by Susan McCarthy
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Let me start off by saying that it's all too easy to think that you need to save most of the papers that pass through your hands. Combine that thought with the one that tells you that putting papers in file folders makes you organized, and you could find yourself wasting a lot of time while filling your home with boxes of unnecessary paperwork.
The majority of the task of organizing your files involves deciding what you need to keep and tossing the rest.
File things only if you believe you’ll need to refer to the information in the future. If you don’t think you’d need a piece of information in a year, then you don’t need to file it, which means - you don't need to keep it. And, if you aren't certain whether you need something, consider if you can access it digitally or get it from the originator of the document.
Store Your Files
There is no right or wrong way to organize your files. If you don’t use the filing system you have (that, maybe, someone else set up for you), then it’s the wrong filing system.
If you are an “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” sort of person, don’t hide your files in file cabinets. Instead consider a milk crate file system or something else that keeps things organize and visible. Many doctors’ offices keep patient files on shelves so that staff look for identification information on the side tab. Would that type of system help you?
If you really hate filing, you might prefer having a shelf of baskets with very general labels like, “House,” “Car,” “Work,” where you can just toss papers. When the basket is full (or you need to find something), pull down the appropriate basket and look through the box for what you need or toss older and duplicate papers.
Make Files Easy to Locate with Color Coding (maybe)
Although color-coding your files sounds super organized, what happens when you run out of green file folders? Anything that would go into that new file now sits in limbo on top of your desk, awaiting your next trip to or order from the office supply store.
Those ‘waiting to receive a file folder’ papers may now encourage other papers to build up (“I’ll just wait for the new file folders and then I’ll file everything at once.”). I’m not saying that color-coding isn’t useful; however, consider if you would really find this beneficial.
If you normally think, “Oh, the receipt for the excise tax on the car is in a yellow folder” or, “The glue sticks are in the second red drawer of the rolling organizer cart,” then color-coding would be a significant organizing tool for you. On the other hand, if you don’t normally locate things in that way, don’t waste your time creating a color-coded file system.
I used colorful file folders even though I didn't color-code by topic. I day it occurred to me that I actually found the colors distracting. Switching to manila folders made me feel calmer when filing or retrieving papers.
If you do color code, make the file folder the same color as the hanging file so when you remove a folder you'll have an easier time seeing where to return it.
Group Categories of Information into Hanging File Folders
Hanging file folders usually indicate a general topic that is broken down into more specific topics that are then organized into file folders.
You know those plastic tabs that you use to label hanging file folders? I remember learning that clear and yellow tabs are much easier to read through than the red, green, or blue plastic tabs, so if you have difficulty finding files because you can't read the labels, consider switching to clear tabs.
Also, move all those plastic tabs so they line up behind one another. According to The Smead Manufacturing Company, your eyes can scan information more quickly this way as opposed to staggering the tabs.
Break Down Categories into Specific Folders
File folders help you break down a general topic, such as Insurance, into more specific topics, such as Car Insurance, House Insurance, Motorcycle Insurance, Health Insurance, etc. When it comes to naming a file, consider what words you use to refer to something in conversation. For example, is it a Car, Auto, Automobile, Vehicle, or Honda?
If you can’t find something because you don’t know what label was used, then you have a filing system fail. Your filing system should allow you to find information with ease. Think about how you refer to something in conversation. Is it a "car," "auto," "vehicle," or "Honda?"
Always label the folder tab with the contents of the file. Keep it simple, “Electric,” “Kitchen Remodel,” “Flood Insurance.” Off the top of my head, I don’t know the name of the company I have my house insurance through. If I had made a file with that company’s name, it would slow down my retrieval of that information. I call that file, "house insurance," but that might not be the tag that helps you find your information.
If (like me) you hate your handwriting, invest in a label maker which creates a uniform look for your files. Seriously, I got goosebumps when I bought a Dymo LetraTag and labeled my file folders. Soooo neat.
Maintain Your Files
While sorting through boxes and file cabinets filled with papers is its own sort of overwhelm, that's not the biggest challenge you'll face with paper.
Decluttering and organizing it into files takes time, but that's not the end of the job. Creating a workable system that allows you to maintain order is the true challenge.
This could mean filing papers once a day or once a week. Maybe when you add the most current document to a file you pull out the previous month or quarter's information so you store the most current paperwork.
Along with regular upkeep, you can also schedule a once-a-year purge where you pull out information that you need for taxes and remove instruction manuals for items you no longer need and pull old policies and so on. Also, when you go into a file to look for some information, sort through the pages and remove anything that you no longer need. Shred or recycle the paper.
While keeping your files current sounds time-consuming, done regularly, you won't have much to handle, so overall, you can save time and definitely save yourself the aggravation of sorting through hundreds or thousands of pieces of paper.
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Hi, I’m Susan
I’m the chief (and only) Organized Squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life. In these articles, I meld my nearly 30 years as a teacher with my new career as a professional organizer to show you how to clear your cluttered home and schedule to create the life you want.