What I learned from surviving a fire: sanity, paper, & your desk

The dryer that caught fire

The dryer that caught fire

What is the first instruction anyone gets when there is a crisis at hand? Stay calm. How do I stay calm when my home has been turned upside down? When I can’t find anything and everything I wear or touch is dirty with soot? Staying calm is the answer, though, because panic helps no situation. I promise.

As a reminder, this was not a completely devastating fire. I’m sure there are readers that have been through natural and unnatural disasters much worse than this and I certainly don’t want to undermine their experiences. However, I’ve learned some interesting lessons during this event and recovery that can help anyone. Today. Now. You can benefit from my experience and I hope it helps just 1 person.

Things are just things and really don’t matter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Nobody was hurt. People are irreplaceable; things are not. Case closed. We were extremely fortunate and didn’t lose anything super important or sentimental like wedding pictures or family heirlooms. On that note, your things take on a totally different meaning when they are covered in soot. I’ll admit that my desk was not the picture of perfect order and organization. I had stacks of business cards, receipts, notebooks, magazines, and other papers stacked on it just like a lot of you do. It was all super important to me which is why it was out in the first place. (Any of this sounding familiar?) I was going to work on them/ file/ read/ etc. them but there they were stacked up and messy. Now they were covered in soot. I don’t know if you’ve ever had experience with soot but it is not easy to clean. It’s not a dry dust you can just wipe away. It is oily and dirty so that when you wipe it, it leaves streaks. Not fun but dealing with that was a good thing. If it weren’t the case, I’d be writing about replacing papers because they would have all been burned up. It’s all about your perspective…

Those super important papers don’t seem so important anymore when you have to wear gloves to read them. Soot is a great equalizer. Magazines and notebooks can be replaced and receipts can be duplicated. If they had been soooo important I would have already read or processed them.  I am guilty of time management issues just like you. I, too, get distracted doing “research” on Pinterest instead of recording business receipts. I get it. But time is fleeting and if you don’t take care of something in a timely manner, it will be much harder the longer you wait.

  • Set up a time each week to go through papers like mail, receipts, and bills and stick to it. If you stay consistent the pile doesn’t get larger and it takes less time to process.
  • Adopt a clear desk policy where you don’t leave papers strewn across your desk when you are finished for the day. This is a for-real compliance policy  (it’s ISO 17799/27001 compliant for you compliance nerds like I used to be) that many heavily regulated corporations adopt and enforce to ensure that employees are not leaving private information out for others’ perusing. It’s good for civilians as well to make sure you are actually completing tasks and putting things away in a timely manner. When you are done for the day, clear the papers off your desk. It makes starting the next day there so much more pleasant, too.
  • Apply the same policy to your computer so that you are saving files and sites in a timely manner. Leaving excessive windows open is akin to leaving open magazines or newspapers on your desk. Either bookmark the site or save the file so you can find it later.
  • Get rid of the layers of papers. If they’re on the bottom layer, you probably haven’t missed them and could probably be tossed. If they are important, they need to go into a To Be Filed or To Be Paid or to be tossed pile.
  • Set up a filing system and use it. Make it your own so it makes sense to you. Adopting someone else’s won’t do any good if you can’t follow it.

Set up a home filing system. While we are talking about papers and filing them in a timely fashion, I can no reiterate how important home filing systems are. Do you know where your birth certificate, passport, children’s birth certificates, adoption papers, wills, marriage certificate, etc are? If so, good for you and pat yourself on the back. A lot people have an idea of where these papers are but aren’t 100%. These are the types of papers that are a massive pain to replace. It can be done but with discomfort. These are the types of files to put in a Fire Box. We were fortunate and these documents were no where near the fire but I’m going to get one just for these documents. I’ve also heard from other organizers to store electronic copies of these in the cloud somewhere.

A filing system is essential for tracking all kinds of important family paperwork: medical records, paid bills, important letters, contracts, receipts, manuals, user guides, employment documents, bank notices, in addition to the documents I mentioned above. You need a system to file these things that makes sense to you so that it’s easy to manage.

This situation reminded me that your home filing system should also include a section for large home purchases like computers, TVs and other expensive electronics, washer and dryer, rugs, furniture, artwork, and for pretty much anything you paid a lot of money. You want to be able to find documentation on what you had, how much you paid for it, and where and when you bought it.  Our washer and dryer came with our house and we had to do some research to find out how old they were. Write down on your appliance manuals what the price was, where you purchased, and when. This will help immensely with insurance if this ever happens to you or if you sell your home.  It’s also a good idea to have a file where you keep all of your manuals and user guides.  If you need further assistance or have questions about what should be in your home filing system, send me a message carrie@neatsmart.com.

So this is the first lesson that I learned from surviving a fire:  if your papers are really important, deal with them promptly. The less you touch them, the less you are building an emotional attachment to them. If they are important, you’ll handle them quickly. Develop, or have someone help you develop,  a good management system that’s easy and sensible for you. Stay tuned for more …

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Happy organizing!

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