messy desk

The Effective Filing System

Most of the clients I see who have problems managing things in the home also has a problem with paper. Though very few papers are actually needed to be saved we all know the sinking feeling in our gut when we realize we have thrown away an important paper. All the more reason to be steely sure about how you file your papers you want to find again. Most of the random pieces of paper can be taken care off if you fully consider the seven places it could go: to-sort, to trash, calendar, contacts, to do, action files and reference files. So take a look at those random Post-It Notes and eliminate them into the system. In this article we will concern ourselves with the last two parts of the system.

backlog of paper

Action Files and Reference Files

Action files are for those things you need to attend to straight away. This collection of files may need to be mobile if you are sharing desk space or are using a surface that is used by others such as the dinner table. Reference files re for those files you think you may need one day but don’t need at the present time.

The two categories of files interchange constantly. Some Action Files become Reference Files and vice-versa. For example you may have a birthday coming up and need to put the Birthdays Files into the Action File category while you decide what to use from it for the occasion. Once the birthday is over you might cull the file to update what you want to have inside it. After a good cleaning the file can be returned to the Reference Files category.

“I’ll clean it later,” you say? STOP right there because when the information is fresh in your mind is the time you should address it. When Buddha says, “Know thyself,” the nugget to catch here is that cleaning out a file “later” almost never happens until the situation is dire and you need what is in it again under duress.

You may have two files in both Action and Reference Files that are of the same category. The Reference File title could be “Political Association”(housed in a hanging Pendaflex folder) for papers about the group that don’t require action at this time and the Action File could be “Political Association-Silent Auction” (housed in an internal manilla file from the hanging Reference File folder) for the event that is coming up.


It is said that 80% of the papers we possess are needed 20% of the time. So the goal here is to be sure you will need it again and it is difficult to replace it before filing it. The next step is to decide if you NEED it for tax purposes or other proof of purchase or if you WANT it because it reminds you of someone or something you love. I advise not storing sentimental things in the file system but rather display it somewhere or store it our of the way so that the important 20% used is easier than ever to find.

Files: How to make them work

If you take the time to ask yourself why you don’t like filing it could very well be related to the Meer mechanics of the filing. That’s why having enough space around things-paper included-is a vital aspect to all organizing. It is the separations that identify individuality.

The Filing Cabinet

The file cabinet has to be worthy of your file system.y that I mean it will hold what you choose to store in it respectfully: not getting it stuck in the corner where the drawer meets the frame, not hiding them in the back because the drawer won’t open fully. Use Google to search various things to consider when buying a file cabinet. If you have difficulty with the mechanics at all due to a cheap cabinet you will not file the essential papers making even the cheap cabinet worthless.

Firstly you should get a file cabinet with enough drawers to house the large collection of files that comes with a family and home ownership and life in general. You should ask for a full-suspension drawer system so that papers don’t get lost in the back. After you decide if you want lateral or vertical files and you have one that is full suspension you need to choose between letter and legal files. Unless you have an exceptional amount of legal files I suggest you stick with 8.5X11. Two to five drawers should be enough for a family. If you have a large amount of files that you hardly ever use such as old taxes don’t feel you have to store it in the system. You can put them in a plastic file sized bin to be mobile but stored for the most part in the garage, attic or out of the way closet.

File Folders

Again you will want to search out the different file folders available in your area or via ordering online. If you have the money and time I recommend a full suspension cabinet with the standard green hanging Pendaflex files and interior manilla folders to separate within the category.

I prefer sticking with manilla color instead of a varied rainbow for categorizing if you are challenged at all with organizing. Having colored coded categories such as green for financial is great for quick file location but if you don’t have a green folder when you need to make a new category you will have to use another color-making the coded system ineffective and causing great visual chaos that will make filing even more unenjoyable.

But everyone is unique. Some have no problem making sure they have enough red or blue manilla folders in storage in case they need one but my experience is the former. I would spend the extra money on the higher end of both hanging and manilla file folders if possible. You don’t want glue to come unhinged hiding your saved papers below where they are supposed to be. Having reinforced paper at the tabs for the manilla folders will be helpful if you find you are carrying them in and out of the system to work with them. Reinforced paper will hold up better.

