The power of the plastic inbox

I receive a lot of paper at work. You would think that by 2017 the fantasy of the “paperless office” would have become a reality. While many businesses have reduced their paper consumption, it hasn’t disappeared. I recently tackled the problem at work with a tried-and-true solution: plastic trays (similar to these).

After some rummaging around in the depths of the office supply closet, I found to dusty, unwanted, plastic trays. I cleaned them off and made two labels: “IN” and “OUT”. Triumphant, I put them on my desk. I’ll admit that I felt like an out-of-date 1950’s business man — or at least TV’s depiction of such a creature.

The following morning I told my staff, “Anything you have for me that requires some action — a signature, editing, filing, anything at all — put into my new inbox. You’ll find it on my desk.” Although they scoffed at Grandpa Dave’s request, it’s been a huge success. I’ve realized the following benefits of the good old-fashioned inbox:

  1. Everything that needs my attention is once place. There’s no more searching around for who’s got that paper I need.
  2. Stress levels work are greatly reduced because when you trust your system, your brain stops perseverating, and you can get on with work.
  3. Going through the inbox at the end of the day, when things are quiet and wrapping up, is actually pleasant.
  4. My staff and other colleagues appreciate having a clearly-defined drop point for items that need my attention.
  5. I have more space on my desk to do actual work! No more mini-stacks of paper here and there.
  6. Boy, it sure feels good when that box is empty.

The secret here is to put everything in the inbox. The receipt in your wallet? Inbox. The notes from that meeting? Inbox. The packing slip from this morning’s delivery? Inbox. You can process all of this stuff (decide that it is, what action needs to be taken, and then act accordingly) when time allows.

It’s such a simple, inexpensive thing. Give it a try at work, home, or where ever you collect and process “stuff.” Let your co-workers, family members, or housemates know, too. You’ll be very glad you did.

Reader question: How should I store my fabric stash?

Reader Zora sent us the following question:

I sew my own clothing; I also quilt, make lace, crochet, etc. I have a 20 year accumulation of cloth, scraps, and supplies that is exquisitely organized (labeled boxes, labeled plastic drawers). If I had a dedicated sewing room, it would all fit nicely there. But I don’t. It’s all neatly stacked in the spare room, which I must clear out so I can rent it. Advice for fabriholics?

Zora, I understand the stash and hopefully can provide you with some help on this matter. I, too, sew and have a fabric stash. Fabric, yarn, fiber, thread, and canvas hoarding, along with pattern and supply accumulation is a common problem among fiber artists. (The most unbelievable stash I’ve ever seen photographed is showcased here. It’s a yarn stash, but the hoarding concept is the same.) The advice that I’m giving can be applied to anyone wanting to get his or her stash in order.

Mindset: There is not a limited supply of fabric in the world. Plants continue to produce cotton, worms spin silk, sheep have wool, and there are fabric manufacturers and retailers willing to produce and sell you gorgeous fabrics. If any of these processes cease to exist, you will have larger concerns than obtaining fabric.

That being said, it is ridiculous to assume that a serious artist will have no stash. A friend may appear at your door with a batik fabric from a trip to India. If you can’t think of a project to start immediately, you now have a stash on your hands.

Therefore, I suggest that your stash be a limited size. Determine the size of your stash based on two factors: 1. How much you can sew in a set time period (I suggest having no more than six months or a year of projects), and 2. How much you can carry in one load. If you cannot carry the whole of your stash, then it is too big. You would never be able to save it in an emergency if you couldn’t carry it, so why have more than you could reasonably save?

Future buying: Buy fabric for specific projects. Don’t buy fabric unless you know the exact length, style, and type that you need for a project that you will make in the next six months or year. I carry a list of my fabric and supply needs in a small moleskine notebook in my purse with me at all times. Resist all other types of personal fabric purchases. This is the hardest step in the process.

Organizing your stash: When I bring new fabric into my home, I immediately put it into a large Ziploc Storage bag. The pattern, thread, and all other necessary supplies for the project go into the bag, as well. I write the name of the project and the date the fabric was purchased on the exterior of the bag with a permanent black marker.

