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Choosing a Filing System

The first step in creating a filing system that really works is to identify your natural organizing methods and thought processes. By recognizing your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to paperwork, you can design a system that works the way you work.

To help you get started, we’ve outlined some common paper management styles, along with solutions for that type.

The Stacker
Do you stack and stack until the stacks fall over?

The obvious but frequently overlooked filing solution for a Stacker is stackable letter trays. Try stacking three letter trays and labeling one “To Pay”, one “To Do” and  the last “To File.”

Another possibility for the Stacker is the desktop sorter. By putting your stacks in slots you keep your desktop paper-free. If, for reasons you can’t quite explain, your stacks must be horizontal, try using letter boxes. At the end of the day simply cover the boxes to give your work space instant order.

The Over-Categorizer
Do you create a new file folder for every piece of paper that crosses your desk?

If your workspace is spotless but it takes you 10 minutes of searching to retrieve a document, you may be an Over-Categorizer. Having hanging folders that contain fewer than five documents is a sure sign that you need to start broadening your filing categories. Not only is it tiresome and time-consuming to have to search through all those folders, there is also a far greater chance of misplacing something. For example, a hanging file labeled “2011 Deductions” is too specific. Instead label the file “Current Year Taxes.” You’ll simplify your tax return preparation by keeping all tax-related paperwork together, and by using the term “Current Year” you will also have made your year-end filing easier. You will always have a file for current paperwork even if you fall behind in setting up new files.

A helpful starting point for the chronic Over-Categorizer is to begin making and using interior folders. Use general categories to label hanging folders, and then add interior folders as needed.

The Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Minder
Do you have sticky notes attached to your monitor, afraid you’ll forget to do something?

The Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Minder has probably learned from experience that she needs constant visual reminders in order to get things done. What will work best for this organizing style is a combination of a bulletin board and a hanging or expanding file.

Put items that need immediate attention on the bulletin board. Once the work is complete, store it in your expanding file until you need to look at it again. You can still use sticky notes to help, but only in moderation.

While identifying your file style will help you create a system that works for you, there are some basic rules for effective file management that apply to just about every style.

Rule #1
Learn the difference between what to keep and what to toss. 

If you’ve still got the owner’s manuals for things you no longer own, it’s time to do a little file purging. In this electronic age there really isn’t that much you need to keep. Most manufacturers make instructions and manuals available online. If you read an article in a magazine or journal that you find especially helpful or meaningful, look for it online, then pin it or save it on your computer. If you never remember to do it then maybe it wasn’t that important.

Some of this is between you and your accountant. But a lot of it is fairly obvious. If you toss everything as soon as you get it, you will cut down on time spent purging your files, however you may find that some of your bills are not paid, you can’t get reimbursed for your out-of-pocket medical expenses, and you’re stuck with store credit at a store you really weren’t planning on shopping at again because you couldn’t get cash back on a return without a receipt. An accordion organizer is a handy way to sort and store those little scraps of paper you accumulate during the week.

Rule #2
Map it out. Before you get to work on your new filing system, plan it out on paper.

By first writing it out, you have the opportunity to evaluate the system and fine tune it before you go through the process of creating labels and actually putting everything away. Make sure that your written system is created in the form of an outline allowing for main categories, which will be your hanging file folders, and sub-categories which will be interior file folders. A written plan will also allow you to plan for supplies so that you won’t be interrupted by re-ordering midway through your quest for file organization.

Rule #3
Make sure you have everything you need and enough time to finish the job.

Before you begin, take a good hard look at your calendar. Depending on the current condition of your filing system you will need anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days to get everything in order. When ordering supplies, it’s safer to order a little more than you think you’ll need. Unused supplies can easily be returned, but a partially completed filing system is worse than no filing system at all.

Rule #4
Consider alternatives to hanging files.

While a cabinet full of hanging file folders is considered by some the gold standard for file organization, it is not the only option. A neat row of tabbed and labeled binders on your bookshelf keeps paperwork at your finger tips, and magazine files are just the thing for storing catalogs and directories. Storage bins and boxes are the perfect solution for odd-sized items like brochures and pamphlets, and desktop sorters keep frequently used files in easy reach.

Feel free to use one method or a combination of many. Just be sure it will work with your filing style.

Rule #5
Make sure your files are conveniently located.

You’d be surprised to learn how many people spend half their workday marching back and forth to the file room. Many of these same people inexplicably have their tax records from 1994 tucked neatly in their right desk drawer. When thinking about file storage, take into consideration your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly needs. Desktop File Boxes are a great way to add some convenient file storage to a desk, bookshelf, or cart.

Rule # 6
Looks do matter.

Opening a drawer of beautifully labeled files can make the task of filing a little less monotonous, and encourage you to stay on top of it rather than letting it pile up. Add colors and patterns if so-inclined or keep it simple with standard manila and simple white labels.

Rule #7
Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

If you designed your filing system just like your hyper-organized co-worker, but still can’t find what you need when you need, it might be time to start over. There is no one filing system that is perfect for everyone. The trick is simply finding what works best for you and others who need access to your files; then making sure that everyone understands the where, why and how of your method. If you’re getting paged during a meeting because your assistant can’t find a critical document, you need to either rethink your system, or retrain your assistant. It might take a little extra time initially, but an effective document storage system makes up for that time in the long run by keeping your office and home running smoothly.

If spending 20 minutes learning how to use a label maker seems like a waste of valuable time, remember the eternity you spent looking for your client’s proposal while she sat on hold, (perhaps searching the internet for a new account rep). And while we can’t promise to make filing fun, See Jane Work can make the process a tad less tedious with filing products in a wide range of colors and patterns to suit your style or maybe just your mood.

Check out our filing supplies.