You are on page 1of 13

The Art of Filing

Managing Your Documents... and Your Time

Have you ever kept a client or your boss waiting on the phone while you've searched the piles of
papers on your desk for an important document? If you have, then your boss and your client may
not have a good opinion of you, because in a key encounter, you've let them down.

And if it's your job to help people, how much of other people's time are you wasting if you can't
find the documents and papers you need, when you need them?

You owe it to yourself to file effectively, however boring this may seem. Imagine how much
more impressive it would have been if – when asked – you'd smiled, accessed a well-organized
filing system, immediately found the document, and quickly given the answer!

Managing Time
Even in the age of email and the Internet, we still deal with many paper documents and files.
There's a flurry of data pouring in from all directions that we need to process and, usually, store
to retrieve later. We want to be able to lay our hands on the information we need – at the right
moment, when we need it – so it can be used for further analysis or report writing, or perhaps
for creating a presentation.

All too often, though, we waste our own time (and often the time of other people) searching for
data that's actually sitting somewhere on our desk or in an office filing cabinet. This adds to our
stress, and makes the task of putting the data to use more difficult than it ought to be. So we need
to get more organized and efficient with our file management if we're going to get our work done
in a timely manner.

Managing Information Efficiently

When you receive a document from a co-worker, vendor, or customer, it's tempting to "just put it
away" in a pile on your desk or drawer for the time being. "Hmm. looks interesting, but I'll take a
closer look at this later, when I've got more time." Sound familiar? After a while, many such
documents build up, leading to a lot of clutter. It's highly unlikely that you'll ever find time to go
back and get all of that information organized, especially considering that you're usually under
pressure with other things.

You can spend hours of precious time searching for documents that you've filed away
somewhere, because it's easy to forget where you put it – or even to forget that you have the
document in the first place. So how can you go about simplifying your work? Get better at
managing files.

Effective File Management

Effective filing boils down to this: store the information in folders – by category, and in a
sequence that makes sense to you.

Here are some tips to help manage your files:

 Avoid saving unnecessary documents – Don't make a habit of saving everything that
finds its way to you. Take a few seconds to glance through the content, and save a file
only if it's relevant to your work activity. Having too many unnecessary documents adds
to clutter and makes it harder to find things in the future. Be selective about what you
 Follow a consistent method for naming your files and folders – For instance, divide a
main folder into subfolders for customers, vendors, and co-workers. Give shortened
names to identify what or whom the folders relate to. What's more, you can even give a
different appearance or look to different categories of folders – this can make it easy to
tell them apart at first glance.
 Store related documents together, whatever their type – For example, store reports,
letters, presentation notes, spreadsheets, and graphics related to a particular project in a
single folder – rather than having one folder for presentations for all projects, another
folder for spreadsheets for all projects, and so forth. This way, it's much quicker to find
documents for a particular project.
 Separate ongoing work from completed work – Some people prefer to keep current or
ongoing work on their desk until a job is completed. Then, once it's done, they move it to
the appropriate location, where files of the same category are stored. At periodic intervals
(for example, weekly or every two weeks), move files you're no longer working on to the
folders where your completed work is stored.
 Avoid overfilling folders – If you have a large number of files in one folder, or a large
number of subfolders in a main folder, break them into smaller groups (subfolders or sub-
subfolders). For instance, you can divide a folder called "Business Plan" into subfolders
called "BP2008," "BP2009," and "BP2010." Likewise, you can divide a folder for a client
named Delta Traders into subfolders named "Delta Traders sales presentations" and
"Delta Traders contracts." The idea is to place every file into a logical folder or subfolder,
rather than have one huge list of files.
Having said this, there is usually little point in creating a folder for fewer than about five

 Make digital copies of paper documents with a scanner – This is useful if you don't
have much space to store paper documents, or if you want to archive documents without
destroying them completely. (This won't be appropriate for all types of documents, for
example, with legal contracts or documents with original signatures. So use your best
judgment here.)

Prioritizing Your Files for Action

Take these approaches further by customizing your file management. This can help you prioritize
your work, which can lead to better efficiency.

 Organize documents by dates – Write a date on the document. This will help you
organize your documents into date-order, without having to open the folder and read
through all documents.

 Use "Tickler" files – Tickler files, also known as the "43 folders" method, are a unique
system that's used by many people for organizing files. Create 12 folders (one for each
month of the year) and an additional 31 subfolders (for each day of the month). Fill each
folder with the documents that you need to work with on that day. At the beginning of
each day, open the folder for that day. Take all the items out of the folder and move them
into a "today" folder or onto your desktop. Then move the empty folder into the
corresponding slot for the next month. If you can't complete some work items by the end
of the day, transfer them to the folder for the next convenient day. This system of file
management helps you keep track of everything you need to do, and it also doubles as a


For any system to be useful and effective, it must also be convenient for you. To some extent,
this depends on the nature of your business or the work that you do. So, although there's no "one
size fits all" solution to file management, you will likely profit by using some of these file
management tips, and by customizing them in a way that best serves your own needs.