I measure fabric that is given to me as a gift and then put it into a Ziploc bag. On the bag’s exterior, I label the size of the fabric, its fiber content, who gave me the fabric, where it was purchased, and the date of the gift. I then actively seek out projects for that fabric.

Organizing your non-fabric supplies: I have two additional storage containers in addition to my fabric stash. The first is a thread organizer and the second is a tackle box for all of my other sewing supplies. I keep manuals and pattern books on my bookshelf and my cutting mat leans against the back wall of my office closet.

Getting rid of fabric: If you haven’t sewn a project in a year, evaluate if you’re actually going to make the project. If the answer is yes, it goes back in the bin with a re-evaluation date written on the bag. If the answer is no, get rid of the project in full.

After a project is complete, immediately get rid of scraps. You don’t have to throw the scraps in the trash (you may have more than a yard of scraps), but you need to get them out of your house. Scraps are clutter.

Here are suggestions for ways to de-stash projects, scraps, or large amounts of fabric–

  • Set up a Pay Pal account and sell it on your blog
  • List it on Craigslist or Ebay
  • Have a yard sale where you specifically mention that you’re getting rid of fabric
  • Freecycle it
  • Contact your local high school and see if the Home Economics department could use it
  • Donate it to charity
  • Let your sewing friends go through it and take what they want

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in August 2007.

The minimalist teacher: improve learning while reducing paper

In a recent interview with teachers about organizing the school year, one of the key organizing challenges was that teachers hold onto too much. It’s a challenge for anyone who works with paper, not just teachers, However, teachers have a harder time, as they are provided with so many paper-based resources for the classroom.

Today’s article is perhaps a bit more academic (pardon the pun!) than is usual here on Unclutterer, but if anyone who imparts knowledge (from teachers to coaches, from health professionals to parents) really wants to help others learn and understand, we need to strip away all the books, papers, and government-mandated programs and focus on the learning itself.

In the English language teaching world, more than a decade ago, teachers took up the challenge of being minimalist, of removing the temptation of focusing on the materials, paring down the classroom to the basics, to developing understanding, and to letting the students guide the content.

This teaching movement, called DOGME (based on the stripped-down filmmaking movement from the 1990s) focuses on ten basic principles.

  1. Interactivity: learning happens from conversation, not one-directional speeches
  2. Engagement: people learn better when they are interested in the topics
  3. Dialogic processes: as Plato told us centuries ago, dialogue helps create understanding
  4. Scaffolded conversations: to go from ignorance to knowledge, building blocks are needed to give people confidence
  5. Emergence: understanding develops from within; it’s not transferred
  6. Components: teachers help learners discover meaning on their own through guiding them through the components of a concept
  7. Voice: students need to feel comfortable and safe communicating
  8. Empowerment: knowledge arises from the ability to express oneself, not necessarily from the ability to read or view materials
  9. Relevance: print or audiovisual materials are only offered as support, not as the centerpiece of learning
  10. Critical use: knowledge is cultural and true learning requires an awareness of our biases (personal, cultural, etc…)

As a minimalist, I love these concepts, not just for teaching, but for all areas of life. In short, learning and understanding come from conversation with others, from an awareness of self and of context, and most importantly from extrapolating personal experiences to new understanding.

I would like to issue a challenge to anyone involved in teaching, not just teachers, but anyone who transfers knowledge:

  • How can you adapt your teaching so that the focus is on the learners and on helping those learners discover for themselves a deeper understanding of the topic you’re teaching?

Options for upcycling clothes

As summer eases into fall, I’m thinking about clothes. Soon I’ll haul my cold-weather wardrobe from its storage spot, and put my shorts and T-shirts in its place. The kids, ever growing, will need some new items for school. Larger sneakers will replace old; hats and gloves will join their smaller counterparts in the mudroom. Several times during the changeover, I’ll hold something up and wonder, “Why do I still have this?” When no satisfactory answer returns, I’ll fold it up and put it away until next year.

We’ve written before about what to do with old, unwanted clothes. Of course you can also donate clothes, hand them down, gift them to young parents, turn them into household rags, or even make interesting keepsakes. In the case of sentimental tshirt, my wife made a quilt from them. Recently, I found another alternative that I wanted to share: upcycling.

