Whether you use Get It Together or handle the job on your own, there are a few basic steps to completing and maintaining your personal planner.

1. Get started! Set aside one- to two-hour windows—sufficient to be productive, but not overwhelming. If using Get It Together, read the two introductory chapters—"About This Book" and "Completing Your Planner."

2. Prepare your planner pages. If using Get It Together, decide whether you will fill in the workbook pages (by hand or with a typewriter) or use the CD-ROM. If using the CD-ROM, save the files to your computer, so they’re ready to fill, save and print.

3. Get a planner binder. You can use any kind of ”container” you like—box, accordion file, file folders, three-ring binder—but a binder is probably most handy. You can organize your materials in the binder with tab dividers, pocket and sheet-protector pages, and binder pouches (for small, irregular items, like keys and credit cards).

4. Figure out secure storage. If you don’t already have a fireproof, water-resistant home safe, this is your best excuse to get one. When you’re shopping, ensure the safe you consider is sufficiently large to hold your planner—whether box, files or binder.

You might want to store your planner with your attorney (who has filed your original legal documents securely) or in a safe deposit box at your bank. If you consider these options, however, store only those records that won’t be needed immediately (storing the others securely at home). Your loved ones may not be able to access for days or weeks following your incapacitation or death.

5. Complete planner sections. Start completing your planner sections, beginning with the easiest or most important topics and collecting related documents as you go. If using the CD-ROM files, password-protect each file as you complete it, or save completed files to portable media and secure with your planner. Expect to spend about 12 hours collecting related materials and completing your planner.

6. Talk to your loved ones. There’s no need to tell everyone about your planner, but be sure to tell your healthcare agent, agent for finances, executor and successor trustee (if you’ve made the related documents)—where you are storing your planner and how they can access it when needed.

You’ll want to remind them periodically. Not wanting to consider your incapacitation or death, they may not have heard you clearly the first few times! The news headlines will provide opportunities to discuss your preparedness—for example, Hurricane Katrina (prepare to evacuate quickly) and Terri Schiavo (get your medical directive in place).

7. Update your planner. An easy way to capture changes is to jot Post-it notes and insert (with new, related materials) in the corresponding section of your planner. For example, when you get a new credit card, use a Post-it to write down the issuer, account number and customer service number, then stick it in the Credit Cards section of your planner (along with the new account information you’ve received). Then, every year or two, you can update your entire planner by sweeping through quickly with changes already in hand.

Starting next month, we’ll discuss various sections of your planner, with insights and tips for organizing your materials, preparing important documents and completing your planner.

Melanie Cullen is the author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo), a workbook/CD-ROM for preparing and organizing your important records—for yourself and for your loved ones. She is a management consultant with TerraSys Consulting, Inc. and serves on the Projects@Work editorial board. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

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