Just finished my last expense report of 2011 (a week late), and now I’m staring at a stack of bills and random desk paperwork from December — vote for this, update my account information for that, write my appeal letter for this other thing. Checking account needs to be balanced, and my Quicken doesn’t run on Lion, which means I need to move my Quicken data file to the new computer, which means I need to power up my two-computers-ago old computer to convert my data file. Haven’t synced my phone to the new computer yet, not sure what will break when I do. I owe a dozen thank-you and Merry-Christmas letters to people who were kind enough to offer me their many happy returns of the season (an expression nobody has used much in twenty years, but it’s still rattling around in my brain).
I don’t know how everyone else deals with these kinds of things — the work-like tasks that accumulate, which have to be done but which you don’t get paid for and which will eventually interfere with normal life, cost you extra money, hurt someone’s feelings, etc. if you don’t do them — but they drive me crazy, the way they hang over my head. And there are always more of them coming along, so it’s no good just deciding you won’t bother and hoping they’ll go away.
I actually did that — pretended they didn’t matter, let them pile up, like a sort of hoarder but of petty obligations rather than of things — at various times in my past, when there wasn’t enough time to do all the things I felt had to be done, and I decided to prioritize my various business activities rather than my home life. No need to go into specifics, but it didn’t end well, so I try not to do that now. But my aim is to minimize time spent and maximize efficiency, so here’s how I handle it:
Don’t obsess about the mail. As a kid, I loved getting mail. I filled in those magazine coupons for free literature and sent them in (there’s a family story about a real estate salesman coming to call on me about Lake Arrowhead vacation property when I was about 8), I corresponded with cousins, I had pen pals in faraway lands. I still like the mail, but I keep it constrained. I get my mail at the post office — a habit I got into almost 15 years ago, when I was living by myself in a little house (a house with a small mailbox, in Atlanta, a city where it rains every afternoon) and traveling all the time. I kept the habit up when I opened a book sales business that took me to my neighborhood post office in East Atlanta (pictured here, courtesy Google Street View) every day with tubs of packages, and continued it after I moved to New York, where I lived pretty itinerantly for the first couple of years. Fortunately, this being New York, the lobby of my post office is open 24 hours a day, 362 days a year.
Triage mail immediately. Whenever I pick up the mail, I sort it immediately. Anything I won’t read goes right in the trash without opening; then I open the rest and throw away the bits and pieces I don’t care about; then, from the rest, I pull out anything that needs immediate action (but the bar for this is set very high). The rest goes into my bright red inbox, where I forget about it until it’s paperwork time.
Do the paperwork in big bursts, not in dribs and drabs. When I was a kid, my dad was always working on paperwork of this sort, and that system didn’t seem fair, even to him; I suspect he spent most of his peak adult years worrying about the things he’d left undone. We all do that, to a degree, but he seemed to have the curse worse than others — he always seemed anxious about not being able to keep up, and I’ve worked to avoid that tendency in myself. So I pile the mail in my bright red inbox and put off a paperwork session to once a month or so.
There’s always an extra heap of stuff to be done around year-end/new-year time, which is what I’m facing now. So I’m going to try to clear out the backlog. But I have plans tonight, so I only have a couple of hours to do it in, and I’ll have to work fast…