Putting Things in a File Cabinet Drawer is Death.

A client once said this to me. I repeated it back to her as I jotted it down, thinking it’d make a good blog topic, “Putting things in a file cabinet drawer is like death.” 

“No,” she corrected, “Is death.” She’d always had a way with words and I couldn’t argue with her persistence on metaphor versus simile. 

My client had just turned 87. I may be an expert organizer but she had the wisdom of years and was at a time of reflection and transition. She may have also been my most organized client but her little office had too much furniture, a few too many tchotchkes, and lacked some key systems. She had four very, very, deep file cabinet drawers that were relatively organized but packed full for lack of consistent culling. Plus, she had a small flat file drawer that had looser organization within, two accordion files, and six file trays. So, a fair amount of paper corrals.

One of these accordion files was composed completely of recipes and had a sidekick file in her file cabinet. All of these recipes were recycled because they were never used. She also had reference material in the file cabinets; the kind that seems interesting when you first lay eyes on it and want to set it aside for later use. Over time, these snippets become massive paperwork headed straight to the recycling bin. But they are difficult to let go of because you chose them (unlike the other paperwork of life). 

The file cabinets were also coffins for old boring files, the kinds of paperwork headed straight toward the paper shredder: doctors’ bills, explanation of benefits, policy updates, and outdated banking documents you never wanted to see in the first place. They hang in there because it’s easier to leave them than sort through what to keep and what to let go. You never wanted to see these papers in the first place, making them even easier to ignore. That’s why it’s best to determine a set of rules for what paperwork should be kept, for how long, and then schedule regular paper culling moments. I know that sounds terribly boring, but once you do it, it becomes easy, and a little something you can take care of while watching Netflix.

Knowing which papers to keep is efficiency’s key. And while erring on the side of caution when reviewing financial and property documents is a good thing, every decent piece of information is less useful than you think it is at the moment you read it. Consider the way you collected and retrieved information in the past, and how you want to in the future. Part of this is not holding on … to information. Minimalism is not solely about objects or possessions. It’s about streamlining our information consumption and systems so that you have enough information to help yourself without being weighed down.

I think about my client’s metaphor and let it expand a bit. The more we allow ourselves to be weighed down, by emotions, life administration, objects, and ideas, we are living less. Meaning, we allow ourselves to creep closer to it’s opposite. At 87, my client may be grappling with the ideas of life and death more than most, but I’m happy that with the paper-weight of the past lifted one sheet at a time, she’s a bit more alive.