Taming the Paper Tiger: Assessing the Problem

26 Feb

If I admit to hoarding anything, it’s paper. I have 30 file drawers and about 10 plastic tubs of paper, along with decades’ old National Geographics, Ms, and selected editions of Life, Seventeen and other random magazines from my youth to substantiate that claim. (But not, of course, those that might have actually been worth something, like the comic books. Prescient, I wasn’t.)

Hoarding is all relative. I’ve had one friend who used to save stacks of old newspapers so she could clip articles to send to those she thought would be interested. It was a personal way of relating. But it didn’t make for easy living. And we all know tales of people who create an aisle through their paper, stacked like walls. My hoarding is not apparent to those who visit, thanks to a large, dry basement, with everything contained in a box or drawer or neatly stacked on shelves.

I’ve noticed that most books on de-cluttering and downsizing give precious little space to the topic of what to do with paper beyond keeping the necessary documents. But of all my downsizing issues, I find the paper problem one of the most vexing. Each individual piece of paper takes up very little room but contains a lot of data, and the longer I keep it, the more valuable it becomes as validation of my life. So, given its outsize role in my own downsizing efforts, I will write several posts on this topic.

I first wrote about this topic when I discussed the low-hanging fruit. For me, that fruit was the piles of papers connected to my more recent work life, many of which I retained in digital form. Over the years, I have brought some semblance of order to the rest. If something were to happen to me, all but the financial and housing records could be chucked. But since I’m still here, I have to delve to a deeper emotional level to understand why I am keeping particular bits of paper and how I can make my collection more manageable and serve a purpose.

Fundamentally, there are three different kinds of information in my collections: important records, reference materials, and souvenirs. Let’s look at each one. (I do have some information for active projects, which I keep in my upstairs study.)

Important records (the seven years of financial information, health records, housing records for purposes of depreciation when we sell our real estate). Although I probably keep too many documents in the important records category, we can probably agree that these need to be kept—with the most important, such as house deeds, car titles, and birth certificates preferably off-site in a safe deposit box.  

Current status: I have six file drawers worth.

Emotional Attachment: Low. I sometimes worry that I am throwing out things I might need.

Action: Leave it be for the moment. Weed yearly.

Reference materials (recipes; “how to” articles; health and food facts; notes from classes I’ve taken on various topics, including writing, art, dancing); maps and travel information; appliance records and instructions. In considering what to keep, there are two questions to ask: when was the last time I referred to any of this material, and what is the likelihood I will need it in the future?  If I am honest, only three kinds of information qualify: maps (I like to see the big picture), current appliance records, and a handful of recipes that I actually use. The fact is if I haven’t internalized material from classes I’ve taken, I’m probably not going to go into a drawer and try to decipher my notes.

Current status: one drawer of maps and travel info, two drawers for all the rest.

Emotional Attachment: Medium.

Actions: Leave the maps. Weed through the appliance records to include only those which actually match an appliance. Make a list of courses I’ve taken (to satisfy my need for my life’s chronology) and throw away the notes unless they provide valuable information for a current, active interest. Chuck the “how to’s, most of the recipes, the health and food facts---all this information is on-line.

Souvenirs (a rather large category that includes school, work, entertainment, travel, and other life event records and paper chachkies, such as ticket stubs, maps, brochures, articles on topics of interest, funny cartoons, New Yorker covers that go back to the 1960s, magazines representing interests and periods of my life, letters and cards from friends and family. 

Current status: Do the math: 30 drawers minus 9 leaves 21 drawers in this category, plus at least 10 plastic tubs (archives from deceased family members, including correspondence), and piles of magazines.

Emotional Attachment: High for the personal items; low to medium for the magazines. Clearly, this category is where my MAJOR CHALLENGE lies and perhaps yours, too.

Action: Make a list of general contents and figure out a plan of attack. Have made some progress on this front, which I will report soon. To be continued…..

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