In a recent interview we asked a number of people how they would advise creating a filing system from scratch. Then the readers of Productivity501 voted for the best one. Below are the answers arranged with the highest ranked answers at the top.
Don’t forget you can cast your vote for the remaining questions.
Describe your paper filing system along with your advice for someone starting a filing system from scratch.
I like a logical system. Ask yourself, where would I expect to find this?
Keep and file only what’s necessary. Tax records are, notes from a seminar are probably not. Once read and committed to memory that information will probably not be referred to again.
Use specific, plain language file names. Instead of “banking”, say “X Bank Acc. #”.
For a home-based office, like my own, I think “prime real estate”. Files accessed most often should be the most easily accessible. That’s the prime real estate.
I use logic. And zones. Finances belong together, as do client records.
Maintenance is the key. When you take out a file, take a quick look at the contents. Are they still relevant and necessary? Weed it. Is the file still too big? Divide it into sub-categories.
Any filing system evolves. If you keep using logic, it will always work.
Angela Esnouf from Organised Thoughts
The idea of asking yourself “where will I look for this” is an excellent tip. It is easy to look for a place to put something and end up storing things in spaces that make absolutely no sense when you are looking for it later.
First, I do everything possible to minimize paper. For those papers that I must keep, they get filed in regular file folders in a cabinet.
I find that it works best to create a single file folder for each project or account. So I have folders for bank accounts, taxes, etc. Then I put these in alphabetical order. It makes things easy to find and simple to expand.
Be sure to label your folders well. I have a great DYMO label maker for this.
Finally, file things as you get them. Don’t let them pile up or save all your filing for later. Put things away as they hit your desk. It will save you from lots of headaches.
I find the labels make a big difference in how I approach my filing. If things are well labeled I tend to be more careful how I file things because it feels more “professional”. If my labels are sloppily written by hand (or even non-existent) I tend to be lazy in my filing and things quickly go down hill from there.
I simply have a bunch of folders in a couple of drawers. Neatly organized in an alphabetical order.
Tip: Even when there’s only one piece of paper to file, it’s worthy of a folder.
Tip 2: If you can’t decide on a suitable name, just pick one. If you can come up with it now, you can come up with it when you need it.
I am bad about not creating a folder when I need it. I know David Allen recommends against hanging folders because if it requires more work to make a new folder, you are likely to put it off and not file it. Tip 2 is related to Angela’s tip of asking “where do I find this”.
Developing a filing system depends on your needs. I use a filing cabinet and hanging filing folders. I create a separate folder for everything. Some people try to keep less folders with more information. I find that the more folders I have, the easier it is for me to locate what I need quickly. Don’t hesitate to create a new folder because you feel that you won’t have enough information to warrant a new folder or because the information isn’t important enough to keep in a separate file folder. If it is worth keeping to you, then create a folder to make it easy to find. Remember they are your files and the point of having a filing system is to make your information accessible and organized. I also alphabetize my folders to make locating them easy.
Vicki from One Big Health Nut
My problem with new folders is when I start creating things that overlap. I’ll end up with Finances, Banking, Retirement, and Money and it isn’t clear which one is the correct folder. This probably is more of an issue because I don’t have my folders arranged correctly, so I overlook the correct folder and create a new one.
My personal paper filing system is arranged in zones. The files I use on a daily or weekly basis are in a drawer I can reach from my desk chair. Files that are used for reference are in a nearby file drawer.
Here are ideas for those lucky people starting a new filing system:
- Use the same system for filing paper and electronic files.
- Keep business and personal files separate.
- Keep the system simple. The more “chores” you need to do to get the filing done will mean the less filing you do. The simplest system uses handwritten labels on manila file folders.
- Invest in high-quality file storage.
The idea of keeping parallel file arrangements for paper and electronic files is intriguing. The only downside I see is that deeply nested folders in the physical world can be very difficult to navigate. On the plus side, it would keep you from creating crazy deep folder levels on your computer if you knew you’d have to try to create them with actual folders.
If you are starting from scratch, my advice is:
- Keep it simple by getting rid of as much paper as possible and keeping as few files as possible.
- Think through the entire lifecycle of your paper and create separate systems for paper you need to ACT on, REFER TO / FILE INTO often, and create an archive system where you can move older paper that you have to keep or keep paper that you will rarely have to refer to.
- Use high quality tools.
- Give yourself plenty of filing storage space.
- Don’t create TO FILE piles! Keep your Actionable paper and reference files handy enough to file instantly.
Ariane makes a good point that we often lump two issues into filing. One is not having a good idea of what we need to keep and the other is not having a good place to put those important papers. If you can fix the first problem the second becomes more manageable.
I recommend a basic alphabetical system, with a set of A-Z pressboard file guides to separate each letter. I’ve researched many more complex systems (including grouping, sub-categorization, and color coding), but simplest is best for starters. I’d avoid digital indexing systems (e.g., Paper tiger) until you have a compelling need. Other tips: Get a desktop labeler (I like the Dymo QX50), use 3-cut (or 3-tab) file folders, don’t worry about tabs lining up (i.e., random is fine), and put files that start with numbers under the number’s *letter*, not at the front (e.g., “6 thinking hats” would go under “S” for six).
Matt makes a good point that is easy to overlook. Don’t do anything complex until the benefits outweigh the complexity. What works well for storing 50 million sheets of paper will not save you time when you are managing 500 sheets.
