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My So-Called Financial Life

I have a confession to make: My office is a mess.

Part of the problem is that, last spring, we found a leak in the ceiling of the southeast corner of the office. The sprinkler pipe just inside the exterior wall above the basement foundation had failed, creating noticeable water damage.

The repairs took months, and during that time, my already lame system for filing paperwork was thrust into ruin as I evacuated my water- and drywall-stained bookshelf. I was hopelessly lost in piles of paper. Bills, reports, research -- everything I had come to depend on to manage work and life was strewn about like Dorothy's house after the tornado hit.

Still digging out
My office looks better now, but there's plenty of work still to be done. I'm digging out from under daily. And, as I do, I notice improvements. Here are just a few of the things that have worked well:

  • No longer in a bind: I have separate binders for bills and investments. This approach helps me keep critical information organized and close at hand, since I keep both books on a shelf on my desk. The bills binder is especially useful because it's organized by creditor and by date. That, in turn, gives me a rich history of payments and transactions with American Express, which has most of our credit card business, and Washington Mutual, which holds our mortgage. Next step: Update all of our Quicken data.

  • The hot and cold files: My job requires that I keep up with news on more than two dozen companies on a regular basis. But, until recently, I wasn't. Keeping up, that is. I had personal files mixed together with news clippings in a box behind my desk. I'd occasionally leaf through it when working on a big article, but not nearly often enough to make my files worthwhile. Instead, I examined each folder, and then reorganized everything into "hot" and "cold" files. The hot files are kept close at hand, and include up-to-date clippings on Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) and TASER (Nasdaq: TASR  ) , both of which I believe are poised to cash in on multibillion-dollar opportunities. The cold files are for personal stuff and companies I'll cover when my muse inspires me. They are stored in a metal filing cabinet in the office closet.

  • Dumping on the trash man: Of course, none of this reorganizing would have been possible if I hadn't been ruthless in getting rid of much of the paperwork that I had been storing. Most of it was outdated by years, left over from previous jobs. I didn't need it, so I dumped it all on the trash man. How big was the pile? Let's just say I rid myself of eight years' worth of Fast Company back issues.

Three to-don'ts
I still have a lot of work left to make my office a haven for productive work. But, as I make progress, I try not to forget how I got myself into this mess. Here's my top three don'ts:

  • Don't let the paper sit: When paper sits unaddressed, bills go unpaid, files get old, and life becomes harder to manage. Set aside 15 minutes a day to manage paperwork. At least get it to the next step, whether that's placing the paperwork in a binder or a folder to be addressed later.

  • Don't mix files: Mixing personal and business files can get confusing and lead to problems later. Example: My work files also contained data on stocks I was tracking for my own interest. Bad idea.

  • Don't forget to schedule: Daily management won't always be enough. That's why it's important to create a clean-up schedule that involves making sure bills are paid and filed, work papers are arranged in order, and, most important of all, junk is thrown away. Clutter has utterly destroyed my productivity over the years.

The Foolish bottom line
When will my office be what I really want it to be? Maybe never. But as I examine my so-called financial life, I'm reminded that organization has a direct impact on what I spend, how much money I make, and how much free time I get to spend with my family. Thinking in those terms has made it more difficult to bump clean-up from my list of Foolish duties. Care to pick up a garbage can and join me?

Money matters keeping you up at night? We're offering an exclusive teleseminar with Motley Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner. They'll tell you when to buy and sell stocks in this uncertain market.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers still struggles with financial issues from time to time. He owns shares of Akamai. You can find out what else is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.

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