Tips and Recommendations from Suzy Wilkoff

How to Select a Professional Organizer

After over eighteen years in business as a productivity consultant and professional organizer, I am almost completely retired. My passion for helping people far outweighed my interest in making money, but I have been successful and am proud of that. Over the years I have been fortunate to have colleagues to refer clients to when services were required that I do not provide and/or when they are geographically closer to the prospective clients who solicited my services.

Suzy offers an initial consultationIt is important that the referrals I provide are highly qualified, abide by a code of ethics and have a great deal of integrity. During retirement, I will take calls from prospective clients and spend whatever time necessary to help them screen professional organizers.

When hiring a professional organizer, one should request references from previous clients. Additionally, ask if the organizer is licensed and insured. Inquire about an in-person consultation before hiring an organizer based upon a telephone conversation. Interviewing the organizer in person allows the prospective client to better gauge their professionalism and poise, particularly if they are being brought into an office environment where they will interface with staff. My feeling has always been that it is just as important that the personalities click as it is that the organizer is qualified for the work.

Providing recommendations on how to best draft a 'To Do' list

In addition to wanting an organizer who is thorough, detailed and easy to get along with, their commitment to confidentiality is important to the working relationship, especially in situations that allow access to private documents.

It is recommended the prospective client inquire what professional affiliations an organizer has. The National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, offers members educational opportunities, as well as promotes the profession to the public. Additionally, The Institute for Chronic Disorganization (ICD) is another professional association, which provides methods, techniques, solutions and educational tools for those working with the chronically disorganized. Through that organization I completed five certificates of study in chronic disorganization by taking classes and attending annual conferences.

If one is looking for a ‘certified’ professional organizer, The Board of Certification for Professional Organizers (BCPO) is the only accredited certification body and ICD is the only organization to offer certification for professional organizers specializing in chronic organization. So, if certification is important, a CPO and CPO-CD are the only two recognized certifications in this profession. An individual organizing company cannot ‘certify’ their own employees. In fact, no company can certify their employees. It must come from an outside entity like BCPO whose guidelines are set forth by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA.)

Although each professional organizer has their own style and philosophy, it is important that they remain flexible about their client’s goals. Ultimately, the client will be the one who will need to use the system that an organizer puts in place. It is recommended to choose a professional organizer who not only provides expertise, but who also accomplishes a user-friendly end result. It’s not only about a space looking neat and tidy. The goal is for the organizer to transfer skills to the client.

Paper and Documents

To Shred or Not To Shred, That is the Question

When clients ask me about what documents to keep and for how long, I not only tell them what I do in my own home office but also recommend they seek expert advice from a CPA.

  • Once it is determined what can be discarded, the next challenge is whether to trash, recycle or shred.
  • Anything with your address, social security number and/or account numbers should be shredded.
  • Can you spell “identity theft?” It takes far less time to shred documents than it does to recover your life after experiencing something so invasive as having your identity stolen.
  • Understanding that shredding is the most mundane task known to mankind, I suggest that you do it in small increments of time. For example, if you watch television in the evenings, put your shredder near your favorite easy chair and shred during the commercials. Do not let the shredding pile up.
  • Another question I often receive is what type of shredder is needed. For the home and home office, a moderately priced shredder that accepts six sheets of paper and also has a slot for shredding credit cards is adequate. Businesses, depending upon amount of paperflow, require more high tech shredders.
  • Ativa offers a great selection of micro-cut and cross-cut shredders for both residential and commercial use.Additionally, there are terrific shredding companies who will come to the home and office to shred onsite or will take the documents to their facilities for destruction. If going that route, be sure to ask for a certificate of destruction upon completion!

Maintaining and Recordkeeping of Expenses

  • Using different credit cards and checking accounts so business expenses are maintained separately will save time and headaches at tax time.
  • If using the same credit card for all expenses, highlight the business expenses on the monthly bill and write two separate checks (one for the business total and one for the personal portion.)
  • Use Quickbooks or Quicken for easy delineation of expense categories.
  • No receipt is needed for business expenses under $75, as long as you document who and what the expenditure was for and when and where you incurred it.
  • Contact your CPA or tax professional to obtain advice on the format they prefer for submission of your financial information for income tax preparation.

