean slate. Also, it is easier to be more objective with the contents of that space if you are reconsidering them OUTside the context of that space. For example, does it really make sense to devote so much surface space to framed photos and tchtchkes in my home office, when I’m trying to get work done there?
So if you really need to get organized and you don’t know where to start, start with this. Sort out. Store in.