Now that the dust from the elections has settled -- and fate has sorted out the vanquished and the victorious -- hundred in both categories have discovered that they have one important thing in common: They all have to clean out their file cabinets.
Whether a prelude to moving out or up, the task brings the same promise of dread, tedium and bewilderment.
(That I am giving advice on a subject of organization and cleanliness will astound anyone who knows me. I have never been known to throw anything away, and my desk usually looks like the aftermath of an explosion. Yet, more accumulated papers means more experience in parting with them. Like the former Bowery bum giving advice on how to give up drinking, I feel especially qualified to give advice.)
In the paper-purging business, attitude is as important as method. One must employ a philosophy combining the right measure of judgment, ruthlessness and realism about which workday effects are really worth keeping. Remember these principles:
1. Work papers are like home movies. No one is as interested in them as their originator. Neither successors nor grandchildren will find much intrinsic value in documentary proof that their predecessor was on a first-name basis with the Assistant Secretary of Policy Planning. . . .
2. It's easier to find the needle if the haystack is smaller. The usefulness of files isn't enhanced if they're so full of ephemera that those who rifle them for information give up in disgust.
3. Very few of us are ever going to write our memoirs. Face it, most of us are not spending our work hours returning calls from Alfred A. Knopf and Simon & Schuster. This actually is a blessing. So long, telephone logs! Bye-bye meeting minutes!
After much trial (and even more error) I have discovered that one should not start by deciding what to throw out. This is much too traumatic for the compulsive paper-saver and requires too much raw courage at a time when tiptoeing into the quagmire is more appropriate.
1. Identify those documents that will continue to be useful. Only nostalgia buffs should bother saving copies of this year's projections for a "balanced" federal budget.
2. Save samples of important keepsakes. Within even the most humble of us there lives a Narcissus who enjoys savoring memorable moments.
But save only the best, i.e., those who wrote a lot of speeches will want to keep only the one or two that would make Vic Gold truly jealous.
3. Prepare a file of documents a successor is able to consult. These things go:
Handwritten notes -- Meetings, brainstorms, telephone calls may contain the most brilliant of insights but, unless the writer is a calligrapher, an heir to the job is not going to search for diamonds-in-the-rough scratchings.
First, second, etc., drafts -- A memorandum or speech is not the Treaty of Ghent, and no one will hunger to compare drafts to see what changes were made.
4. If in doubt, put off a final decision until later. Most "maybe's" eventually turn into "no's."
5. Finally, Close Eyes, Grit Teeth and Throw Away the Rest! To help you through this -- the hardest part -- you might want to emulate one friend who eases the pain by inviting co-workers to roast marshmallows over a bonfire of burning memoranda. . . .
And a special work of warning to those bequeathing files to "the enemy." Leave nothing behind that would be very useful indeed to successors loyal to another party or ideology.
Prime candidates for the shredder: memoranda questioning an office's take action, "In case, God forbid, the crazies are elected."