Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Functional Filing System: Part 1 of 2

Don't forget to enter our holiday giveaway on this post!

It seems like a lot of our readers are into organization, so I thought I'd throw out a few of the things that help me with my filing system. (Oh, the dreaded filing system.) Obviously, the best system is the one that works for you, so you may want to tweak/ignore/replace some of my suggestions. And since I don't want this to be the world's longest blog post, I'm going to split it into two parts: (1) physical filing and (2) digital filing and record retention (what to keep for how long).

In this part, we'll talk about the set-up of both your filing cabinet, as well as your inbox. 

Filing Cabinet Set-Up

First, let's talk about the set-up of your filing cabinet. Nothing is more annoying than having files that are so completely overloaded you can't fit in one more piece of paper. Equally annoying is having files that keep tipping over in your drawers (sometimes this even happens to the hanging ones). In my opinion, here are the key ingredients to a good physical filing system.

1. Adequate space: If your cabinet is overflowing, you either need to get a bigger one, purge your files, and/or scan a bunch of them.

2. Files that stay put: I learned this trick from the admins at my office when I was working. They had the most genius system ever-- get plenty of hanging files, and then paper clip them all together (like below). That ensures that your files always stay upright and never slip down. I went ahead and folded the bottoms to provide some width at the bottom of each. They used these for our mail, so they labeled the hanging files directly. But since I wanted to put in lots of subfiles that I would regularly be adding to, I used these merely to hold regular manila folders that I labeled. In addition to being cheaper, it avoided what would have been a total pain of unclipping the folders, inserting another hanging file, and reclipping it every time I wanted to add a new folder.

I know a lot of impressive people (like David Allen) insist that using a label maker gives you respect for your filing system, but I got fed up with it after about two months and just started writing directly on the folders.
3. Easy access: This is tricky, especially if you have kids and want to keep it inaccessible to them. But just do the best you can. We have ours face-out in our hallway closet, with a large clipboard shielding the front (I know-- it's a really big clipboard). It's still accessible, but out-of-sight so it's not a constant temptation for the little man. I know a lot of these cabinets lock, but ours is not that fancy.

4. Specific labeling: This is from David Allen's book Getting Things Done. Rather than doing broad categories, it's much easier to find things later if you label them specifically (e.g., "Beta Gamma Sigma" instead of "Honor Societies," or "School-Related"). Manila folders are cheap. Keep plenty in the back of your file cabinet so it's easy to grab a fresh one and create a new file.

Inbox Set-Up

We have a tiered file organizer (this one) that we use as a temporary sorting place until we can file, scan, shred, or toss whatever papers come our way. I printed little labels "Aaron's Inbox," "Lauren's Inbox," "Shred," "Scan," and "File," and attached them to each shelf. We put it next to our computer on a high ledge. Easy for us to get to. Just out of C's reach (for now...) 

The inbox concept is also borrowed from David Allen. This is where all of your random papers from the day (mail, notes, etc.) go. At the end of the day, sort through each item quickly (if you don't do this regularly your inbox will backup and just become a junk storage bin-- trust me). He follows a two-minute rule. If you can deal with the item in less than two minutes, do so. Otherwise, either put it in the shred slot, the scan slot, or the "file" slot, or add it to your to-do list (I use the task function in my Google calendar). I guess generally it should take less than two minutes to file something, but I have a filing placeholder anyway and batch file. Like the inbox, it's important to go through these other slots regularly (maybe once a week) so they don't get overloaded. If you wanted to be extra efficient, I would put the shred slot at the bottom (not like me-- I was too lazy to switch up the order. How long would it take to change this? Maybe 30 seconds. But you know how it goes...) That way, each day you can just work through from the top slot to the bottom, shredding your scanned files at the end. 

If you plan on scanning a lot of files, it's important to have a scanner that you'll actually use. I saved my fun funds for a duplex scanner that you can feed multiple pages in. It was a bit on the pricey side, but worth it for me given I have limited patience for single page scanning and like to keep as little paper as possible (it's also pretty small which is nice-- you can see it in the bottom of our inbox below). Obviously this isn't a "must have" for organization (unless you derive a large amount of satisfaction from scanning I wouldn't recommend spending this much), but it is very helpful for people trying to go "near paperless."

Font credit to

Now you're all set up! Make sure to like our Facebook page or subscribe to our blog to catch the second installment where we'll cover the set up and maintenance of your digital filing system as well as what to keep and for how long.
Share -- What makes your filing system work or not work?


  1. Awesome tips! Love using the paper clips and manilla envelopes as subfolders. Consider this pinned:

  2. Things like this make me realize I'm not a real grown up. I have yet to keep a file system. So far I have a good enough memory to usually know where I put whatever random important papers I need, but someday that system might not work anymore...

    1. Haha, you are a real grown up. Hope training is going well!

  3. I love these tips! I have a monstrous stack of papers to sort through...eeeeek!

  4. Thanks for posting this! I was at a standstill with finding a better way to organize incoming papers. I love that you include a slot for shredding papers! I can't wait to read part 2!

    1. Glad it was helpful! I love having a place to stash "to shred" items since I keep our shredder out of the way, and it's way easy to do a big batch at once.


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