Other Mechanics of Filing

Many of my clients have an abundance of paper clips but I advise against using them if at all possible because they don’t play well with other paper in a file. Another important thing to consider is where in the file you will put the newest paper you are adding. Will you open the file using the front tab opening up the front of the file or will you push back the back of the file so that the back opens up naturally? Decide. Decide if you will put the newest additions to the system in the front of each file or the back. I consistently file into the front but if a client has already set up the system, to be the other way I will follow the lead.

If you have an extra large file you may want a box-bottom file folder to accommodate the large volume of paper. Both hangin files and manilla folders come in the box-bottom options.

Alphabetical or Category?

Many people prefer to arrange their file folders alphabetically but personally I like to arrange by how frequently used balanced with category. Here people will sometimes color their financial files green and education files blue for example but again I am not a fan of color-coding files. Another trick to locating files is to put a file guide or list on the outside of the file cabinet so one can see at a glance how the files are arranged.

Another thing to consider is where you want the plastic tabs to be put-the front of the hangin file or the back? Again it is personal preference but I like them in the front filing the newest paper in the front of all the other papers in the file.

Binder or File Folder?

I can’t tell you how many times a client will painstakingly punch holes on statements in order to file them in a big bulky binder with all the other mutual fund statements of that year. So often the to-file pile gets way too large because the client can’t find the hole punch or they need a new one or they just haven’t had the time to sit to punch holes. That’s a clue. If you are not doing it because it’s the least bit difficult then it may very well never get done. There lay piles of mutual fund statements with a hole puncher on top waiting for their holes. Instead decide that you only need the last month, then quarterly, then annual statement and can shred the older ones since you can get them online if needed.


Labeling hanging files is simply a matter of having extra blank paper to write the label on and the plastic label holder to then slip in the tab slots in the hanging folder. As to labeling manilla folders-better to label it with a pencil quickly then not at all. f you do happen to have a label maker or can hire a professional organizer to label your files print out titles according to what word you would use to refer to it. Simply ask yourself what word you would think of if you wanted to find the document? The key word goes to the left on the label. For example, if you wanted to find Jill’s 2020 education files you might label the file “Education-Jill-2020” not “2002-Jill-Education”. Try to have only one system. Keep it simple.

If you want to file a piece of information ask yourself under what circumstances would you want this information, what word first enters your mind when you think of this information and how will you use the information-not from where you got the information. Try to file most generally first then get more detailed as necessary. For example if you have two pieces of paper, one titled “Ski Maps” and another titled “Day Trips” you might file them in the same file folder called Recreation instead of using two file folders to separate the two. If the file became huge you may then want to divide it into two folders at that time but it is easier to look through a file with 8 papers than eight different files with one paper each inside.

Reference File Names

Here are some sample Reference File Names in case you are left at a standstill when making files in your system. The following is for those who choose an alphabetical system.

  • Art – Owned, Made
  • Car- Mainetance, Title, Purchase/Sell Info
  • Childcare
  • Credit Cards
  • Death Information
  • Entertainment-Movies, Books, Shows
  • Education
  • Financial- Mutual Funds, Banks, IRA, Stocks
  • Gardening
  • Gift Ideas
  • Hobbies
  • Holidays
  • Home Decorating
  • Household Maintenance
  • Humor
  • Insurance-Car, Home, Medical
  • Bills-To Be Submitted, Submitted but not Paid, Paid
  • Inventory
  • Maps/Directions
  • Recreation
  • Resume/Work info.
  • Retirement
  • Safe Deposit Boxes
  • Services
  • Shopping/Purchases
  • Special Interests
  • Subscriptions/Memberships
  • Tax
  • Travel
  • Warranties


Now to keep the system growing steadily and cleanly you want to put in your calendar on a couple of free days to scour your files ridding of things no longer relevant and refiling things that got misplaced. Don’t forget-you must put it on the calendar just like any other activity you expect to do. Make sure interruptions are limited during the time. If you have plenty of space there’s less urgency to edit the collection but most people feel they don’t have enough space so be sure to weed closely the reference files you choose to keep. For an idea of how long you must keep things I recommend you consult your lawyer or accountant. Everyone’s situation is different.

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Ever wonder about hiring a professional organizer? Check out this article from the New York Times!

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