Week 5: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organizing Your Files

What is a file?
A file is a collection of related pieces of information. Once your files are set up, they should always be kept in alphabetical order. You want to keep any file you create lean and mean, full of the most up to date information. To help you retrieve this information on demand, related files should be grouped together.

What do you mean by "related files?"
Let me explain by sharing examples from the files of one of my clients. Harry manages a real estate office in an elegant beach side community outside Los Angeles. His office is very involved with the community. When we organized his files, I noticed that each community organization they worked with had a folder. These were stored alphabetically in the file cabinet with all the general information folders for the office. This is a good plan, however, it means opening several drawers of the cabinet should Harry wish to work with more than one of the organizations at a time. I made a label for a 2” wide box bottom hanging file folder called: ‘Community Outreach’ and placed all the community organizations here in alphabetical order. All related materials were now conveniently located in one place.

What is a “box bottom” hanging folder?
A hanging file folder is the dark green holder for the manila folders you use in file cabinets. It hangs on the long metal rods at each side. However, box bottom hanging file folders come in various widths at the bottom and can hold several related files comfortably. The bottom has a place for you to insert a piece of cardboard that keeps the surface flat to hold the folders. I suggest the 2” version for the average office as a supplement to the regular hanging file folder. There are wider versions but these generally work well in law or medical offices where the files are voluminous.

Please note: box bottom hanging file folders do not work without the cardboard insert.

Printed labels are the easiest to read and give a tidy, calm appearance. You can purchase a label maker or generate them on your computer.

What other tools can I use to help identify my files?
Color Coding files can be enormously helpful.

What procedure do I follow for setting up new files?
If you are just starting out or are creating a new project, brainstorm on paper before you start making labels. Again, look over your list and see how you can combine information. In the household management section of your files, you can pool information. For example, keep all family medical files together, gather all types of insurance information into one group (autos, boat, house, jewelry, etc.) or create a section for your warranties. As this can become a rather large, confusing file, separate your warranties/owner’s manuals out by type:
Office Equipment
Stereo Equipment
Household Purchases

You can add or delete categories according to the individual needs of your living situation and the number of people in your household.

How do I approach each paper? Let’s say you have a pile of papers on your desk. One piece of paper at a time is the only way through a pile. If you have 25 stacks, you can still only successfully deal with one piece of paper at a time, tackling one individual stack at a time.

How do I know what to do with the papers?
You need to be realistic and ask yourself if you really need/want this piece of paper. If the inner prompt is to hold onto it, you need to understand why. For example, if it’s a receipt for your taxes, the fact you need to keep it is obvious. No extensive mental gymnastics need be applied. If it’s a travel article to some exotic foreign city you long to go to, the answer may be slower coming. Here are some common categories of files: Some of the papers you will come across as you sift through your piles will fall into the general category of "action provoking" materials and these I place in my "action files." A general list of such files would include:
To Do: Immediately
To Do: Next Week
To Do: Low Priority

How can I improve the files I have now?
The best way to get control over your files is to clean them out one by one. I’m sure a number of files contain material you can now discard. Please consider the creation of archival files for material you’d like to hold onto but won’t be accessing on a regular basis. As you return the files you intend to keep, write out an exact list of your existing files. When the list is complete, you can study it to see where you might create what I call "master categories" like Harry's 'Community Outreach' file. Don't forget to create the handy hard copy for reference.

Read these other home office organizing articles:
Week 5 Introduction
Get Home Office Inspiration from the Garden

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