RIM: Part seven, records maintenance

We’ve worked for a few weeks now on building a functional and practical records management system. However, it won’t stay that way for long if we neglect routine maintenance. For those comparing our records and information management system to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, we’re now working on our equalization step.

Daily or weekly maintenance

I prefer to spend 5 minutes at the end of every day (usually right after supper) and do the following:

  • Clear receipts from my wallet and file them in the inbox for reconciliation with bank statement.
  • Check other locations in the house (e.g., mailbox, spouse’s purse/wallet) for receipts and documents and place them in the inbox.
  • Move receipts from my email inbox to the receipts folder on my hard drive and file the email.
  • Move any files from my downloads folder and desktop and place them in the appropriate electronic filing cabinet folders.

We have a busy household so it is more effective if I perform these tasks daily. Some people may find it easier to perform these tasks on a weekly basis. In my experience, leaving these tasks for longer than a week may result in lost receipts and generally makes maintenance tasks more time-consuming than necessary.

Monthly maintenance

Your inbox should be completely cleared monthly. It doesn’t matter what day in the month you choose to do your maintenance. If all your bills are paid by the 13th of the month, then you could choose that day. You could also choose the last Sunday of the month — whatever works best for your schedule. Monthly maintenance should usually take no more than 30 minutes as you can rely on your retention schedule to indicate where records should be filed and how long they should be kept.

  • Reconcile your bank statement and dispose of any receipts (paper and electronic) no longer required.
  • Scan paper receipts for high-value items or items that you’re keeping long-term, especially those printed on thermal paper as they are subject to fading over time. Move scanned receipts and any similar electronic receipts to your Guarantees and Instructions folder for long-term storage.
  • Check your retention schedule and dispose of any records (paper and electronic) you no longer need or any that you can move to your inactive folders.
  • Check your electronic file names and ensure you’re adhering to the file naming system you set out (typos are possible!)

Annual maintenance

Annual maintenance can be done at any time during the year. January 1st is a popular time because it is the beginning of the new year but may not work for some people because of the holiday season. March/April might be a good time for annual maintenance as it is around the same time as you would file your income taxes and you are probably working through your files anyway.

Whatever time of year you choose, I suggest scheduling about four to six hours for annual maintenance. You could do it all at once or spread the work over several days. Here are some things that should be done during your annual maintenance.

  • Evaluate your system. Is there is anything you’d like to adjust? Would you prefer to have all your insurance documents in one file, or would you prefer to have them split so auto insurance is filed with your other automobile documents, and house insurance is filed with other house documents? The annual maintenance period is the best time to make those changes.
  • Review your retention schedule. Using your citations, ensure there have been no changes to retention times for your records. If there have been changes, update your retention schedule and save it with a new file name rather than over-writing the old file. This way, you’ll be able to look back and see the previous rules you had for document retention. (This could be important if you are ever audited.) Remember to update the location of documents if you’ve made changes.
  • Check each company or agency you deal with (bank, credit card, electric, phone, etc.) and ensure copies of all statements, bills, receipts and slips have been downloaded or received. Make arrangements to get copies if you don’t have them.
  • Review email folders and ensure all receipts are transferred to the appropriate folders on your hard drive.
  • Transfer all receipts you can claim on your income taxes (tuition receipts, charitable donations, etc.) to the current year’s Income Tax Note any items that you may be missing and follow up with the agency to make sure you get the documents you need to file your taxes.
  • Move receipts from important purchases (e.g., high value items and those still under warranty), from the current year’s receipts folder to the Guarantees and Instructions Scan receipts if you haven’t already done so during your monthly maintenance. Retain these receipts as this shows proof of ownership should you require repairs to the items or if they are lost due to fire or theft.
  • Review items in your Guarantees and Instructions folder and dispose of any receipts and instruction booklets for items you no longer own.

Once your annual maintenance is complete, move your inactive paper records to storage to clear a space for your new, incoming active records. On your computer, create a new “filing cabinet” folder with all of the same sub-folders for your new, incoming electronic records.

With your annual maintenance complete, you’ll be ready to start a new year of records management with ease.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our series on records and information management. Feel free to participate in our Information Management Forum and share your challenges and successes.

