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:

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:

 

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.

 

Also in this series:

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.

 

Also 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?

Reader question: Organizing Broadway playbills

Unclutterer reader Jackie (great name by the way) wrote in to ask:

What does one do with old pictures of actors, and Broadway programs and playbills?

This is a great question and it also encompasses programs and photos from other cultural events such as posters from special museum exhibits, sporting event programs, and photos from themed conventions (e.g., Comic-Con, etc.).

The first question to ask yourself is, “Do I still want to keep these items?” If you decide that you want to part with some or all of these items, then here are a few ways to do that.

  • Friends/family: Pass items along to friends or family members who show an interest. Include a brief description of the item’s history; how you got it and why you kept it.
  • Aficionados: If you belong to a group of theatre-goers or a fan-club, other members of the group may be interested in your items. If you’re not a member of a fan group, you could contact a local club and let them know what items you have to sell or donate. Some businesses might be interested too. For example, a small café near your local theatre might wish to use Broadway programs as part of their décor.
  • Local theatre, historical group, or archives: Photos, pictures, and playbills from a local theatre may be of value to your community archives. Consider contacting these groups to make a donation.
  • Online selling: Using online auctions sites (eBay) or classified ads sites (Craigslist, kijiji, Gumtree, etc.) will allow you to find buyers from outside your local area.
  • Disposal: Paper items whose condition is too poor to sell can be recycled. Photos, posters, and other non-recyclables could be donated to a community group to be dismantled for a craft project or placed directly into the garbage.

For those items you wish to keep, here are some ways to organize and conserve them.

An archival 3-Ring Binder Box with heavy-weight, archival sheet protectors would be ideal to store and organize programs and playbills. You could slip a little acid-free index card in the pocket to record the date you saw the show, with whom you saw it, and a brief review. Labelled tabbed dividers can help further organize your playbills into subcategories. You could subdivide by year or by genre – whatever makes the most sense to you.

Dirt and oils on your fingers can degrade paper and photos, so always handle the items carefully with clean, dry hands. When you’re organizing, avoid areas with food and drinks. If the kitchen or dining table is your only organizational space, cover the table with a clean cotton cloth before you start to protect your collection while you work.

If your materials contain staples, remove them carefully and replace them with archival thread. However, closures such as sealing wax, ribbons, stitches, and unusual metal fasteners may enhance the value so when in doubt, leave these items in place.

Temperature, humidity, and light will affect items in storage. Ensure that you store your collection in a suitable climate. Archivists recommend no higher than 21°C (70°F) and a relative humidity between 30% and 50%.

You may decide to frame some posters or photos that have great meaning to you. We suggest that you use acid-free materials and UV-resistant glass when mounting your items. Hang your work out of direct sunlight to ensure it retains its beauty.

Good luck with your collection Jackie. For more information on conserving these types of documents, check out the Northeast Document Conservation Center website.

Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

Making filing easier

For me, one of the most annoying parts of setting up a filing system is creating the labeled tabs on the hanging file folders. It’s a fussy and time-consuming process, dealing with those paper inserts for the plastic tabs.

One solution is to avoid hanging file folders altogether and just use standard file folders, but that’s awkward for many people, given that many file cabinets are set up for hanging files. But there are other alternatives, and if you get as annoyed as I do with the standard plastic tabs, you may want to consider one of these.

Erasable hanging folder tabs are the ones I’m going to try, myself. You can use them with the hanging folders you already have, although they cost about 25 percent more than the normal 1/3 cut plastic tabs do. (I much prefer the longer 1/3 cut tabs to the shorter 1/5 cut tabs, because you can have more meaningful filenames.) You need to use a permanent marker and a standard white eraser, which could be a minor hassle — but many offices I’m in already have those lying around. Alternatively, I’m guessing you could attach a self-adhesive label made with a label maker to the tab if you prefer that to handwritten labels.

If you don’t already have hanging file folders, you might want to try the folders with built-in erasable tabs. You can get them in this moss color or in assorted colors, and there’s a box-bottom option if you need the extra space. However, these folders may be problematic for those of us who prefer straight-line filing, since the tabs come in sets with three positions: left, right, and center.

If you want to use labels from a label maker, and don’t care about the erasable feature, you could buy similar hanging folders with built-in 2-ply reinforced tabs. You could also write on these with pencil and erase as needed, but penciled labels may be a bit too faint to read easily.

The unusual Find It hanging files have a lower top rail so you can easily see the tabs on the interior folders — so you don’t need any tabs on the hanging folders. These folders can also help those who have file cabinets where normal hanging folder tabs don’t fit because of the drawer height.

This solution assumes you use interior file folders in your hanging files, which not everyone does. (I often don’t.) But for the right person, these can be a great choice. I know someone who gave away all her other hanging file folders and uses these exclusively.

