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Some answers to "Should I keep it?" when filing

In To save or not to save Kelly Forrister provides two questions that answer the question of whether to keep something or not:
  • How hard would it be to get the information again if I needed to?
  • When's the last time I looked at this?
Her questions reminded me of something more general that I came across when reviewing the Paper Tiger filing system (esp. the tutorial). When answering the question Should I keep it?, the author notes that 80% of what we keep, we don't use, and that 40% of most inboxes can be tossed. I don't know where she gets the numbers, but she does go on to give these great tips for deciding to keep something:
  • Does this piece of paper require any action?
  • Is this paper recent enough to be useful? (Often it's better to track who has it, rather than keeping a copy.)
  • Would it be be difficult to get this piece of paper again?
  • Are there any tax or legal implications? (Get good council regarding keeping these.)
  • Can you identify a specific use for this piece of paper? ("Just in case" is not specific enough.)
  • What's the worst possible scenario if you toss this? (Can you live with the answer?)
Clearly some of these overlap with David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology (the discipline I primarily use to keep my life sane), but it's a nice list to share with people when they don't have the time or inclination to adopt Allen's system 100%. I do have some serious issues the the Paper Tiger approach (for example, having to go to the computer every time you want to file anything, which I think leads to stacking), but I'll write about that in a bit.

We get another perspective from Marilyn Paul's great book It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys: The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized. In her section on keeping things, she says to keep things that:
  • you use regularly,
  • you require for bookkeeping,
  • you love or think are beautiful, or
  • have deep meaning for you
Do you have any favorite guidelines for deciding when to keep something?

Reader Comments (2)

I use an eletronic filing system somewhat similar to paper tiger. When in doubt, I tend to keep documents because they may save the day sometime in the future. My view is that it doesn't cost much to index them in the pc and stuff them in a file. If I don't ever look at it again, thats fine but at least I know that its available should I ever want to retrieve it.


November 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Thanks for the detail, tom. I'm the same way - if in doubt I tend to store. Like you, this works for me because a) I can store quickly (so that I'm not tempted to pile), and b) I can also quickly retrieve it. (I use the simple A-Z system David Allen talks about.) The concern with an electronic filing system "overlay" I was trying to convey was that it might slow down storage (have to go to the PC, type in something, get a number, then find the numbered file) or retrieval (go to computer, type in something, ...). With the A-Z I simply look up the first category that comes to me, and 90% of the time it's there. Sometimes I have to look in the second place that comes to mind, but it's still very fast. Also, it works when there's no power! Thanks again.

November 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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