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RIM: Part six, building a filing system

We’ve spent the past few weeks determining which records we have and how long we need to keep them. We’ve eliminated records we don’t need and scanned those we want to convert to electronic format. Now we’re ready to file what is left.

Unclutterer Jeri wrote a great article about creating a personalized filing system. She asks some great questions about where you want to keep your files, as well as what types and colours of file folders you prefer.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about active and inactive records. I suggest you keep your active files close to where you need to process your paperwork. For example, you might get charitable donation receipts you can claim on your income taxes throughout the year. Your “current year” income tax file should be handy so you can place the receipts in the folder easily. Once you’ve filed your income tax, you still need to keep the receipts but you no longer need to process them so you can place the entire folder in another location — perhaps in a filing box in your attic.

Filing paper records

Your filing system should be easy to use. Jeri wrote some great advice for making filing easier. Unclutterer Dave has put together a list of criteria for buying a filing cabinet and Jeri provides even more advice and includes alternatives to the traditional filing cabinet.

For those of you that may not have space for a typical filing cabinet, Erin answered a reader’s question about filing cabinets that can double as end-tables or ottomans. A seagrass filing box is also an alternative for people who may be willing to sacrifice some sturdiness for appearance. For those of you who need something rugged and transportable, I suggest these plastic filing boxes. They are expensive but we’ve had ours for over 15 years. They’re water and insect resistant and they’ve endured six military moves (two of which have been overseas) and they still look and function as good as new.

Filing electronic records

I always suggest that people create a folder structure on their computer similar to their paper filing cabinet. Such as the one shown below.

The default listing of folders is alphabetical order. If this doesn’t work for you, adjust the names of the folders. For example, you could use the names Finance-Banking and Finance-Investment to list these two similar categories together. Some people might choose to create another folder called Finance and put both Banking and Investment as sub-folders. This is an adequate alternative however, too many sub-folders may make it difficult to find files or result in the same file being stored in multiple places. It’s best to keep the folder structure as simple as possible.

Vital Records

You may wish to store your vital records and other hard to replace documents in a fireproof and waterproof box in your home to protect them in case of disaster. Although heavy, this box would be easy enough to transport if you had to quickly evacuate your home. Some people prefer to keep their vital records in a safety deposit box at a bank or other financial institution. This is a good alternative as well.

Having an electronic copy of your hard to replace documents is a good idea. If your documents are ever lost, stolen, or damaged, you’ll have a copy of the original information (registration numbers, certificate numbers, etc.) and authorities can better assist you. From time to time you may be required to submit a copy of your passport or other ID to confirm your identity to authorities. Having an electronic copy will save you from digging out the original — especially important if you have to drive all the way to your bank.

NOTE: The electronic copies of vital records need to be kept secure as they are as valuable as the originals to identity thieves. Use encrypted cloud storage and password protect files and folders to keep these copies safe.

For those of you who are comparing our records management program to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, we have just completed our “containerizing” step. Congratulations! You now have an organized and functional records management system. Next week is our final installment, how to maintain our system so it runs smoothly.

 

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RIM: Part five, scanning paper records

Now that we’ve eliminated all of the records we no longer need, it’s time to organize the records we are keeping. Many people have a desire to go paperless and convert their paper records to electronic records. This is commonly called “imaging.” Here are some things to consider.

Is it worth imaging?

If you’re going to be shredding the paper within the next year, it may not be worth your time to scan it. The tax returns you are required to keep (but never actually look at again) may be able to sit quietly in a box until they are ready to be shredded. Focus on getting year’s documents imaged first, then work backwards in time if required.

Many user manuals for appliances and electronics are probably already in digital format. Don’t waste your time scanning them. Search for them online and download them. You can scan the receipt of purchase and keep that with the digital copy of your user manual.

Is imaging permissible?

Some governments and agencies will not accept imaged paper documents as “official records.” Most vital records and some other important documents (e.g., birth certificates, marriage licences, will, and investment certificates) are issued on paper and must remain on paper. Confirm with the agency or your legal/financial advisors if imaged documents meet the requirements of official records. The Government of Canada and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service have published guidelines on document imaging.

NOTE: You are welcome to use these imaging guidelines to store electronic copies of vital records and important documents but please do not destroy the originals!