Tips for Handling Postal Mail

  • Commit to opening the mail daily, preferably at the same time of day so it becomes routine. Immediately trash junk mail. Shred if appropriate.
  • Discard (shred) envelopes immediately, unless you need the return address of the recipient, if you notice that it’s not included in the contents.
  • For items that need to be filed, either do so immediately, or create a “To File” folder and designate a weekly time to actively file.
  • For documents that need action, place them in an appropriate area for the specific task or project and be sure to calendar the activity to remind yourself to handle it.
  • All bills to pay should be kept together. Once the bill is paid, write the date and check number on it and file it. If you are paying online, be sure you maintain an electronic record. Unless you need them for tax purposes, utility bills, personal bank statements and personal credit card bills do not need kept for more than a year. You can always obtain the information from the bank, utility and credit card company if you need it. (Remember, “less is more” with regard to this type of paper!)
  • Invitations for events to attend should be kept in a folder or container in date order. Once you have attended the event, throw away the invitation.
  • If you receive items that you want to read, like newsletters, but can’t take the time upon opening them, create a file called “To Read” and choose a time each week that you will go through those items. If the folder starts bulging, then review it and if you realize you realistically aren’t going to read everything, discard it. One option is to cut out pertinent articles and throw away the rest of the publication. Upon reading, discard the item (unless you need it for reference).
  • Mail for your spouse should be kept together in one designated area. It is preferable that mail be sorted and acted on in a home office environment or at the very least at a desk. Regardless of the chosen spot, the key is to handle it in the same place and on a regular basis.

Purge Papers Periodically

After developing a customized, user-friendly filing system, I encourage my clients to review the contents and discard unneeded documents semi-annually or at the very least annually.

  • When renewed insurance policies are received, shred the expired ones.
  • Discard reference material that may have been needed for a special project if all of the information has been incorporated in the project documentation.
  • Hold onto receipts for expensive items and/or anything under warranty or covered by insurance.
  • Shred bills and bank statements that are not needed for tax purposes.
  • Check with your accountant, attorney and/or professional organizer with any questions.

Paper Management

One of the first things I do when working with a client to organize the top of their desk is to install a vertical sorter that is graduated from front to back. The files are more visible as the folders are placed from the lowest in the front to the highest in the back. This is so much more user friendly and productive than using lateral trays where items get messy and even worse, lost. Unlike most, I do not like creating a “To Do” file. That is too broad of a category. The categories I recommend are “To File”, “To Read”, “To Pay” and “To Attend.” Items in “To File”, “To Read” and “To Pay” are intended to be handled regularly so the files do not get too full with papers. “To Attend” is for notices and invitations, which you have calendared, but may need for pertinent information that is printed on them. By keeping the sorter on your desk in full view, it’s a constant reminder to stay on top of your paperwork.

Electronic Mail

E-mail subject line

In our haste, we often use the last e-mail we received from someone and hit respond when we are writing to them about a totally different subject. A business colleague of mine recently commented that she thought it was great that I always revise the subject line to state specifically what the e-mail is about. This makes it so much easier when you have to go back in and find an e-mail weeks or months later!

E-mail Overload

How many e-mails do you receive in one day? Do you have scheduled times to read and respond? Are you being controlled by your inbox? The following tips should help you deal with ‘too much information.’

  • Delete the incoming Spam immediately by putting an x in the box next to all of the unwanted e-mails and hitting the ‘delete button.’
  • While you are deleting the Spam, get rid of all of the jokes and other items you receive that do nothing more than take up your valuable time. The sender doesn’t know if you read this junk or not!
  • If in an office setting, it is courteous to acknowledge receipt of an e-mail to let the sender know you got it. Otherwise, a response is often not necessary.
  • A simple phone call instead of an e-mail is more personal and often takes less time than drafting and editing an e-mail response, if a response is required.
  • Keep e-mails to four to five sentences. Stick to the facts and leave out editorializing.
  • Take time to re-read your e-mails before hitting the send button to check for grammar, spelling errors and tone.

Essential Information

Essential Information

If something were to happen to you, does your power of attorney, a family member or close friend have the pertinent information to handle details or make arrangements? It’s also useful to have a list of your critical information, if you need to evacuate due to a hurricane or other natural disaster.

