Cleaning Out

We are under orders to clean out our offices. Sometime in the next month the office will be painted, stem to stern, and to do their jobs the painters need our walls to be cleared and all our books and papers and files to be boxed up and out of the way. And so this week I have seen massive dumpsters on wheels rolling down the hallway, felt the thud of books raining down from bookshelves, and heard the endless debate of whether this precious brochure from 1992 should be saved or junked.

The decisions about what to toss and what to keep aren’t ‘t really about cleaning, or that brochure from 1992. They are about the rise of the Internet, the death of the filing cabinet, and the importance of institutional memory.

When I was hired as a program assistant (at the turn of the century! the dinosaur age!) we had a system of color coded file folders with routing slips. Paper moved through the office on well traveled paths, and the paper meant something. It was important, and had to be kept. How else would you know that something had happened, was approved, was recorded? But those years were the last gasp of the paper era, and soon being documented meant being traceable with email, or being searchable on Google.

So why is my office still full of paper? Why are my shelves still full of books? The other day when I resolved to clean out my shelves I stood with my English-Russian dictionary in my hand for a long time, unable to toss it. That is, I stood there until my iPhone buzzed in my pocket and I snapped out of it: there is an app for that. I tossed the book.

So how should we decide what to keep, and what to throw away? I’ve done a little mind meld between Marie Kondo and an auditor, and come up with my own personal plan.

  • Age: Just like with old bills and taxes, there is a point at which you can safely throw away your records. No one is ever going to ask me what I paid for electricity in 2007, and no one is ever going to ask me for a trip report from that year, either. In general if a document it is over ten years old, toss it.
  • Value: Whether from last decade or last month, some things have value and some things don’t. Somethings are irreplaceable, and there may only be one copy. For example, I found the one copy of a document listing my organization’s projects and results in what we then called Europe & Eurasia in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. It might be useful. I’ve put it in a small folder of old documents to keep. But the ten pounds of back-up documents from that era – the proposals, final reports, training manuals – all of that is in the recycle bin.
  • Joy: Some things just make you feel happy when you look at them. Keep them. You can do to your office what tidying guru Marie Kondo says to do with our homes: hold something in your hand and see if it “sparks joy.” If not, chuck it. In the office this needs a caveat, of course: chuck it only if you don’t need it. My folder full of old visa applications does not spark joy, but I need to keep it because some countries ask for years worth of travel history.

My clean-out has resulted in a single book shelf with many fewer books and files. I got rid of the L in my L shaped desk, making more room for a table where I can sit with a colleague. The permission to keep things that bring me joy means I have kept a scrap of fabric with an embroidered logo – the first logo I ever had a hand in developing – and a wonderfully dated family planning poster from Nigeria. You cannot find them on the Internet or on the shared computer drive, but you can find them in my office, at least until the next time the painters come through.

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