File format

Files scanned for document preservation are typically stored as Tagged Image File Format (.tif) or Portable Document File (.pdf), both of which are lossless. Lossless means that every single bit of data that was originally in the file remains after the file is compressed and uncompressed. This is generally the technique of choice for text or spreadsheet files, where losing words or financial data could pose a problem. Lossy file formats (e.g., jpg) throw away the smallest pixels every time the file is re-saved. If you re-save too many times, the image would eventually disappear.

Scanning resolution

It is important to scan your documents at the proper resolution so that they are legible when viewed on the screen and when printed. The acronyms PPI and DPI are often used interchangeably however they are different. PPI means pixels per inch and measures resolution on the screen whereas DPI means dots per inch and measures resolution on print. The higher the DPI when an image is scanned, the higher quality it will be both on screen and in print.

Generally, office documents are usually scanned at 200-300 DPI. A higher resolution may be required if there is fine, small text or unclear penmanship (e.g., faint handwritten signature). Scanning in black & white produces smaller files and may be adequate for most plain text documents or line diagrams. Colour or greyscale scanning captures more detail but creates larger files.

You should scan a few sample documents and then print them out (what you see on the screen is not necessarily what you get when you print) to ensure that the re-produced image is identical to the original. Remember, your electronic records should be able to support you in the event of an audit or during any legal proceedings. This may mean scanning blank pages. For example, if your document has four pages, but there is only important data on three of those four pages, you must scan all four pages or your imaged document will be incomplete.

Your sample documents will also give you an idea of the size of files being produced and how much storage space you’ll need on your computer and in your backup locations.

Searchable scanned documents

If you need to be able to search for text within your imaged documents, you’ll need to perform OCR (optical character recognition) during the scanning process. OCR software is often included with scanner software and converts tiff/pdf files to machine-readable text. The success of the OCR process is dependent upon the quality of the scanned image. It works best with type-written text documents. It probably won’t work well with handwritten documents. Performing OCR during the scanning process may slow down the scanning speed but being able to search with your documents may be more important.

Naming your files

Decide on a naming convention — a system used to name your scanned files. As some computer systems have problems with the use of spaces in file names, use an underscore or dash instead (file_name.pdf). It is helpful to use dates in the YYYY-MM-DD format as files will be listed chronologically in the folder. An example would be 2017-04_electric_bill.pdf. You only need to use the DAY if you have more than one document per month (e.g., 1944-12-04_Grandpa_war_letter.pdf and 1944-12-21_Grandpa_war_letter.pdf). Whatever you decide, keep your system consistent.

Backing up your documents

Paperless expert Brooks Duncan, recommends the 3,2,1 rule. You’ll need to have at least three copies of your data, your original PDFs (most likely stored on your home computer) and two backups. You’ll need to keep these backups on two different media (for example, CDs and an external hard drive) and store one backup off-site in a safe location such as a safety deposit box. Take the time to plan your digital storage options before you start imaging.

Scanners

There are many different types of scanners that can do the job. Which type and brand you buy should be based on the type and amount of scanning you need to do, whether or not you need searchable documents and of course, your budget. Here are the basic types of scanners, the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and an example of each type.

Mobile scanner

  • Advantages: These are ideal for people on the go needing to scan receipts, papers, and business cards. Most models will create searchable PDFs. Some models have duplex scanning that allow both sides of a page to be scanned at once. They are USB powered so there is no need to use an electrical outlet.
  • Disadvantage: They scan rather slowly compared to desktop scanners and only scan one page at a time. They may not be suitable for delicate papers and won’t scan things like books. Some models won’t scan photos.
  • Example: Epson WorkForce DS-30 Portable Document & Image Scanner

Document scanner

  • Advantage: These allow for fast, double sided scanning and you can feed many documents different sizes at once. They can create searchable pdfs. They are rather small and can be easily moved and do not take up much desk space.
  • Disadvantage: They may not be suitable for delicate papers and won’t scan things like books.
  • Example: Fujitsu iX500 ScanSnap Document Scanner

Flatbed scanner with document feeder

  • Advantage: The document feeder allows lots of documents of different sizes to be scanned quickly. Some models may do double-sided scanning. They can create searchable pdfs. Having a flatbed allows for scanning of books, oversized and delicate papers.
  • Disadvantage: Because they are rather large, they are not easy to move around and take up quite a bit of desk space. The scanning speeds are usually slower than plain document scanners.
  • Example: HP OfficeJet Pro 8720 Wireless All-in-One Scanner Printer