Key Points
Are you losing too much time searching through the clutter on your desk for files that you need?
And when you're under pressure, can you retrieve information quickly and easily?
Spending precious time looking for documents can take the pleasure out of any kind of creative
work you might be doing – and it adds to your stress levels as well. Simple good file
management habits can hugely simplify your working life!

Apply This to Your Life

We know this is boring, but you know you need to do it!

Clear an hour in your schedule somewhere in the next week, and set your filing system up!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of
many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or
join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Different Ways to File Documents in a Filing

by Carol Luther, Demand Media

Improve document filing systems with indexes and archives.

Quick access to your important business records increases productivity and it might help you
survive a tax audit. Two of the most important considerations for designing a system for
documents in your filing cabinets are your daily and long-term information needs. At the same
time, your document filing system should not be so complicated that hardly anyone in your
office can use it properly.

Filing your documents alphabetically is a simple and time-proven system. The name of each file
folder corresponds to the name of each document. Many businesses use hanging file folders with
tabs or sturdy preprinted file drawer dividers to separate the folders under each alphabetical
heading. A key drawback of an alphabetical system is that it is often necessary to have an index
to keep track of a large number of documents.

Use your business divisions and functions as the foundation for a category or topical filing
system. Consider starting with four or five main functions, such as personnel, finance,
administration, marketing and customer data. With a categorical system, you can have sub-topics
such as current personnel and inactive personnel. You might subdivide your finance category into
expenses and income, or receivables and payments.

Filing your documents by date lets you find information generated at a specific time. Yearly file
sections are the foundation of a date-based filing system, and each month of the year is a
subsection of this system. With this method, businesses commonly keep the freshest files in the
front of both the yearly section and the monthly sections. When you use this system, you need
some way to keep track of which documents correspond to what month and year.

Businesses that mainly generate numbered documents, such as invoices, often create a numerical
filing system that stores files using the assigned document numbers. With this file system, a
crucial element is labeling each file cabinet drawer with the sequence of numbers it contains.
This system might also require an index for quick access.

The common drawbacks of simple alphabetical, chronological or categorical filing system might
hamper retrieval of your documents. To achieve the desired efficiency, businesses often combine
elements of two or more filing systems. You can improve a categorical system by creating
alphabetical or date subsections. Subtopics or categories that fit the main functions of your
business might improve the efficiency of a chronological filing system.
Regardless of which system you implement, consider creating an archived documents area to
separate current and frequently used documents from those you are retaining for reference. For
business security and disaster recovery, you might also want to keep the originals of important
legal, contract and tax documents in a secure offsite storage facility. To facilitate quick reference,
scan these documents. Restrict unauthorized access to your digital versions with passwords and

How to set up an effective filing system

The importance of record-keeping and filing systems cannot be too highly stressed. A well-
planned system contributes significantly to efficiency of operation as well as to a company's
image. Whether records are filed in a computer or in a steel cabinet, they have to be readily

Make a study of your system. Conducting such a study is no more than taking an inventory of the
records in your files.

Some of the questions you should ask are:

 What are the records

 Where should they be filed
 Who uses the records
 How often are they used
 How are they used
 How are the records referred to
 What is the size of each record
 How many of each record are filed
 Who else has copies of the same record

Also check if your filing system shows any of the following symptoms:

 You find the information you need is difficult to obtain due to your system or lack of one
 You are repeatedly having to expand your file system capacity
 You are maintaining duplicate files of the same information
 You are filing material to protect the function and not because of information or legal
 You are using your filing system or equipment for non-records storage
 Your file folders are too full for easy access
 Your filing drawers or shelves are too full for easy access
 You are not finding the information you require in the first place you look

Your analysis is now complete - your records inventory reveals the strengths and weaknesses of
your record-keeping system.

