How To Solve the Discard Dilemma

820182697_e1d919ad7f_m.jpgI'm one of those people who has an unfortunate pack-rat mentality. I store old receipts, notes from articles I wrote years ago, weatherbeaten college textbooks, and assorted other flotsam in the belief that surely, at some point, it will either (a) come in handy or (b) be requested by the authorities. (Which authorities exactly I don't know, but I figure you can't be too careful.)

I also have a box labeled "Old Tech Stuff" that includes things like defunct PalmPilots, ancient modems, dead mice (the plastic ones, not the furry ones) and random assorted cables and power supplies. It's not so much that I believe I will actually cannibalize parts to fix some current electronic gizmo. It's more that I don't know how to responsibly get rid of them.

It's well-documented that an orderly, clutter-free office can really contribute to productivity, so I know that I must mend my magpie ways. Luckily for me, there are plenty of resources out there to provide guidance as to what to keep, what to trash, and how to trash it. Turns out that taking three easy steps can get me -- and you -- on the road to a more streamlined existence.

Step 1: Learn what's really important.
Stephen Smith, guest-blogging on Fresh Focus...On Productivity!, compiled an extensive list of guidelines for record retention. The big takeaway: There are only a few items you need to hold on to forever. On the personal side, those include birth and death certificates, medical records, marriage and divorce certificates, and social-security records.

Most other items you should hold on to for 2 years or so, unless they're tax-related, in which case 7 years is the standard. So it turns out my 14 years' worth of accumulated utility bills are just a waste of space. Oops.

Step 2: Tackle your current clutter.
Separate your paperwork into three piles or boxes: current, storage, and trash/recycle. Your "current" pile should include only items you anticipate needing as part of an ongoing or upcoming project, resources you use regularly, or something you refer to often.

Yes, this step can take a while, but it's absolutely essential for you to be both realistic and ruthless in your sorting. Stumped about something? Apply Susan Silver's two general guidelines for solving discard dilemmas: When in doubt, save tax, legal, and business items; and when in doubt, toss resource information, especially information you seldom, if ever, use. Silver also offers nine questions to help you decide what to toss versus what to save.

Your clutter probably includes the aforementioned electronic items. Now's the time to figure out which cord corresponds to which gadget and to put the orphans in your trash/recycle pile. Add to this pile any PDAs, cell phones, keyboards, laptops, and so forth that are redundant to items you currently use or are ridiculously out of date. (Trust me, if you now have an iPhone, you will never use your Apple Newton again.)

Step 3: Store, shred, and recycle.
Organize the items in your "storage" pile -- you can get really detailed with fancy folders and labels or just throw it all in a big storage box -- and put them away. An attic, a basement, a storeroom in your building, or an off-site storage facility are good locations. Your items are still accessible if you need them, but they won't be taking up your psychic energy (and real estate) sitting in a corner of your office.

What should you shred? The quick answer is anything that contains your signature, an account number, your social-security number, or medical or legal information. A more extensive list would include items such as employee pay stubs and employment records, legal documents, resumes, and utility bills. When in doubt, it doesn't hurt to shred (assuming you don't stick a finger in there).

Done? Good. Now spend a satisfying afternoon dumping all your defunct papers and shredder confetti into the recycle bin. As for your junked gizmos, the EPA thoughtfully provides a list of places where you can donate or recycle old computers and other electronics. Many communities hold regular electronics-recycling drives, and some merchants, such as Sam's Club, offer trade-in programs.

When you're finished, your office and your mind should both be a lot clearer.

Got any other suggestions on solving the discard dilemma? Share them in the comments section.

(image by ChicagoEye via Flickr, CC 2.0)