What to Toss & Save: Cleaning Out the Home Office

Ah, the age-old question – what to keep, what to toss? Rather than agonize while organizing, check out my guidelines for decision-making.

Look familiar?

Your home office contains so many important things — electronics, documents, art supplies, bills and inboxes — that it can be daunting to figure out where to pare down and how to organize. Beyond hanging more shelves and dusting cobwebs behind the desk, here are several house-keeping tips to get you started:

Purge Before Organizing

When facing a tough job like a messy office, it’s tempting to head out and buy every storage system Office Depot ever created. But don’t do that, suggests Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.” Instead, she recommends that you first get rid of everything you don’t need, and then take stock of what’s left. Once you know what you actually want in your home office, you’ll have a much better idea of where to put it and how to make it accessible for everyday use.

Toss the Inessentials

Modern life is full of paper: permission slips, insurance claims, mortgage documents, cell phone bills etc. When huge collections of unopened envelopes and loose papers build up, it’s easy to lose track of the essentials. Start sorting and immediately toss everything you don’t need. Spam mail, scratch paper and envelopes from opened letters are obvious targets for the trash. Others are not so obvious, such as tax documents, receipts, paid bills, pay stubs, retirement and savings plan statements, medical bills and insurance policies. To be safe, save these until you’re sure you no longer need them. Then, to avoid the effects of bank fraud or identity theft, destroy old documents using a home shredder or shredding service.

Keep Necessary Documents

Even in a digital world, there are a few things you need to keep on hand. Never throw away Social Security cards, certificates (birth, marriage, death), wills, and records of health and other important events, such as adoption or child custody agreements. Store these in a safe place, such as a fire-proof box or filing cabinet.

Erase Old Computer Files Completely

Simply putting something in your trash bin doesn’t erase it from your computer, unfortunately. If you know how to wipe a hard drive yourself, great. If you reformat your hard drive and reinstall your computer’s operating system, it can be relatively easy to erase all personal information. Just be sure it’s all gone before giving the computer away. If you’re unsure, take it to an expert so he or she can ensure sensitive information is removed before you pass it along to a new owner or a recycling center for refurbishment.

Create an Intuitive System

Many people find that filing by subject, for instance, works really well. They might use the file away system where once they pick up a piece of paper, they either file it, throw it away or act on it accordingly. Of course, this system may not work for you. If that’s the case, find one that does: perhaps you don’t like to organize, but you can at least make a to-do list with a couple of clearly labeled trays.

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