An article at CBC appeared in my RSS feed at the perfect time. It begins by pointing out a problem: wasted clothes. While many people donate unwanted clothes in a way that extends their life, “…North Americans [still] discard a mind-boggling amount of apparel — 12 billion kilograms of textiles every year.” That’s a staggering 26 billion pounds!

I think that’s more than a little disheartening, as do twins Lindsay and Alexandra Lorusso. The pair started their own company, Nudnik, which uses scraps of discarded clothing and other textiles, and turns them into re-sellable outfits for kids. It’s a great idea.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Natalie Festa has begun renting outfits and other articles to customers who are either eco-conscious or on a budget, a scenario that should be familiar to fans of NBC’s Parks and Rec.

Of course, you needn’t start a business to upcycle old clothing. Basic sewing skills will let you create new items from scraps. A tshirt can become a little laundry bag when you sew the bottom shut. A shirt can also become a headband if you’re so inclined.

When it comes to old clothes, definitely consider the donate/hand-me-down route. But don’t overlook the various upcycle options available. There’s a lot that can be done.

Choosing organizing products

I’m always interested in new organizing-related products, so I read a number of blogs often feature this kind of thing.

As I browse through these listings, I’ll frequently see something like the Alessi Blow Up wall clock. Whether or not you like the look, I’m concerned about how well it serves its purpose. When I’m looking for a clock I want a time management tool that readily tells me the current time, and this clock would make it hard for me to do that. I like an interesting organizing product as much as anyone, but my first priority is functionality.

Sometimes what’s functional for one person wouldn’t work for someone else. For example, the Kikkerland wood cube alarm clock has an interesting interface — it stays dark, looking like a simple wood cube, until you clap. But that interface wouldn’t work at all for those who need to wake up before their light-sleeping partners. And it has no snooze function, which many people would find essential. But neither of those drawbacks would be a concern for me, if I were in the market for an alarm clock.

Other products fall down in legibility, especially for those with aging eyes. There’s a lot to like about the Life.doc organizer, but I found some forms were somewhat hard to read. My eyes just didn’t do well with the forms that have dark orange type on a lighter orange background. Another product I just came across is a wall clock with hour indicators (dots, not numbers) that are hard to see because of the lack of contrast.

Sometimes a product seems great at first, but not as good with a bit more consideration. Products like the Readers Nest bookshelf seem practical, but I’d be afraid that leaving a book open on the top would not be good for the spine. But if you want to use that top space for magazines that you’ll be recycling after you read then, the concern evaporates.

If you take some time to consider your requirements when picking an organizing product you’re likely to wind up with a product that works well for you — not just one that impresses you because it looks cool. For example, if you were choosing an alarm clock you might care about the following:

  • Size of the numbers
  • Ease of setting the alarm
  • Length and loudness of the alarm
  • Number of alarms that can be set at once
  • The alarm sound (which you may want to be pleasant or annoying)
  • Battery life, if it runs on batteries
  • Noise during non-alarm run time: ticking, etc.
  • Amount of light it puts into the room, if you sleep best in total darkness

With a bit of searching, there’s a good chance you can find a product that’s functional and has a look you enjoy.

RIM: Part four, disposition of paper and electronic records

We’ve done a lot of work so far looking at recordkeeping principles, preparing an inventory of our files, and building a retention schedule. Now comes the fun part — eliminating all of the records no longer needed. Here are the steps you can follow to prepare for disposition.

  1. On your retention schedule, take a yellow highlighter and highlight everything that can be shredded (paper) or deleted (electronic).
  2. Designate an area in your home to put paper files to be deleted. For electronic documents, create a folder on your hard drive or use an external hard drive to store documents to be deleted. Do not use your computer trash/recycle bin just yet. It’s easier to compile everything to be deleted in one place and then decide how best to get rid of it.
  3. This step is tedious but necessary. We need to go through each folder, page by page and we need to look “inside” each electronic document. For those of you who are comparing records management to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, this step is akin to looking through your pockets before donating clothing.
    • For paper files, you know that you’re eliminating all paper electric bills from 2007-2009 so you do not have to read each page, merely confirm that the piece of paper is an electric bill from 2007-2009. However, you never know if an important document such as a birth certificate is accidentally stuck between some of the papers. Using a rubber fingertip cover, will speed along the process of going through pages. Place the pages to be shredded in designated disposal area.
    • For electronic records, you do not necessarily need to open each file. You can look through most of them using the preview pane on your PC or Quick Look on your Mac. Once you’ve confirmed that the file should be deleted, move it to the designated “to be deleted” folder.