In our household, we have two scanners. For business trips and when we move house (we’re a military family so we move frequently), the mobile scanner has been extremely useful. It takes up very little space in our baggage and allows us to scan receipts and documents in our hotel room. It’s great to have an instant electronic copy in case the original receipt is lost or damaged. We also have a flatbed scanner with document feeder we use at home. Being able to scan delicate photos and documents as well as the odd page of a book on the flatbed has been very helpful and using the document feeder allows piles of paper to be scanned quickly.

Eliminating the paper records

Once you are sure you have adequately imaged all your documents, return to your original retention schedule and note which paper records you have imaged and on which date. Indicate that the imaged documents are now your only record. Prepare to destroy the paper records.

Our next RIM post will be on how and where to store all of your papers and your digital documents. In the meantime, happy imaging!

 

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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.

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?

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.

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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.

 

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RIM: Part two, record types and records inventory

In Records and Information Management, part one, we discussed GARP, Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles®. Today we’ll cover a few definitions and then prepare to organize records by doing a records inventory.

What is a record?

A record has recorded information, regardless of format, that is created or received by our household to conduct its daily activities. Examples of records include:

  • Bank statement (paper) delivered by mail
  • Utility bill (electronic) downloaded from the utility company’s website
  • Email receipt from the items you purchased online
  • Photo of a check from your friend who bought your old dining room suite

Three types of records: Active, Inactive, and Vital.

Active records are those needed to do your day-to-day activities. They include the water bill that you have to pay next week, receipts for items purchased that need to be reconciled with your bank account.

Inactive records are those that you need to keep for a specific period of time but will not likely refer to often, if at all. This can include your previous years’ income tax return, your will, and instruction manuals for items you purchased and still own.

Vital records are issued by government agencies to prove you exist. These include birth certificates, social security numbers, and passports. They can also include legal documents such as a deed to a house, adoption certificates or any other documents that might be difficult to replace.

Aren’t inactive records the same thing as archives?

Actually, no. Many people get archives and inactive records confused. Inactive records are destroyed as soon as they are no longer needed. Archives are a curated collection of inactive records that are kept forever. Not all inactive records are kept forever, just significant records — mementos of an important time or event. For example, the stub of your very first pay statement should have been shredded after you had filed your income taxes for that year. However, there is a justifiable reason to keep only the first one — as a memento of your first job. (Note: In business and industry, archives are built with many series of records that show the evolution of the business over time. Most households don’t need to keep an archive this detailed.)

Records Inventory

Before organizing, it is important to do an inventory to determine which types of records you have and where they are located. If we compare this to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, the inventory is the “S” for sorting. However, rather than move boxes and physically sort through paper and computer files two or three times each, the inventory creates a short-cut so that you will save time when it comes to the next step, “P” for purge.

During the inventory, it is not necessary to list every document in every file. List groups of records and their date ranges. Remember to look in all of the places where you may have stored records. Also, there may be records stored on various computers, external hard drives, and cloud storage spaces so ensure you verify those as well.

As you progress through the inventory process, you will notice common characteristics about the records that you have. Some items like electric bills, water bills, heating bills, you can group into a common category such as Utilities.

Create a spreadsheet to keep track of the information as shown in the example below. It is helpful to add columns that tell how often the document is created, and how often the document is accessed.

You shouldn’t do a detailed re-arranging of files at this point but feel free to pile storage boxes and filing cabinets into one room. For example, if the attic is creepy and difficult to access, you could move those boxes into your home office. If you move the boxes remember to note the new “current location” on your inventory sheet.

Next up, we’ll look at how to know which records to keep and which to purge.

 

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RIM: Part one, Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles

Back in 2007, Erin wrote a series of posts on reducing paper clutter. In the past 10 years, there have been many changes. In some cases, the rules and regulations regarding the access and storage of paper and digital documents have changed. Technology itself has changed, and since more and more information is coming to us in electronic format, many of us are now overwhelmed by paper and digital clutter.

So, let’s look at this subject from the “managing information” point of view.