Following are a few of the recommended pieces of information to compile:

  • Social Security Number
  • Bank Names and Account Numbers
  • Safe Deposit Location (including location of key) and inventory of contents
  • Location of Will, Living Trust, Birth and Marriage Certificates, Citizenship Documents
  • Mother’s Maiden Name, Father’s Name and Places of Birth
  • Medical Insurance Company Name and Policy Number; Doctors’ Names and Phone Numbers;
  • Medications; Healthcare Directives
  • Attorneys’, Accountants’ and Estate Executors’ Names and Phone Numbers
  • Financial Information including Investment Companies’ Account Numbers, Outstanding Loans/Debts
  • Real Estate Papers
  • Retirement/pension Information
  • Insurance Policy Numbers, including name of company, type of insurance and phone numbers
  • Family/friend contact Information including cell numbers
  • Pet Information including veterinarian’s telephone number
  • Funeral Instructions
  • Passwords for Computer
  • Codes for Retrieving of Voicemail


Filing Systems

Audience members at a recent speaking engagement expressed their challenges with home office filing systems. The following is a recommendation for setting up new files or tweaking your existing system:

  • Auto (including title and service records)
  • Banking
  • Bills (separate files for major credit cards, retail store accounts and utilities)
  • Family (a file for each family member)
  • House (including major repair/improvement receipts; manuals and warranties)
  • Insurance Policies (originals should be in a safe)
  • Investments (especially “buys” and “sells” of securities)
  • Medical Records
  • Personal (Social Security info, Copies of Wills, Marriage/Divorce documentation)
  • Reference (for example, “Food and Wine”, “Fashion”, “Fitness”, “Maps”)
  • Taxes (returns for the last seven years)
  • Travel (airline frequent flier info)

The filing systems I create always include a reference area, regardless of whether they are in home offices or businesses.

Reference categories for home office files include:

  • Travel
  • Health and medical
  • Home decorating
  • Food and wine

Time Management

T.I.M.E. – To Individuals Means Everything

We all have the same twenty-four hours in a day. It’s how we choose to spend our time that is key. Planning our days on paper or electronically is critical. When you list the items you want to accomplish on a given day, enter them on your calendar or in your electronic device based on the time of day that you intend to do them and allot enough time to complete them. If something doesn’t get accomplished, move it to the next day. If it continues to be rescheduled, rethink your priorities. It was either not as important as you thought and should be crossed off totally or perhaps you need to delegate the task to someone else!

Under-Promise and Over-Deliver

How often have you heard that famous saying? Are you actually doing it? In the time management consulting I do, I encourage clients to set deadlines for completion of projects that are two days prior to those set by their colleagues, bosses and clients. In other words, if someone asks when they can expect to receive the finished product, promise it a day or two beyond when you know you can have it finished. When you present it a day early because you not only met the deadline, but exceeded it, you look like superstar. It might just help you get that promotion you have been seeking!


Who are we accountable to? A boss, the company we work for, our clients, a board we serve on?

An employee satisfies the boss, so the company will be prosperous. Clients depend on businesses whose services they enlist and whose products they purchase. Board or committee members perform ethically and on behalf of the dues paying members.

Underpromising and overdelivering is critical. When assigned a project, I always recommend that my clients advise their superiors or customers that they will complete the project two days after they know they can. They are praised and often rewarded when the project is done in advance of the deadline.

Being accountable and using good practices to insure achieving deadlines saves stress and allows us to thrive.

Improving Scheduling Abilities

Whether my clients are busy executives or stay-at-home moms, scheduling is often an issue.

In a previous newsletter I stressed the importance of the “to do list.” I encourage clients to review the “to do list” and determine if there is anything they can delegate to an employee (if at work) or to a family member (if at home.)

Appointment CalendarWhen working in an office environment, try to end your days at the same time and not too late (unless of course you are working on a special project.) Indicate on your “to do list” the time you plan to leave the office so you can be most productive during the hours you are there.

If activities in your life slow down, don’t over commit to new responsibilities you will regret later when things pick up again.

Often times if you sleep on a request, you will have a different response than you may have had when it was initially made. (Anything that affects your time, should be seriously considered.)

My clients are also encouraged to incorporate personal time for exercise, social activities and volunteerism into their schedules.