Destroying Paper Records

Examine the amount of paper you need to dispose of. Home-use shredders are a great option if you are able to do a bit at a time or you don’t have much to shred. However, most home shredders take only 5-10 pages at a time and only run continuously for about five minutes before they overheat so if you have boxes and boxes of paper to be destroyed, consider using a document destruction company such as Iron Mountain or Shred-It. These companies have drop-off points in many cities and you may be able to schedule a pick-up at your location. Whatever document destruction company you choose, ensure they meet NAID (National Association for Information Destruction) standards.

Destroying Electronic Records

If the electronic records you wish to dispose of are on your main hard drive, simply deleting them is fine. Eventually, that portion of your hard drive will be over-written with other data. If you chose to place those electronic records in a partition or on a separate hard drive, you need to securely delete the files so they cannot be retrieved again. To do this, here are some tips for Windows users and here are some tips for Mac users. If you’re not comfortable managing this yourself, some document destruction companies offer a secure hard drive destruction service.

One last step

Take the highlighted retention schedule you prepared in Step 1. For each record series highlighted, write the either “DELETED” or “SHREDDED” and the date beside the name. This serves as a reminder of what documents you destroyed and when you destroyed them. If you’re using a paper retention schedule, keep this document with the other records you wish to keep. If you’re using an electronic version, add a column to your spreadsheet with the destruction date. Save it in a non-editable format (e.g., pdf) with the other records you wish to keep.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully purged all of the records you no longer need! Next week, we’ll take a look at organizing the records that you need to keep.

Also in this series:

Preparing for back to school

As August becomes September, it’s time to prepare for the upcoming school year. I know, there are plenty of beach days between now and then and I don’t want to detract from your summer. However, the earlier you get a jump on back-to-school preparations, the less stressful September will be.

Of course there’s a lot to buy from clothing to gadgets to the list of supplies your school provided. That’s important, but today I want to focus an aspect we think of less often, but is just as important — getting the kids back on a school year schedule.

You’ll be met with resistance if you try to move bedtime ahead by 90 minutes the first night. I recommend starting several weeks early. If you’ve got younger kids, get them into bed 5 or 10 minutes early each night for couple of weeks. They’ll barely notice the difference. If your children are older, start to remind them few weeks out: “It’s time to get back on a school schedule. Head to bed a few minutes early tonight.”

It’s also important to review what the morning routine will be. While my wife and I discuss it among ourselves, it’s important to bring the kids into that conversation too, and the sooner the better. Talk about when the day will start, any after-school activities, who can be expected to pick up/drop off (and where), carpool details if applicable, etc. People like predictability.

Next, create a landing area for their school stuff. Find the best spot for them to place bags, coats, important papers, etc. and encourage them to use it. Otherwise — if your kids are like mine — you’ll find a trail of hats, gloves, backpacks, and so on that leads from the door to wherever junior decided to plop himself as he entered the house.

Finally, get yourself a good calendar. I swear by the oversize wall calendar, much like this one. Perhaps you love a digital calendar. That’s cool too. The important thing here is to make your choice, and get it in place, before the school year begins.

There’s more to do to prepare for school, of course, but these tips should get you up and running. Good luck.

The organized teacher: three teachers offer advice

As we approach the new school year, organizing gets imperative, not just for families (books, clothes, schedules, and extracurricular activities) but also for teachers. When I was a child, I never once thought about all the work that goes into being ready for September and the start of school. Teachers had two months off, just like I did and they came back to class the same day I did.

But we all know that’s not at all true. As with any project, being well organized before starting can mean the difference between success and disaster and it’s the same for teachers starting a new school year.

How do teachers organize themselves? Is it any different from any other job?

I interviewed three different head teachers, one from Canada, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S.A. And no, being an organized teacher is no different than working in any other service industry.