In the business world, organizing paper and electronic documents is commonly referred to as records and information management (RIM). Businesses have (or should have) systems set up to create, store, archive, and dispose their documents according to rules and regulations pertaining to their specific industries. Our homes are not businesses but there are several similarities. We have records related to income and expenses (receipts, pay statements). We have documents that prove we exist (birth certificates, social security cards) and that we have done things (school report cards, employment reviews).

We can adapt RIM theory to our households. ARMA International has developed Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles® (GARP). Let’s see how these principles can be applied to our personal and household recordkeeping.

Accountability: Someone in your household needs to be responsible for managing paper and electronic documents and information. If information management is to be a shared duty, ensure all of those who participate in the process know which tasks need to be done and how they should be done.

Integrity: Your paper and electronic documents need to be authentic and reliable. Ensure you have the original documents where required. If you transfer your paper documents to electronic format (or vice versa), ensure it is done properly. We will cover how to do this in an upcoming post.

Protection: Your records need to be safe. Paper documents, especially vital records and legal documents, should be kept in a locked safe or filing cabinet. Electronic records should be backed-up in at least two different places and password protected.

Compliance: You need to adhere to all laws and regulations pertaining to your information. If you have a home business, you might be required to keep different information from someone who does not. Those with unique financial or medical situations may be required to comply with other rules and directives. We’ll cover more about this in an upcoming post.

Availability: This is a key point for most people. You need to be able to access records easily and in a timely manner. Knowing which documents are paper and which are electronic, as well as where, and how they are stored is essential. We’ll review paper and electronic filing systems.

Retention: It is important to keep records for the required period. For example, the United States Internal Revenue Service requires that you keep your income tax records for three years after filing (and up to 7 years in certain circumstances). The Canada Revenue Agency requires six years. If you have receipts that were submitted for income taxes for both countries, you must keep records for the longer of the two. We’ll discuss a retention schedule that will help you develop an organized filing system.

Disposition: Most records need to be destroyed at the end of their lifecycle either by physical destruction such as shredding paper or destroying CDs, or by securely erasing/reformatting computer drives. Eliminating unneeded records saves space in your filing cabinet, saves time because you don’t have to manage so much stuff, and reduces your risk of identity theft because unneeded information is destroyed. However, you may wish to keep some records for your archives (e.g. stub from your first pay check, ownership papers from your first car, etc.)

Transparency: Finally, it is important that your system understandable to certain other people. Of course, if you’re sharing these duties with a spouse/partner, you both need to understand the system. You also need to be able to explain it to an auditor (should the tax man ever visit) and the executor of your estate should be able to easily understand how you process your documents as well.

We’ll dive deeper into all of these topics over the next few weeks. By the time we’re through, you’ll have an excellent, easy-to-manage filing system.

 

Other posts in this series:

Ask Unclutterer: Opt-out resources to stop junk mail

Reader Sherry wrote in a comment on one of my recent posts:

Thanks for the RedPlum link! Have you all done an article collecting all of the opt-out resources?

Sherry, thank you for the good question! There are some excellent websites that already collect this information, so I don’t want to duplicate their work. Two of the best sites I’ve seen come from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the Bay Area Recycling Outreach Coalition. That second one doesn’t have any information that’s specific to the San Francisco Bay Area — it would all apply throughout the U.S. Both of these sites provide both opt-out resources and suggestions about ways to avoid getting on mailing lists.

If you’re specifically concerned about junk mail from charities, you can refer back to my prior post on this subject.

There are also services you can use that will handle opt-out requests for you. One of these is Catalog Choice, a free non-profit service (which accepts donations). Despite the name, it handles more than just catalogs. It can remove you from quite a few political and charitable mailings, too, especially from larger organizations.

And the PaperKarma app is one more option. The app has new owners and was just relaunched this month as a subscription service. You take a photo of your junk mail and press send, and PaperKarma takes it from there.

You may have heard the suggestion, supposedly from the late Andy Rooney, to mail back unwanted junk mail in the postage paid envelopes some mailers provide. But as Snopes noted, there’s no proof this advice ever came from Andy Rooney, and it’s not a great way to tackle the junk mail problem, either.

