The Art of Wastebasketry: Dealing with Documents (in a High-Tech Age)

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff January 1, 2005

By Barbara Hemphill

Are your filing cabinets stuffed so full that it’s difficult to retrieve and file papers? If you’re like 80% of the people in the audiences to whom I speak, your answer is, “Yes.”

Are there things in your filing cabinet you could probably throw out? Again, the answer is usually, “Yes.” So what’s the problem?

Certainly a major stumbling block is time. Some may say that cleaning out the filing cabinet won’t make money. But research shows the average person spends 150 hours each year looking for misplaced information. What would happen to your bottom line if you added that time to getting new customers or selling new products or services to old customers?

Frequently people say to me, “It never fails. Every time I throw out something, I need it the next day.” To which I reply, “Can you give me an example?” Mostly I get silence.

Determine whether you want to keep each piece of paper at all by asking yourself these questions:

  • Does this require any action on my part?

Just because you receive information—even if it’s from your boss—doesn’t mean you need to keep it. If it doesn’t require action, file it or toss it right away. If it’s just an FYI, read it and toss.

  • Does this exist elsewhere?

Is it in the library? Do you know an expert on the subject who’d be certain to have more complete information if you really needed it? Is the original filed elsewhere? Is it necessary to keep a hard copy if it already exists in the computer?

  • Is this information recent enough to be useful?

Today, information becomes outdated very quickly. Would you want a customer to decide whether or not to choose your services based on a three-year-old brochure? The information in a six-month-old magazine article about computer software has undoubtedly been superseded, as has a downloaded product review from an online service. In many cases, it is more appropriate to keep track of the source of the information, so you can get the latest version, rather than keeping the information itself.

  • Can I identify specific circumstances when I’d use this information?

Usually, “just in case” is not good enough. Files labeled “miscellaneous” are of little value, because there’s nothing to trigger you to look there. If you can’t identify how you’d use the information—at least well enough that you can file it for future reference—it’s unlikely that you’d remember you have it, let alone be able to find it later.

  • Are there any tax or legal implications?

Here’s where “just in case” works. Unfortunately, we’re frequently required to resurrect paper that we’d much rather have forgotten. Sometimes, having outdated information in your files can create unnecessary problems. A client of mine was sued. When the company’s files were subpoenaed, the prosecuting attorney found my client’s unsigned contract proposal, and used it to prove wrongful intent. My client lost the suit and had to pay $147,000. Had the files had been properly cleaned, I don’t believe that would have happened.

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

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

If you can live with your answer, toss it—and live happily ever after. For years I have orchestrated “File Clean-Out Days” with companies. I used to live in fear that someone would come back to me afterward with a horror story of something we threw out, and they needed later. In 20 years, it’s never happened!

Barbara Hemphill is the author of the best-selling .