From what these three teachers told me, there are three areas of organization that teachers need to consider:

  • Use of space – the classroom, paper storage, seating plans, and so on.
  • Personal preparedness – finding the right balance of planning but not over-planning, of learning new things but not obsessing, of using planners versus “winging it”.
  • The needs of students – who they are, what mix of personalities, genders, ages, and abilities they have, how the students did the previous year, and what needs to be reviewed or re-taught.

Use of space

Before starting the school year, our U.K. teacher suggests that together the teachers at a school should:

check and clear the school of any accrued mess to ensure the school feels tidy and organised before we open the door – if the school is tidy, the children are likely to keep it tidy.

The Canadian teacher reminds teachers to:

Throw things out! Teachers cling to paper and stuff! Purge! Keep a file on the computer and get rid of everything else.

Finally, the U.K. teacher also reminds us that daily maintenance keeps papers from overwhelming us:

Tidy each day! Tidy the classroom so it’s prepped for the next day. File away paper and keep your mind tidy and on the job at hand.

Personal preparedness

For all three teachers, planning is imperative, but they all also insist that over-planning is paralyzing and counter-productive.

Our U.S. teacher has this new school year routine:

I like to take a glimpse at the curriculum for the year and see the material that will be covered. Based on the level, I like to prepare a short review at the beginning of the school year, based on the previous material covered to help them ease into the new school year.

The Canadian does something similar:

Depending on what I’m teaching I generally plan out the course, first the big stuff, then break that down. If its a course I’ve taught before, I think about what worked well, what worked OK, and what didn’t work at all. I also like to to change things up (so I don’t get bored) If I have read/learned something new, I think of ways to incorporate it.

An the U.K. teacher suggests getting others involved:

My advice is to prioritise what needs to be done and park desirables until you have a clear plan. Use the human resources around you. People generally want to be involved and including them in the thinking and the journey will help in organisation. They might even come up with a better idea. Talking is the key!

When it comes to over-planning, the Canadian teacher believe that teachers should be careful not to waste too much time. “Sometimes things go off course so be prepared for that. Also lots of teachers waste time with detailed busy work, creating forms, binders, labels, etc. that make more work for no reason.”

The U.K. teachers reminds us as well that all too often “teachers spend too much time prepping, planning before they really know the class. It’s great to be prepared but there’s no point teaching children what they already know. Plan the first few lessons and then asses what’s needed.”

The Canadian teacher offers a good list of basic planning activities:

  • Familiarize yourself with the course outlines, expectations, and assessments.
  • Use a calendar for unit plans and due dates.
  • Colour code courses (it helps to visualize).
  • Make a note of important due dates like when report card marks are due (you would be surprised how many people are caught off guard).
  • Don’t take on too many things too fast. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The needs of students

Our U.S. teacher really focused on this area, as did the U.K. teacher. They both insist on getting to know the students and working with the rest of the school’s staff to set individual learning targets where possible before diving into too much organizing. The U.S. teacher will even “go over class lists and see what my classes look like: student numbers, total class size, and gender. This helps me for organizing the class and seating charts.”

She also talks about the need to establish rules the first day of class.

Do not assume they just know how to act. All teachers are different and have different levels of what they will tolerate so communication between teacher and students is important.

Finally, she makes what I believe is the most important point that teachers need to remember:

What is important is to establish is an atmosphere of mutual respect where students feel comfortable in expressing themselves in class amongst their peers and with the educator. Teachers need to remember we are not there to make friends; we are there to educate and help in the students’ growth in the content and be good citizens as well.

For those readers who are teachers, does this advice sound familiar? Is there anything you would add? And for those who aren’t teachers, how might the ideas offered by these teachers apply in your job?

How to remember future to-do tasks

While you may have a system for tracking normal to-do items, how do you remember to-dos that are many years in the future? The following are a few examples:

  • I recently read a FEMA document (PDF) that said smoke alarms should be replaced ten years from the date of manufacture. How do you remember to do that?
  • I just updated my will and trust, ten years after I first created them. How do you remember to review these documents and make updates as necessary?
  • I had hip replacement surgery in May 2016. All’s well, and now I don’t need to see my surgeon again for a follow-up until May 2020. How do I remember to make that appointment?

Sometimes a reminder comes indirectly. When one of the people I had named as an executor of my will moved out of the area, it reminded me that I needed to update my legal documents. While I was removing her name, I found other updates I wanted to make, too.