Finally, reconfirm appointments the day before. How many times have you arrived for a meeting only to find out the other person wrote it down for the wrong date and didn’t show up? This applies to doctors’ appointments, too.

Reconfirm appointments

Reconfirm all meetings and appointments the day before. How many times have you arrived for a meeting only to find out the other person wrote it down for the wrong date and didn’t show up? This applies to doctors’ appointments, too.

Tips to Eliminate and Minimize Interruptions

  • At work, set time to answer and/or draft e-mail only once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
  • Call someone instead of e-mailing for a more personal touch.
  • Change voicemail greeting(s) daily, if appropriate.
  • Return calls the same day, if possible.
  • Focus on one aspect of a project at a time.
  • Multi-task only if you are good at it.

Concentration and Focus

For many, particularly during the busy holiday season, it is a challenge to stay focused and not get distracted. A simple example I use is when brushing your teeth, you must concentrate on that activity, otherwise you may not remember an hour later if you did it. The same may be said for dropping a letter in the mailbox or assigning a project to someone who works for you. Whether mundane or critical, stay totally engrossed in the activity while you are doing it and do not allow your mind to wander to what you may be doing later.

Planning Meetings

Planning Thoughts and Preparing Written Questions for an Initial Consultation with a Professional

Prior to interviewing a prospective attorney, doctor, accountant or investment advisor, draft a list of bullet points. This could include (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Expertise of the professional, including educational background, professional qualifications, licenses they hold and what type of insurance they have.
  • Experience (how long the person has been in their field and what other related fields were they in prior to their current profession)
  • Continuing education (are they keeping up with the latest updates in their field by taking courses and/or attending seminars?)
  • What strategy and approach will they use to assist you?
  • Fees (Will they charge hourly? If a medical professional, do they take your insurance and if not, what are the specific costs for consultations? Does the professional require you to pay the bill in full or will they set up a monthly payment plan? If an attorney requires a retainer, will he/she document their work against it regularly and will they return any unused portion of the retainer when the work has been completed?
  • Do they have any conflict of interest with the accountants, doctors, lawyers, guardians or judges who may have previously been involved in your ‘case?’ This is critical to allow for a smooth transition, so that all records will be transferred expeditiously.

As the consumer, be prepared to ask anything else to help you make the best decision on whether to enlist the professional’s services. Organizing thoughts thoroughly before a consultation shows the professional that you are serious and as knowledgeable as possible about your situation. Additionally, a written plan enables you to hold a more targeted and productive meeting. It’s always a good idea to interview more than one professional in a specific field. Itemizing your criteria in advance helps to compare professionals to ultimately determine which is more qualified and suited to your needs and best able to help you succeed in reaching your goals.

Tax Time

Eliminate the Clutter and Get a Tax Deduction in the Process

Salvation ArmyAre you looking for more tax deductions, as well as wanting to get rid of stuff from your closets, garage and storage units? Donate gently used items to your favorite charity. Because the IRS requires that all donations be substantiated with a receipt, be sure to indicate the name of the charity, the date and the dollar amount of the donation (fair market value, not what you purchased the item for originally.) To help determine the value of donated goods, the easiest site I have found to navigate is Click on “Ways to Give,” then “Donation Receipts – Valuation Guide.”

Organizing for Income Taxes

When I first started as a budding entrepreneur, I recognized the importance of separating business expenses and income from personal financial documents. It is not recommended that you use the same credit card for groceries, ski trips and manicures as you use for office supplies, business meals and other legitimate business expenses.

IRS logoUsing a different credit card and checking account so business expenses are maintained separately will save time and headaches at tax time. If that is not feasible, I recommend highlighting the business expenses once the credit card bill arrives. (If it arrives via e-mail, it must be printed and the itemization then highlighted.) Quickbooks or Quicken are recommended because they allow for easy delineation of categories.

Attach receipts to the actual credit card bill. According to Vivian Green of Bradford and Company, Inc., the IRS doesn’t require receipts for items under $75, even though you are deducting the expenses for tax purposes, provided you document them (who, what, when, where.)

I always refer my clients to a tax professional when it comes to direction on what format they prefer the information be gathered. Many CPAs provide a tax organizer with the previous year’s information. If you get the facts before you submit your information, you can be more organized and save yourself and your tax preparer time. Ultimately, this saves money!

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