What to Keep? How to Decide: 4 Key Questions

When it comes to getting and staying organized, by far the most difficult part of the process is making decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Whether it’s paper or stuff, having some basic criteria in place ahead of time on which to base your decisions will make them easier. While being organized does not always require getting rid of possessions, most of us have too much stuff – paper, clothing, books, knick-knacks, etc., for the spaces in which we live and work. This makes finding what we need when we need it much more difficult. In addition, the more stuff we have, the more time and effort it takes to manage it. Reducing the amount of things we keep in our space makes getting organized and staying organized significantly easier.

As you sort through each item in the space, ask yourself four questions:

  1. When was the last time I used this item?
  2. Does this item still have meaning or use in my life as I currently live it?
  3. Would I be able to obtain this information again from another source?
  4. What would be the worst thing that could happen if I let it go?

Are you holding on to an item because you spent a lot of money on it? Or because it used to fit and you’ve been planning on losing that last ten pounds for several years now? Or because someone gave it to you as a gift, but you never really liked it or used it and feel guilty getting rid of it? The nineteenth century author and designer William Morris said, “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This enduring advice helps to establish the parameters of what you should keep in your home or office. If it’s redundant, easily found elsewhere, broken, outdated, outgrown, out of style, worn out, or just has no place in your life as you live it NOW, consider the physical and emotional space it occupies in your life and let it go.

Paperwork can be especially difficult to toss. There are some things that need to be kept for legal and tax purposes, like income tax returns, property titles, birth and death certificates, and other irreplaceable documents. There are some great records retention guidelines out there, and those can make these decisions easier. Bankrate has a good one, but if you just search “records retention guidelines” online, you’ll find many from reputable sources. The more difficult papers to make a decision about are things like utility bills, credit card bills, bank statements, and the like. In most cases, unless you need to keep these papers as back up documentation for a tax deduction, they can go. And please shred any papers with financial or other sensitive information. If you have more than a small pile and don’t want to burn out your shredder, office supply stores like Staples and Office Max will take shredding for a small fee per pound, or you can call a shredding company for larger loads. Believe me, it’s worth the money spent to save time, effort, and have peace of mind. With paperwork, as with anything else, the key questions to ask are:

  1. Can I get this information from another source? (So much is available online that keeping information in hard copies is unnecessary most of the time.)
  2. What would be the worst thing that could happen if I threw it away? (Bear in mind that, with few exceptions, most things can be replaced.)


Sentimental items are often the hardest things to let go. Sometimes we hold on to mementos of a past life or of loved ones because we fear that we may forget them. However, keep in mind that memories exist in our heads and hearts, not in a box. A few special mementos, kept and displayed with honor and respect, will bring more joy into your life than closets, attics, basements, and storage units filled to the brim with stuff that you never see or touch.

Once you have made the decision to reduce the stuff you keep in your space to only what is useful or beautiful, you will find that the next steps in the organizing process flow more swiftly. It will also be significantly easier to keep your spaces organized as time goes on.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

About Lisa Griffith - Professional business organizer and speaker - Griffith Productivity Solutions

About The Author

Lisa Griffith is a speaker and consultant who provides services, both on-site and virtually, to help busy professionals organize their offices, systems and calendars. In addition to business and home office organizing, productivity and time management coaching, she provides workshops & seminars for business and community groups.