And in some cases, you’re likely to get a reminder from the related service provider. My lawyer sends me annual reminders to review my legal documents, and my surgeon’s office will remind me I need to schedule an appointment with him. But these follow-up systems are fallible, and I like to have my own reminders in place.

Since I use an online calendar that goes out for many years, my first inclination is always to put critical future events such as the doctor appointment on my calendar as soon as I become aware of the need. I have an item on April 15, 2020 to schedule that appointment for mid-May. When I get the smoke detector down from the ceiling to see when it was made, I’ll add the replacement date to my calendar. I also added a recurring annual item to review my legal documents.

Alternatively, there are all sorts of reminder apps you can use. While people usually add reminders for items in the near future (pick up dry cleaning, etc.) there’s no reason they couldn’t be used for to-dos that are many years out.

If you use a paper planner, you’re probably not going to be able to add something to your calendar for 10 years out. But if you use a binder-style planner such as Day-Timer or Circa you could use a to-do list (or just a blank note page) to capture all these future to-dos and carry that list forward, year after year. At the beginning of each year, you could add any relevant items from that list to the upcoming year’s calendar.

Finally, if you use a tickler file (such as the Smead desk organizer/sorter) you could put reminders for all future-year items in your December file, and then move them to the appropriate months at the start of the next year (or keep them in December if they apply to a future year).

What clutter looks like

What image comes to your mind when someone mentions clutter? For many people, that image might be a severely cluttered home — like one of those pictured at the higher levels of Randy Frost’s Clutter Image Rating Scale. Or you might think of the common clutter so many people have: overstuffed closets, etc.

But clutter can also look like part of this pegboard at the back of my garage. This is an old photo from 2004, and many of the things shown aren’t there any more. But those hula-hoops on the far left were there until earlier this week, when I gave them away on my local freecycle group.

The hula-hoops had a place, and I didn’t particularly need to free up that space for anything else. But I hadn’t used them since that photo was taken — I think I got them for a party. I couldn’t see using them in the foreseeable future, either, and I certainly had no sentimental attachment to them. So now they’ve gone to someone who will use them, and they are no longer useless-item clutter in my garage.

Clutter can also look like this table and chairs, which I gave away last week. I was about to have someone repair the table for me, but then I paused to give that idea some thought. While the chairs are comfortable and the ensemble looked nice in my front yard, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used them. So now they too have gone to a freecycler who will actually use them.

We can get so accustomed to seeing something in our environment that we don’t stop to question whether the item is still serving us well. I might never have thought about giving away that table and chairs if the table hadn’t needed repair.

One way to become more conscious of what’s in your space is to create some sort of home inventory for insurance purposes. You might just take photos of everything, including the contents of all the closets and cabinets. Those photos give you a new way of seeing your space.

I did my home inventory some years ago as a combination of a spreadsheet and photos, and listing everything I owned certainly did make me think about why I owned all those items. Most of them had good purposes, but some were remnants of past relationships, things I thought I should have as a homeowner but never used, and other items that weren’t helpful in any way. They soon became deleted lines on that spreadsheet as I found new homes for them. But somehow I missed those hula-hoops! Maybe I thought back then that I’d still use them, while now I’m more realistic.

RIM: Part three, retention schedule

One of the most difficult things for many people is figuring out how long to keep their records. Some people either keep everything “just in case” resulting in a houseful of papers and hard drives full of files. Some people destroy everything “to keep things simple” and then realize they’ve shredded an irreplaceable document or permanently deleted an important file.

A retention schedule will solve many of these problems. It is simply a table that states how long records need to be kept. The retention schedule is our decision-making guide on what to purge and when. If we continue our comparison with the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, this is the preparation for “P = Purging.”

Different records need to be kept for different periods of time. How long records are kept depends on:

  • what the records are (store receipts vs. birth certificates);
  • why the records are needed (returning an unneeded item vs. proving you exist);
  • your personal situation (personal purchase vs. claiming for a business);
  • where you live (different countries have different laws, rules, and regulations).

