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Organizing Paper: How to Determine What You Need to Keep
Because organizing papers is one of life’s biggest challenges I’ve asked productivity expert, Barbara Hemphill, to share six of her “Art of Wastebasketry®” questions in the following guest post to help you identify what to keep, and what to toss.

Are you sick of the clutter on your kitchen counter? Do you get frustrated and waste time looking for information you need? Can you often see how other family members could manage their paper better?

If you answered, “Yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone! In 1988, I wrote my first book Taming the Paper Tiger in response to clients’ continual question “How long do I keep…”  You can fill in the blank with everything from expired insurance policies to children’s artwork.  Unfortunately, nearly a quarter of a century later, paper continues to be the No. 1 organizing problem in American households. Paper causes strife as family members ask, “Where is…” Once again, you fill in the blanks — the Visa bill, the paper I need to take to school, my flight information, the invitation to the party, the information I need to refinance the house, the birthday card for Jeremy, the receipts for this year’s tax return (or maybe even last years!) etc.

Even more unfortunately, the problem is now further complicated (and potentially solved, I might add!) by the addition of electronic files. If it was difficult finding paper, it’s nothing compared to the problem of finding attachments to emails, or documents stored on a computer — you’re just not sure which one!  Research shows that 80% of what we keep we never use, but how do you know what 20% to keep?  Prospects and clients often make the statement, “As soon as I get rid of this, I’ll need it,” but when I challenge them to give me an example, they are far and few between.

Determine whether you really need to keep each piece of paper at all by asking yourself these six “Art of Wastebasketry®” questions:

1. Does this require any action on my part?

Just because you receive information doesn’t mean you need to keep it!

2.  Would it be difficult to obtain again?

Is it in your computer or on the Internet?

3.   Is it recent enough to be useful?

Does it make sense to keep an article with information that will be outdated before you need it? Keep track of the source of the information, so you can get the latest version, rather than keeping the information itself.

4.  Can I identify specific circumstances when I’d use it? “Just in case” is not specific enough!

Identify the information well enough that you can file it for future reference — or toss it!

5.  Are there any tax or legal implications?

Don’t assume “more is better.”

If you answer “No” to all the above questions, but are still not comfortable throwing something away, ask one last question:

6. What is the worst possible thing that could happen if I didn’t have this information?

If you can live with your answer, recycle, shred it, or delete it, and live happily ever after!

Remember Hemphill’s Principles:  If you don’t know you have it, or you can’t find it, it is of NO value to you.  Happy paper taming!

If you’d like to learn more detailed tips on organizing and managing your paper and electronic files, visit www.BarbaraHemphill.com.

Learn more about paper retention by exploring these sites:


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