Returning junk mail to direct mailers on their dime (by stuffing it back into their postage-paid return envelopes) may cost them some money and provide you with a bit of personal satisfaction, but it won’t cut down on the amount of junk mail you receive. In fact, it may actually increase your junk mail load, since the primary metric used to gauge the effectiveness of many direct mail campaigns is the number of responses received (even if those responses are negative).

All of the resources I’ve mentioned so far are focused on the U.S., but other countries also have services for helping their residents minimize junk mail. For example, in Canada, the Canadian Marketing Association has a Do Not Mail Service that sounds similar to what’s available through the Direct Mail Association in the United States. Canada Post has more suggestions on its website, too. More examples: The Hague published junk mail minimization advice for the Netherlands, and Clean Up Australia has advice for that country. Residents in the U.K. can visit the Royal Mail website for information on how to opt-out of junk mail delivery.

Weekend project: Tackle newspaper and magazine clutter

If you’re looking for an uncluttering project for this weekend, consider organizing your newspapers and magazines.

  • Gather together all of your newspapers and magazines and set them on a flat work surface.
  • Toss into the recycling bin all of your newspapers that are more than a day old.
  • Recycle immediately any magazine that you know you will never get around to reading.
  • If you have read and flagged articles in any of your magazines, either scan them so that you have a digital copy or see if you can find an online copy and save it to your digital notebook (e.g. Evernote). Then, recycle the magazine.
  • Any magazine you haven’t read that you still want to read, write a due date, on the cover of the magazine with a magic marker. If you haven’t read it by the due date, recycle it on the spot.
  • Put the magazines you intend to read in a location where you’ll see them and read them. Then, as time permits, pick them up and enjoy the publications.
  • Finally, remove the unwanted newspapers and magazines from your home.

Although we use the word “recycle” in this article, we don’t necessarily mean sending magazines and newspapers into the waste stream. There are other options for these items. For example:

  • Animal shelters can often use old newspapers to line cages.
  • Charity shops may appreciate newspapers to pack fragile items for customers.
  • Waiting rooms in medical centers, seniors’ centers, and other care homes may appreciate recent magazines in relatively good condition.

Ask around in your community to see if there is a place to donate your newspapers and magazines.

If your newspapers and magazines are already in order, check out our list of other weekend project ideas.

 

This post was originally published in May 2008.

Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?

In my last post, I wrote about inherited family clutter. But there are other places we inherit other people’s clutter and the biggest one is at work.

Let me give you an example. Where I work, my former boss had been in her position for almost twenty years. Her mind worked better in paper. She liked to be able to touch things and look up information in books and files. After retiring this summer, she did me the mega-favor of coming in on her own time in September to clear out her office and leave me with what she considered to be the right amount of information.

I, however, don’t work the same way. As I think I might have mentioned once or twice, I hate paper, filing cabinets and bookcases full of books that nobody references.

This has meant that whenever I’m not focused on daily operations or moving the organization forward, I tackle a shelf or a handful of files. I have also rearranged furniture and eliminated several non-matching pieces that just begged to have unused paper piled on top of them, and in the process taken a sort of informal inventory of what we have.

Some areas of the office are bit chaotic since I haven’t been able to devote whole days to a beginning-to-end purge and reorganization, but I am bit-by-bit transforming the office, bringing it in line with the beliefs and habits of the staff who are paper-haters like me.

This process has raised questions for me about my own work habits and although I have just started in my position with the intention of staying in it a long time, having to go through the inherited clutter of my boss, I have been asking myself about succession planning and what someone who comes in after me will think of the way I’ve left the office.

Before I go any further, therefore, I’ve decided to formalize the organization and to depersonalize it. In other words, I am going to use the organization’s mission statement and objectives as my guide for what we end up keeping, what we get rid of, and even where and how we store it.

In doing so, if and when I move on, my successor will have a clear understanding of what is where and why.

In the end, I will have cleared out four bookcases, two small filing cabinets and what’s left over, the staff will able to use because they know what it is, where it is, and what it can be used for.

So, now my questions for you:

  • What information do you store at work?
  • Are you clear why you are holding onto it?
  • Are you making your organizing decisions based on personal preference or are they tied to the cultural beliefs and mission of the organization?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow and stopped working next week, what would your successor have to deal with? Could he or she sit down at your desk and start working without too much trouble?