For some documents, we can provide some basic guidelines. Jeri wrote great articles on what receipts to keep and what to toss, and what documents are worth saving. Vital records and documents that are hard to replace should be kept forever (e.g., birth certificates, citizenship certificates) or until superseded (e.g., wills, insurance policies).

Because this is the world-wide web and our readers are very diverse, it is almost impossible for us to provide retention periods for specific documents. Here are a few suggestions as to where you can do research on determining retention periods for various types of records.

  • Your country’s taxation centre. The IRS in the United States, the CRA in Canada, and HMRC in the U.K. all provide information about document retention for individuals (your own personal documents) and small businesses.
  • Bookkeepers, accountants, lawyers, notaries, investment advisors, and bankers. Some of these professionals provide retention guidelines on their websites. Just be sure that they are located in the same legal jurisdiction as you are. You may wish to book an appointment with an expert to discuss your specific situation.
  • Medical professionals. Ask your doctor, nurse, or social worker how long you should keep health records. This is especially important if you’re claiming health and/or disability benefits.
  • Your employer. Many employers will provide guidelines on how long to keep your employment related records such as receipts from a business trip, medical records due to work-related injuries, performance reviews, etc.

If you manage a small business:

  • Business development groups, either government or non-profit, usually have resources that are available on document retention for your country/state/province etc.
  • Your industry association may have retention guidelines specific to your type of business. For example, someone who installs fireplaces may need to retain different records from someone who operates a cleaning service.
  • Other resources may include the Departments of Labour, Occupational Safety and Health, and Workers Compensation division. Even if you do not own or manage a business, these agencies may provide useful information on how long to keep certain files in your own employment records.

Determining how long to keep your records may take some time but don’t get discouraged. Keeping only the essential information will save space — both physical and virtual — and it will save you time should you decide to convert your paper records to electronic format. There’s no point in scanning documents you could destroy.

Once completed, your retention schedule will look something like the table below.

In the business world, the “Citation” column is the reference to the legal or policy requirement to retain the document. For your personal records, you can add where you found the record retention information (e.g., website, name of insurance agent, banker, etc.) By doing this now, it will make it easy later on when you need to refer back and see if there are any updates. (HINT: We’re preparing for the “E = Equalize” step in the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing!)

Remember, if two different citations state different retention periods, you need to keep the records for the longer period. Let’s take a look at an example from my own records. When we live in Canada and buy fuel for our car we keep the fuel receipt until we reconcile it with the bank statement then throw the receipt away. However, while we were living in England, due to our visa status, we were eligible for tax exemptions on fuel. We had to keep all of our fuel receipts and submit them every quarter for reimbursement of taxes. Because this was a government reimbursement, we are required to keep those fuel receipts for the same duration as we would keep our income taxes.

Coming up next, disposition and assigning storage location.

 

Also in this series:

 

Reader question: How to dispose of old knives

Recently, a reader wrote in with a question about disposing of old knives:

Most were cheap knives [with] handles that are in extremely poor shape. The blades don’t look all that great either. A charity would not want any of them for sure. What options are there for safely disposing them?

I’m sure this reader is not alone. Often times knives simply wear out their usefulness and get replaced. Of course, disposal is not as simple as tossing them into the trash. Here are some safe and effective options for safely disposing of unwanted knives.

First, check with your local recycling facility. Here in my neighborhood, it’s the town dump (or “transfer station” if you want to get technical). Often they accept metal including knives. There may be a fee involved, but it’s likely very small.

If recycling is not an option for whatever reason, and you’re not going to donate the knives, you can in fact throw in away, as long as you do some preparation first. Start by contacting the town or company that hauls your trash away, as they probably have guidelines for disposing of “sharps.” If you live in an area that requires you to take trash to the dump yourself, like I do, ask an attendant there for advice.

There are general safety guidelines to follow as well. Find a piece of cardboard that’s longer than the blade and fold it in half. Place the knife inside so that the blade is against the fold. Next, tape it down so that the cardboard won’t slip off.

You can also wrap it in newspaper — five or six sheets will do it — and then again in bubble wrap. Also consider dulling the blade a bit beforehand. The knives are ready for disposal.

I hope this was helpful. Again, my first hope is that you can recycle these knives. If not, contact whoever handles your trash for guidance, and then prepare the knives so that they’ll be safely handled. Good luck.