Expert Interview with Donna and Karen on Getting Organized for Mint

Disorganization in your business and life affect more than just the amount of clutter you have in your office or home. It's not only about those jam-packed closets you have to open with caution or the stacks and stacks of papers covering your desk.

So how does disorganization affect people beyond the immediate physical mess?

"Disorganization causes them to lose credibility. Their reputation suffers. They lose clients and miss opportunities because of lack of follow-up. They pay penalties due to late payment of bills, and other financial problems such as credit worthiness, etc.," say Karen Simon and Donna McMillan, co-founders of Island Organizers.

To get advice on how to avoid all of the above, we checked in with Donna and Karen recently, who offered tips on everything from managing your family's finances to getting over your organization hang-ups. Here's what they had to say:

Tell us about Island Organizers...when and why did you start your business?

In 2006, Island Organizers was launched as a collaboration of two veteran professional organizers who specialized in space, time and information management. We felt that by partnering our services, we could provide a full range of services to our clientele. We found most clients who hired our individual companies needed the others' services.

Donna: I found that most small businesses and individual professionals were experts at what they went into business to do. However, they lacked the skills required to set up organized and efficient systems to operate their businesses. When I began McMillan & Company Professional Organizing in 1984, I felt that my training skills, coupled with my experience as an office and staff administrator, would be valuable to their success.

Karen: In the 1990s, there was a gap in available technology support for entrepreneurs and home-based businesses. These businesses needed and wanted to make use of technology but required hardware and software recommendations, installation and training. Existing tech support companies did not want to service this sector. I established PC Tech Associates because my passion was and is to help small businesses to use technology as an efficiency tool so they could grow and expand easily. I had spent numerous years managing small businesses and staff from top to bottom, and brought with me expertise in workflow analysis, computers and training.

What type of person or business most often seeks your services? What are their primary concerns?

We tell everydiv that being organized means being able to quickly find what you need when you need it. Since organizing skills are not taught in formal education, people do not know how to store their paperwork and digital information for easy access and retrieval.

Solopreneurs, entrepreneurs and other professionals are overwhelmed. They can't find things, can't get things done, and have problems with managing their time. They are afraid of losing clients. They miss deadlines and meetings. They fumble and spend too much time trying to make technology work. These folks have exhausted all resources, but know there is a solution and are ready for change. They want more free time, they want peace of mind knowing where things are, they want tools and techniques to learn how to stay organized.

Some want on-site, "hands-on" assistance. Do-it-yourselfers seek virtual services while others look for group workshops and training sessions.

How can becoming organized help people beyond just reducing clutter? What are the emotional/psychological benefits?

Gain peace of mind and freedom from stress, improve sleep, improve focus, concentration and creativity.

We have a newsletter that we send to clients - this issue in particular talks about fears and emotional benefits.

What's one thing that you wish all individuals would do to safeguard or back up their financial information in the event of an emergency or disaster?

Document everything, store it in a safe and handy location AND give a copy to someone else who is outside their immediate location.

We have so many articles, lists and blogs on this subject:

Karen's most important advice is to BACKUP BACKUP BACKUP.

What's your best advice on overcoming organization hang-ups or excuses? How do you kick old, bad habits?

Everydiv has a different reason for getting stuck when it comes to organizing. We are not therapists. Sometimes they become disorganized due to personal issues and/or a major change in their lives (e.g., marriage, divorce, death, having kids, moving, change/loss of job, etc.). So, this question can be difficult to answer in one sentence.

Step 1: For our clients, we try to "get to the bottom" of their disorganization by asking several questions.
Step 2: We then proceed by teaching them some core skills to become and stay organized.
Sept 3: Generally speaking, when it comes to how to START to get organized, once they have those skills, we teach them to break the project/process into smaller pieces.

As far as habits go, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

We have clients commit to their "new selves" by writing down their new commitments and "mantras." We have them block off time on their calendar for getting organized. At the end of every day at the office, we recommend that they reserve a half hour to "clear the decks" to get ready for the next day. See this related New Habits article.

What advice do you have on organizing a family's financial paperwork? What are some tried-and-true tricks?

Create a filing system for the paperwork:

  • Separate items into Active vs. Archive
  • Set up filing categories by account and/or by year for tax purposes
  • Use color-coding for quick filing and identification
  • Store prior year's statements and policies away from current-year's files
  • Have "general guidelines" for destroying documents no longer required
  • Use names for folders that are familiar to YOU
  • Be diligent about getting items into files by scheduling time on the calendar to do the maintenance

How often should we be revisiting our financial paperwork so we're not drowning in it? What can be thrown out? What should we keep and for how long?

We call this Information Overload! We recommend setting aside at least once per week to do "filing maintenance." As far as tossing/keeping, we tell clients to seek guidance from their CPA, attorney, insurance and other professionals. We are not qualified to provide information about their document retention.

With more households and businesses going paperless, we might not have as much physical evidence of our disorganization. So what should we be doing to organize our online finances?

Just as we recommend with paperwork, we help clients to create a digital filing system that mirrors their paper system and maintain it in the same way.

We also recommend that keeping track of finances on a computer/cloud-based system like and/or QuickBooks and Quicken is efficient for several reasons, including:

  • Account information is stored and accessible in the same place
  • Allows multiple users access to the information and from multiple devices/locations
  • Enables users to quickly locate specific transactions when needed for documentation
  • Creating reports allows users to analyze income and spending, monitor investment performance, compile tax information
  • Businesses NEED to analyze financial information to make decisions for marketing, sales, forecasting and strategic planning

What are some of your favorite tools for organizing a family's paperwork? What about for electronic organization?

Our Favorite Paperwork Tools:

  • Storage boxes for letter and legal-sized files that are made of cardboard or plastic that have lids and handles
  • See also this post about Donna's favorite tool, a desktop file storage box
  • Labelmakers for identifying "homes" for possessions (shelves, containers, etc.)
  • Shredders - diamond-cut or cross-cut

Our Favorite Electronic Tools: (the list is long because electronic tools are our favorite these days!)

  • When digital bookkeeping tools (e.g. Quicken, QuickBooks, are used in conjunction with a scanner, this can be THE answer to the paperwork nightmare
  • Shared electronic calendars eliminate the need for paper calendars, scribbled notes, multiple calendars that contain conflicting information
  • Electronic to-do and shopping lists maintained on smartphones and mobile devices keep information at your fingertips when on the go
  • Password-keeping apps make essential information accessible AND eliminates the disaster of losing the list!
  • Secured, cloud-based document storage with access permissions allows families to share vital documents and information off-site in case of emergencies
  • Scanners provide the ability to store "paperwork" away from disasters AND eliminate the costs of supplies and the space required to maintain paper in its physical form

Follow Donna and Karen on Facebook.