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Are you holding on to too much information?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Do you have piles of articles hanging around screaming to be read? Or file folders, tote bags or briefcases stuffed with information? If so, you're just like a lot of us.

After all, the time-management theories tell us to keep this information handy for those times we're waiting. It just seems that I don't have enough dental appointments to get through all of these. (Not to mention the fact that I have a very punctual dental team -- thanks, Gus and Liz!)

Whether it's work-related information or the latest article on nutrition or fitness, most of us succumb to information overload from time to time.

I definitely fall into this category. Since I started writing this column, I tend to examine lots of things more closely than I used to with the possibility they could be potential column fodder. Other columnists have told me they do this, too. Which is fine, until the background research starts to take on a life of its own.

Last weekend I set out to do a clean sweep of multiple piles of information at my house. During the process I ran across several articles on things I'd like to try out. And I made a mental note to check them out.

Later, while organizing drawers in another part of the house, I found that I'd already ordered one of the items and stored it until I had the time to devote to trying it out. That's when I decided I was on information overload. It was time to draw the line.

In an act of bravery, I tossed out a pile of newspapers that had accumulated while I was out of town. Although I scan news stories online when I'm away, I like to go through the actual papers to read human-interest features.

What if a new restaurant opened up while I was gone? Or someone's son or daughter got married? My friend John assures me that if he really needs to know about something, someone will tell him. And Pam reminds me that "life is like the Home Shopping Network. If you miss the mallard ducks, you can always get the faux pearls."

Logically, I know I can replace just about any information I need if I happen to toss the hard copy. With the advent of the Internet we can trace most everything or get pointed in the direction of appropriate resources. I just need to let go.

As fate would have it, I've saved a collection of resource information on this very topic. And this seems just the perfect time to explore it. Worksmart Productivity Consulting offers the following suggestions:

How to decide what to keep and what to throw away

These three items are reasons to keep information:

1. Am I legally required to keep this? Example: tax purposes, patent requirements, contract requirements, government regulations. If YES, keep it.

2. Does it help me do my job better to have this on hand? Does it help me accomplish my individual job mission? If YES, keep it.

3. Do I use this? On average, people will only ever use 20 percent of what is in their office or home office areas. (Yikes!) If YES, keep it.

These seven items are reasons to discard or delegate information:

1. Is this information updated periodically? Decide how much history I need to keep. (Example: three months' worth of reports) and throw out anything older. When the next report comes in, toss out the oldest report; and you'll have a "naturally maintained" file.

2. Did I originate this -- and do I still use it? Just because I originated something doesn't necessarily mean I have to keep a copy of it. Only keep it for legal, mission or use reasons. (See above.)

3. Is someone else the originator of this information? Almost everything that comes into my in-box (paper and electronic) originated somewhere else. If I don't need it for legal, mission or use reasons, let the originator know I am relying on them to provide me with the most up-to-date information when I need it. Don't rely on potentially out-of-date or obsolete information to make decisions.

4. Can I obtain this information from someone or somewhere else? Example: most newspapers, magazines, journals and newsletters can be retrieved online, from the library or the original source.

5. Is this personally important to me, but not job-related? For personal items at work, establish one drawer or file(s) to store personal items and keep them separate from work items.

6. Do I need this for "political" reasons? Example: My boss or a co-worker gave it to me. If I don't need it, I could take it home and recycle it, explain that I passed it on to someone who could use it more than I could or store it far away from my primary work space.

7. What is the worst possible thing that could happen if I threw this away? If I don't lose my job or break a law, the worst might be some lost time.

After going through these questions, am I still not sure what to do? If I am uncomfortable throwing it away, keep it for now. The next time I review my resources (in six months or a year), I may feel more comfortable letting it go since I recently reviewed everything.

While these may seem like no-brainers, I think it's helpful to have a checklist. Personally, I found Nos. 4 and 7 to be the most empowering.

Now I'm off to commit some "purgery."

Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman and CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm in Charleston. Reader inquiries may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or e-mailed to livinglifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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