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Record-Keeping for Minimalists

I don't like clutter. Junk mail and empty envelopes are my least favorite form, and rubber bands, paper clips, and other idle office supplies are a close second. (Third: Recycling build-up. Fourth: Disorganized/outdated browser bookmarks.) There's a certain amount of clutter that comes with an artist husband--illustration board scraps, pencils, smudge stumps, pots of paint, masking tape--and fortunately, we have an office dedicated to that work, so we can close it off and live relatively clutter-free in the rest of the house.

I find a lot of reasons to take notes (which can create clutter):

• When a business or product idea strikes.
• While writing a pre-sleep to-do list for the next day.
• As snippets of prose and lyrics unexpectedly come to mind.
• While setting up databases, webservers, and hosting accounts.
• When I find a successful photography configuration.
• As I'm "taking orders" from a client.

I used to be pathetically disorganized (except for computer-wise... I've always kept a tidy desktop), but now I'm virtually clutter-free yet never more than a couple of seconds away from what I need. Here's the gist of my system; maybe some of my practices will work for you.

• For long-term information that must be written down, use a sturdy notebook and stow away. I actually have a couple of these. One (a ledger) contains all of my (creditor) account logins and due dates, so when it's time to pay bills, I can just pull out the book and fly through the task. The other (a 4x6 leather-bound book I can pop in my purse) contains all of the administrative logins for clients... when some clients have 20 or more accounts, every account has different requirements for a password, and your browser fails at storing the passwords, it's nice to have a hard copy back-up. These are stowed away until needed.

• For long-term records of a specific project, use a sturdy notebook and store with project. Yes, another one. For instance, if you are a photographer, keep records in your notebook and store it with your equipment. Every time you pull out the camera, your diary of settings will be at hand.

• For short-term tasks, use small steno pads and keep on you. These are small enough to stash in a bag easily and perfectly sized for to-do lists. Since they're so portable, you can always have one with you and pull it out to jot down notes during a client call or keep track of billable hours. I use one at a time, until it's been exhausted, and it's always within sight or reach.

• When short-term tasks are completed and billed, discard the notes. A great thing about steno pads is that they have strong binding, so even when you pull out a page, the rest stay intact. When I've completed the work on a page (and recorded it for billing), I'll at least put an "X" it or tear it out and throw it away. That way, the most recent stuff--which still needs to be done--is always near the top, and I'm not unnecessarily bogged down.

• For creative endeavors, use a hardcover sketchbook (black book). Black books are flexible because of their blank pages, which allow you to escape the structure of lined paper for sketching, composition, site-mapping, or other "flowy" work--in addition to writing. The hard cover implies respect for your ideas, which immediately have more weight and permanency (versus a doodle on a napkin, for instance). Black books harness your creativity at the moment of inspiration and hold them for when you're ready for future execution. I use one at a time, until it's been exhausted, and it's usually nearby for quick access.

• Use digital calendars. If non-clutter is a priority for you, maybe my suggestions for a sturdy notebook, AND a steno pad, AND a black book are too much for you. I definitely can't convince you to carry a date book on top of all that. Get acquainted with your phone's calendar, your computer's calendar, and Google calendars. In many cases, you can sync your phone to your computer; Google calendars are great for sharing with a circle of people. Both may provide automated reminders via email, SMS text, or phone call, which is one great advantage over the ol' appointment book.