I scan everything I can with my ScanSnap–it’s incredibly quick and easy. I give each scan a descriptive name and place it in an appropriate folder; I sub-categorize by year or even month for high-volume folders. Finally, I shred whatever original papers I can, and fit the few I need to keep into a single file box. I love having minimal clutter, yet being able to find documents when I need them.
I’m a big fan of the Scan Snap. I occasionally run into problems with it grabbing multiple sheets of paper, but usually it works well. I use DevonThink to store everything which lets me do things like put the same item in multiple folders and automatically assign items to the correct folder based on their contents. I’m not down to a single box yet like Eva, but I’m working on it.
As a student, my paper filing system is probably very different from most. I have one binder that I keep all of my papers from my current classes. I keep handouts, notes, and returned work all in this binder. Dividers (manila envelopes cut in half) keep the classes separate. If it starts to get too full, I’ll clear out old notes and handouts and put them in a manila folder named “Class X Archive.” That folder goes into my “folder-crate.” My folder-crate has all my archived class work and materials as well as a “Pending” folder for work I can’t do yet, a “Taxes” folder for all tax documents, and individual folders for any completed projects that I feel need to be held on to.
The key to any filing system, however, is not overflowing it. I try to reduce the amount of paper I ask my filing system to handle. I carefully consider each paper before I decide to keep it. Also, purging your file system every so often is very beneficial.
I have used binders and three a three hole punch as a nice filing system in the past. It works particularly well for bank statements and college classes.
I would buy the most expensive, sturdy, and attractive filing cabinet you can afford. You are going to spend a lot of time there so you better like it. I would also get a table-top tickler file, straight-line file tabbed file folders and a labeler. Put all your hot items in categories and build your system from your desktop and start moving the items you don’t need often to the cabinet. All along the way, you should ask yourself if you need to act on the piece of paper, if it is for reference or can you toss/recycle it. I also recommend a very big trash can. The biggest your room can hold. Like a hamper. My informal studies have shown that the bigger the trash can is, the less you are likely to keep something or delay a decision. One thing I can promise you to is that anything you keep today, will prove to be completely useless in 5 years making you wonder “Dude– what were you thinking?”
The big trash can is an interesting tip. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but my little trash can is a pretty big inconvenience because it needs to be emptied so often. I wonder if I subconsciously don’t throw some things away because I don’t want to deal with taking out the trash.
I have files dating back to my high school days — primarily because I never know when I’ll be able to turn an idea from way back when in to an article or a story. This translates to a fair amount of paperwork.
My first step to filing paper is determining whether I really need it — can I print it off later? do I have multiple copies? am I likely to need to refer to it? If I don’t truly need it, I shred. (And I shred everything! More noise in the data stream!) This leads to the most important piece of advice I can give anyone starting a filing system: You do not need to keep everything. Get comfortable with purging paperwork you don’t need.
My second is to determine where I file a given piece of paper: I have separate cabinets for current materials — ongoing contracts, open utility accounts, etc. Non-current materials go into another cabinet. I divide both cabinets into such categories as my business, household expenses, tax information… even materials from my school days have their own area. I don’t know that anyone but me could find things in my cabinet very quickly. However, no one else needs to. Every person’s filing cabinet can be different — the important step is to pick an organization method and keep to it.
Thursday makes a good point about your filing system. Make something that works for you. If you can find things quickly that is what matters. Don’t spend time trying to make something that everyone can quickly use unless everyone is going to actually be using it.
I don’t have a paper filing system. I get everything, from bills and invoices to personal communications, all digitally. There are a few bills I get by mail, but I pay them and then chuck them in the bin after making a digital record.
My advice for someone starting a paper filing system would be, don’t.
I’m not quite there, but I’m getting closer. If I had a good portable way to read PDF files I’d be much more comfortable with getting rid of some of the paper.
I have been a Staff Manager for 25 years and every year
companies try to become ‘paperless’.
Whether it is hard copy paper, filed away on your computer hard drive or an email folder, how much time do you waste looking for documents?
Do you lose vital documents just before important meetings?
Will you be prepared for your next staff meeting?
How often do you find yourself in the position whereby you cannot find that important document?
I have a resolution to this.
Have a filing system with 31 sections – one for each day of the month. Can be a paper filing system or folders on your computer or email tool, it does not matter. Then file the document in the appropriate section for the day you need it.
Each morning just make sure you check that day’s section – easy.
You can also use this with your staff. Have a section per member of staff. Just file anything you
want to keep and raise with that member of staff in their section. It saves so much time. When you next meet with them or interact with them, you will have all the relevant paper work in one place.
Simple, efficient and it maximises your time. Go on try it.
What results will you get?
This type of tickler system can be a great way to keep track of documents that you know you will need a particular time in the future. I once wrote to Merlin Man of 43Folders suggesting that he register the name 198Folders.com for all the people who were going to be going on the Polyphasic sleep schedules.
Filing systems are a paper graveyard. I like calendar based or numbered ones that rotate things in and out.
John has a good observation. If you don’t have a plan for what happens to the paper over time, it just becomes a graveyard of dead trees.
I have a pretty horrendous paper filing system which I haven’t been able to master.
Anne is brutally honest. :) I imagine this is how many of us feel. Hopefully this list of tips will give you some ideas for the next filing system you setup or to improve your current system.