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Successful Aging: Tips on how to purge the papers and documents you no longer need

Dear readers.

I recently had three questions that dealt with the same topic: Too much paper. Reader No. 1 kept records and notes from students she counseled on careers 40 years ago. Reader No. 2 retained his doctoral dissertation notes from 30 years ago. Reader No. 3 developed two innovative university courses she taught 25 years ago and kept all of the materials. They share the same question – how to get motivated to toss their papers that relate to their former work.

In our alleged paperless society, it seems we continue to collect and save an increasing amount of paper and just can’t fill the dumpster.

We believe that things or items trigger memories. Consider the dinosaur sculpture your three-year-old (who now is 45) made, the vase from your grandmother or the picture you received as a wedding gift and never liked. When such items disappear, we fear our memories about them also may vanish.

This same hesitancy also applies to our professional papers. We can see and touch our files, lecture outlines, reports we wrote, analyses we completed and the stories of clients. These are affirmations that we have done something of importance and made a difference to clients, students or contributed to a body of knowledge. Whether we look at them or not, we feel secure knowing they are there.

So what happens when it’s time to let go because of a move, lack of space or not wanting to leave the task to our children? Is there a way to mitigate the loss?

Debra Frank, a Certified Professional Organizer in Manhattan Beach and owner of Let’s Get Organized! notes that it is very common to find the process daunting. For some, the fear is that once tossed, the evidence of your work is gone and that few if any may know your accomplishments and their impact. For others tossing those papers may feel that a big part of their “self” as being destroyed.

To ensure a more positive downsizing experience, Frank offers the following tips:

Set a goal: Keep your eye on the goal because it may help you get through the rough spots. Consider why the timing is right.

Get prepared: If you have legal documents, financials or proprietary information, consult with your attorney or CPA to determine if anything needs to be retained and for how long.

Feeling overwhelmed: Acknowledge that it is reasonable to feel overwhelmed. If this is the case, start with a little at a time. Schedule actual appointments with yourself in your calendar. That might be 10 minutes or an hour a day.

Get started: Sort items into decisions that will be easy and those that will be difficult. Then toss the easy stuff; shred and recycle. Revisit the difficult pile after you’ve built some “letting go” momentum and you may be surprised that you find it wasn’t as difficult as anticipated. If needed, ask a friend or professional to help you. Sometimes that person can ask you just the right question(s).

Save what’s important: Take the time to reflect on photos, articles, reports and clippings. Consider making a professional scrapbook of those items that serve as a memoir for you, your children and grandchildren. Another option is to scan what is most important to remember or pass on.

Contribute your papers: If some of your work has advanced your field, consider contributing your papers to a university library or a professional organization.

Have a vision: Have a sense of how you want things to look or feel when you finish. It will help you maintain motivation throughout the process. And say goodbye to old memories, knowing that they are in your heart and mind rather than on the piece of paper or in a folder. Look to this future uncluttered space with optimism, opportunity and excitement.

For those of us who have enjoyed working, we know there will be a time to trim the inventory of papers and files. It requires motivation, time, energy and a bit of strength that will lead to new open spaces. Best wishes and let’s all honor the review of rich careers.

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