Many industries and occupations slow down during the winter months and it is a great time to do maintenance work. Most of us put off a thorough assessment of our files and all things paper, sometimes indefinitely. It is easier to stuff old papers in a banker’s box and store it (garage, barn, attic, rented unit) than to take the time to look at each item and assess whether or not it needs to be kept. Doing this makes the inevitable chore more daunting and finally, seemingly impossible as the amount of stored paper and the time it would take to review it all might be greater than the time we have left to live.
I try to walk my talk as much as possible, so last month when I was home with a cold for a couple days, I started going through the files in my file cabinets one at a time. I’m very good about financial files such as bank statements, taxes, real estate and auto stuff, but where I tend to bulk up is with magazine tear outs and notes from classes on art, organizing, interior design and other personal and business interests.
While going through my files, I completely commiserated with my clients who feel that file purging is a tedious, time consuming waste of energy. I tried to watch a movie on my iPad as I worked, but it was too distracting, so I had to turn it off. When working with paper, the mind needs to be single-focused. Even music can distract, especially if your senses are already dulled with a cold.
One by one I reviewed magazine clippings. I still find paper inspiration much more accurate than Pinterest, which these days is full of ads and repetitive images. Did the image or article still inspire me? If yes, it made the cut. I filled a recycle bin with pages that no longer resonated with me.
I also took this time to create new files. For example, I separated “Entertaining, Holidays” from “Entertaining, General,” because the file was too fat and it was getting hard to find things. Making new files is an essential part of staying organized with paper and something that is often put off too long. Make sure to have a labeler, file folders and hanging files with tabs ready when you start going through papers so that you can take the task to its final conclusion. Have a bag handy for items that need shredding as well as trash and recycling receptacles.
It took me about two hours to thoroughly go through one and a half file drawers. I have two and a half left to go through, but the categories in those drawers area bit easier (financial files and other papers are easier to sort because the date, certain tax laws and other objective features determine whether they have to stay or could go). An average of two hours per file drawer is no small time commitment and the space gained is minimal. When you close the file drawers, no one would know you spent the better part of the afternoon organizing. So what is the pay off?
A streamlined file system that contains only information and materials that have been regularly reviewed for their relevance and importance is very powerful. Paper begins to flow in and out of an office with ease and you gain tremendous confidence about what must stay and be filed and what may go. Tax season becomes much less dreaded. The idea of an audit loses its horrifying aura. Inspiration for the next party, holiday, gift, outfit, living room layout or bathroom tile is at your fingertips. You can find and share the letters your grandmother wrote you when you were at summer camp in 1976.
Fear and resistance to filing becomes a thing of the past. There is plenty of room in the file drawers to add papers to existing files or to make and place new files. When you do run out of room, it is legitimately because you need more file space, not because you keep everything and never look at it again.
If you do legitimately run out of file space, take one large category—old taxes, real estate information, family letters, bulky inspiration files for a specific remodel, etc—and put it into a file box.
In the case of old taxes, portions of which will be periodically shredded, cardboard banker’s boxes stored in a not too inconvenient spot are fine. They will only be reviewed once a year when the latest tax papers are added and the oldest are removed for shredding (ask your CPA what they recommend as to shredding old tax forms, I’ve heard everything from three to seven to ten years). For memorabilia, like letters, leave it in the hanging files and purchase plastic hanging file bins and store them in a paper-friendly place, like an office or bedroom closet.
Your files are a support system and should feel like trusted friends. When they start to feel stale or unfamiliar, give them some time and attention and lighten them up to keep them lean and relevant.