Uncluttering my file cabinets

I’m not as anti-paper as Alex is, but reading his “paperless as possible” post inspired me to re-evaluate what’s in my two file cabinets. I was also inspired by a friend who is doing a major uncluttering — she found a box full of papers (bank statements, utility bills, etc.) from 1999. I didn’t think I had anything that obviously worthless (beyond a few expired coupons), but I sure came close.

See all those lovely lavender-colored folders? Those were all my old client files. Some of those were from clients I haven’t seen since 2005. They were all nicely organized, but they were useless.

Most of those files contained just three things: a printout of the contact information from my digital address book, a map and driving instructions, and a signed client agreement. (I could tell how old each file was by seeing which mapping program I’d used: MapQuest, Google Maps, or Apple Maps.)

There was really no need to keep anything except the client agreements — everything else was easily reprinted if I ever needed it. So I started going through the files, pulling out the client agreements and scanning them, and then shredding everything.

See my recycling bin, with paper bags full of shredded paper? And many more bags got added after I took that photo.

I found plenty of other papers that were taking up unnecessary file cabinet space, too. Some were the kind of things so many people have: coupons for services I’ll never use, old restaurant menus, etc. As I’ve noted before, I expect to find (and discard) papers like these when I do a periodic file cabinet cleanup.

But I also found another large group of unnecessary papers. Over 10 years ago I created a bunch of “idea books” with photos showing organized kitchens, entryways, garages, closets, etc. Now everyone (who uses a computer) can find plenty of aspirational examples of organized spaces on Pinterest and elsewhere. And if I wanted to suggest a product to a client, I’d just email a link. I don’t think I ever once used those idea books, and it was way past time to let them go. Since I kept them in hanging files in a file cabinet, getting rid of them freed up a lot of space.

Now I just need to decide what to do with my newly empty Itoya Profolios. They’re very nice products, but I’m not sure I have any use for them.

I’ll also need to decide what to do with the empty file cabinet space. I can’t easily get rid of either file cabinet — there are still too many files that I do want to keep. Also, the cabinets fit nicely into their spaces, so I don’t feel any need to have them disappear. Instead, I’ll probably use the empty space to store a few things that could use better homes than the ones they have now.

This effort was a great reminder of how easy it is to become accustomed to keeping certain things — papers and more — without thinking about why we’re keeping them and if they’ve outlived their purposes.

Living as paperless as possible

In my post about conference handouts, a reader asked me how I manage to live/work without a filing cabinet.

The easy answer is that I’ve organized both my work and personal life in a way that I don’t need to keep papers.

At home, everything I need to hold onto fits into about half a dresser drawer:

  • The deed, mortgage, our wills, and insurance papers (kept in a small fireproof safe)
  • One year of utility bills

And that’s it. Seriously. We don’t have children, so no need for filing report cards, badges, artwork and such. The Spanish medical system is centralized and efficiently run, so I don’t need to keep any of my own medical records. Apart from this writing gig, I don’t run my own business so don’t need to hold onto any receipts or the like. And since I’m rather anti-paper, I recycle almost everything that comes into the house. Finally, taxes are all done online and are accessible throughout the year, meaning I have no need to keep previous years’ tax forms.

At work, my role as Academic Director is about as paperless as a job can be. All my written communication with staff is done through email or WhatsApp. Student reports are stored in Google Drive spreadsheets and sent to parents monthly. The paper reports the teachers fill out are kept in one of three inbox trays (one per trimester), and in June they are all shredded.

And as I have no part in the administrative/financial side of the business, I don’t have any legal requirements to hold onto anything.

When I still lived in Canada, however, and ran my professional organizing business, I had to hold onto more paper, but I still didn’t have a filing cabinet, or even a drawer. Instead, every year, I bought myself a plastic multi-pocketed folder with an elastic closure. On the tabs for each pocket, I put the expense/income category and every day of the week, I would take five minutes to update my accounting program with anything new and store the piece of paper in its corresponding category.

The folder lived on top of my desk, beside the computer, easily accessible, portable and tidy. When the tax-year finished, the folder would go in an airtight plastic bin in the basement, and I would buy myself a new multi-pocketed folder.

I had such a simple filing system because I am a horribly disorganized person. I studied library science and records management but almost never worked in the field because I could never decide on just one set of stable categories. When asked, “where should I file this?” my brain would come up with at least 10 different options depending on the context of the potential future search.

Through many years of trial and error, I discovered the best way to be organized is to have as little as possible, and in more recent years, have as little legal responsibility as possible.

Now it’s time to turn the question to all of you: at home and at work, what papers do you honestly and truly NEED to keep and what are you keeping out of habit?

And once you’ve figured that out, check out Jacki’s article about organizing documents at home or the Office Organization archive for tips at work.