Lest we forget the agony of corraling all those scraps of paper for yesterday's deadline, how can we reform before tax time next year?
Start, says Washington organizing consultant Barbara Hemphill, with the trash can.
"The waste basket is often the most important file. Always open your mail beside it.
"There are only three things to do with a piece of paper -- take action, file it, or throw it out. Paper is undoubtedly one of the greatest sources of irritation in our society and a cluttered desk is a sure sign of postponed decisions." (Hemphill's Cure: Put a dot on the corner of a piece of paper each time you handle it.)
"If you don't know you have it or can't find it later," says Hemphill, "it's of no value. People are afraid of being organized, but if you don't have a system you get a terrible insecure feeling of being out of control. It gets worse at tax time." (It takes her, she can boast, "less than an hour" to retrieve every deductible stub from her files.)
"Most people think organization is neatness and that it's a moral issue. But there is no right or wrong way and it can be learned," maintains Hemphill, 34, who developed her penchant for organizing as a child, when she sorted out relatives' cupboards.
Her clients tend to apologize, and most try to clean up before she comes. "I've seen," she'll say, "worse."
"I expecially recall one professional who had absolutely every flat surface piled 6 inches to a foot deep with everything from 10-year-old receipts, to food, to brand new, unworn clothing, to family heirlooms.
"Once I found over $200 worth of loose change in a client's home just by putting 'like things with like things' (a favorite Hemphil motto).
"I've also found a forgotten $420 dividend check and one time, $2,000 worth of unclaimed medical expenses that dated back three years."
Besides paying by check for all deductible items, Hemphill vows a personally tailored and well-weeded file is more valuable than any organizing gimmick you can buy.
"And now is the time to set up new systems, wheter it's files or a mileage book for the car. It's just a matter of establishing a habit, even if you forget it today but remember again tomorrow."
Hemphill, who also lectures at Open University, charges $20 an hour to come into a home or office. (It takes Hemphill from 2 to 10 hours to organize a home file.)
About her job, Hemphill says she likes "the challenge of knowing any mess is not impossible . . . and seeing people learn to value their own time.
"One woman even put my name and phone number in her safe deposit box. She says I'm the only one who knows everything important about her and where to find it."