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Elizabeth Bowman
Professional Organizer & Productivity Consultant
Seattle, Washington
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Paper... Keep it or Toss it?

Do you often get stuck when deciding what to do with this paper or that paper? Are you tired of just tossing the paper to the side onto the top of that ever-growing pile?
Written Oct 05, 2008, read 3335 times since then.


Do you often get stuck when deciding what to do with this paper or that paper?  Are you tired of just tossing the paper to the side onto the top of that ever-growing pile?  Are you baffled with where to put each piece of paper when you're done with it?  Should you keep it or toss it?

These are some of the most frequent questions I get as a professional organizer.  It seems like at least once a week someone says, "How do I know which papers to keep and which to toss?"  Well, hopefully I can provide you with some easy tips to help you battle your paper piles...

Paper Tip #1: Make an immediate decision with any paper you come across and place it into one of these filing zones:

1) Active: Files you use often (daily, weekly).  This should be paper that represents an "action" that you need to take.

2) Reference: Files you access regularly but do not require an immediate action.  These files should be sorted into categories for easy, quick retrieval.

3) Archive: Files you need to keep for historical purposes but you don't need to access more than once a year.  These files are prime candidates for off-site storage if you have a small space.  Consider scanning these records too!

Paper Tip #2: Keep a master list of all your files and carry it with you.  This list will come in handy the next time you are trying to remember what filing categories are in your drawers.  You will save yourself the time of search through your filing cabinets by using your quick reference or “filing cheat sheet”.

Paper Tip #3: Delegate your filing to someone else.  Time is money, right?  Once you have your initial filing system in place, it will be easy to delegate the tedious task of filing to someone else.  Maybe you need to hire a temp or an assistant to help with this task.  Paying their lower rate to file papers away into their proper locations will ensure you are still productive and billing clients at your higher rate at the same time.  It could be a beautiful thing!

Paper Tip #4: Review a list of Paper Retention Guidelines.  This will help to refresh your memory on which papers you should keep and which you should toss.  Here are a few of the most common:

 1) Personal Tax Returns: Keep for 6 to 7 years

2) Medical Records: Keep forever

3) Credit Card Statements: Keep for 2 to 3 years

Click here to view the full version of the Paper Retention List on my website. 

The next time you find yourself stuck at a cross-roads with the decision of “what do I do with this paper?” just remember these tips and hopefully the choice will be easy!  If you need help creating your initial filing system we’re always happy to help.

(Be sure to double check with your personal accountant or tax advisor for paper retention guidelines that are specific to your situation as well.  For businesses, double check with your auditor and/or information management specialist too.)


Learn more about the author, Elizabeth Bowman.

Comment on this article

  • General Manager 
Bellingham, Washington 
Jim Carney
    Posted by Jim Carney, Bellingham, Washington | Oct 07, 2008

    I get out a sheet of paper and take notes. Anything that can be condensed to that sheet for later action is a big plus to cleaning off the desk. I will shred or throw away tons of notes and papers that are now on 1 or 2 pages of an action item to do list. Then I will pick 3 to 5 of the most important and then rank them 1 thru 3 or 5. When I get to the list even if I just get 1 or 2 done they are the ones listed as the top priority. Helps me keep focused. I definately delegate filing. Great tips Elizabeth!

  • Volunteer Abroad Crowdfunder 
Seattle, Washington 
PJ Harris
    Posted by PJ Harris, Seattle, Washington | Oct 07, 2008

    Thank you so much for this article. I am such a paper pack rat because I don't have clarity on what to keep and what to throw away. Breathe and let go in yet another arena. I am copying your article and putting it on the front of our file cabinet drawers.

  • Certified Public Accountant 
Bothell, Washington 
Justin Dagna
    Posted by Justin Dagna, Bothell, Washington | Oct 12, 2008

    Great tips, especially in regards to making immediate decisions about filing zones. A well-maintained "active" file can double as your todo list.

    I have one other tip: Don't keep everything as paper - store electronic copies!

    I have been doing this to keep files straight for my bookkeeping and tax clients. Some files - like QuickBooks - have to be on the computer, but I've discovered that I can save time and space by scanning source documents - statements, tax forms, etc. - so that I can access them without ever getting up from my desk. When I do research, I print to PDF to save web pages and scan books or magazines as PDF files to keep the research alongside the rest of the project.

    And, if you're smart about backing up your electronic files, you have two additional advantages. First, you can keep all of your records indefinitely. Second, you're one step closer to being prepared for a disaster like a fire or flood.

  • Professional Organizer & Productivity Consultant 
Seattle, Washington 
Elizabeth Bowman
    Posted by Elizabeth Bowman, Seattle, Washington | Nov 06, 2008

    Great comments and additional tips... Thanks!