Once you have analysed your records inventory, you should determine:

 Best arrangement of the records

 Type of media to be filed (paper, microfilm etc)
 Proper equipment for adequate storage and retrieval
 Proper systems to complement the equipment
 The required record retention schedule and facility

Basic Filing Procedure

 Inspecting
Each document is inspected to see that it has been released. If not, it should be returned to
the interested party.
 Marking
Determine under what name or caption the paper is to be filed
 Follow-up and Cross-reference
If the letter is marked for follow-up, then a record should be made and placed in the
follow-up file. If there is more than one place in which to file the document, make a
 Sorting
Sorting is the preliminary arrangement of papers according to the first filing unit of the
name or number. This is the last step prior to actual filing. Sorting also makes documents
easy to find if they are needed while out of the file. Documents should be arranged in
sequence so they can be placed in the proper folders quickly, without moving back and
 Filing
Filing is the actual placing of documents in folders in a pre-determined plan. Torn papers
should be mended before they are filed. Raise the folders slightly in the file drawer when
placing papers in them so the papers will go entirely to the bottom of the folder.

Check the caption of the document and folder as a precaution against misfiling.
All documents should be placed with the tops to the left as you face the folder. Never
overcrowd folders. Break them down by date, name or subject using additional folders.

Filing systems utilise one of the following methods:

 Alphabetilical
 Numeric
 Geographil
 Subject
 Chronologic

All these methods have advantages and disadvantages and you must decide which one
would be best for you.

Alphabetic Filing
lphabetic systems group documents together by letters of the name from A - Z. These
systems can be used for any volume of records.

There are a number of protocols or rules for filing alphabetically that must be committed
to memory:

 The alphabetical sequence must be strictly adhered to abbess comes before abbot and
Richards before Richardson
 Files or entries are sequenced letter by letter:


 Indefinite and definite articles (a, the) are ignored in entry titles
 Abbreviations are filed as written: Messrs Smith and Williams
 Abbreviated names like BBC, ITV etc are filed according to their abbreviated letter
 St is filed as Saint and foreign versions like San or Sainte are filed as spelled. Some filing
systems treat Mc, Mac or M' as different versions of 'Mac' and file them according to
their individual letter sequence; others tream them all as 'Mac'.
 Entries which are shorter come first:

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I, Queen of England
 Personal names are normally filed surname first:

Richards, Sir Gordon

Richards, Jack
Richards, Dr John

 Titles like Mr, Mrs, Dr, Prof, Sit etc are ignored, save for forming part of the entry after
the initial surname shown.
 Where the same word occurs as a name, then the convention is to enter the forename
followed by the surname, followed by the corporate name and then the name as the

Heather, Arnold
Heather, Products Limited
Heather, British Species

Its advantages include the fact that it gives direct reference and also groups common and/or
family names together. It enables files to be read and accessed quickly and is also readily

By the same token, common names do not occur evenly throughout the alphabet. There are, for
instance, more names beginning with S than with Q. As an alpha file grows - say to hundreds or
thousands of names - identification and locations become more cumbersome. Items within a
named file require some additional system of classification - letters to an account client may
need to be numbered or filed chronologically, making cross-referencing laborious.

Numerical Filing
Numerical filing refers to all systems in which documents are prenumbered to distinguish them
from each other or from alpha documents. Numerical systems can be as simple as numbering and
filing from the lowest number to the highest. Files may be numbered from 1 to 1000 and major
sections may occur at regular intervals (100, 200, 300). Sub -sections within a file may be
introduced by the addition of a decimal point: 100.1, 235.64 etc

The greatest benefit of a numeric system is speed of filing and finding. It is twice as fast to file
and find by number than by name. Even though a numeric file requires a cross index, it can
increase production time by 40 to 50%.

Numeric systems provide both a positive identification of the record and a degree of
confidentiality.This system is capable of infinite expansions and can cope with a very large
number of sub-sections, sub-divisions and diverging branches of data.
In order for the numbers to convey readily what they mean, it is necessary for an index to be
created, eg:

600 Technology
650 Business Practices
658 Management etc

This system is therefore more time-consuming to use than one in which each file is given an
instantly identifiable name.

Geographic filing systems operate generally by county or country and then alphabetically or
numerically by account name or number. Reasons for this type of filing can be several. Since
countries have differing laws and licenses, a commercial enterprise may have to consider these
constraints as of primary importance.

Such a system enables statistics to be held in manageable and comparable units and also permits
a large or 'macro' figure or total to be evaluated in terms of its 'micro' or component parts.

Subject Filing
This is the arranging of material by given subject. It is filing by descriptive feature instead of by
name or number. Such filing involves choosing a word or phrase to stand for each subject or to
point out one phase of it.

A subject folder may contain any combination of correspondence, bulletins, clippings, pictures,
statistics, trade journals and other printed information relating to the subject.

Subject filing is considered the most difficult of all methods of filing. It is a system which
demands that the person installing such a system has a complete knowledge of the business. The
greatest problem is knowing under which subject an item will be filed. Because a subject file is
expensive to maintain, subject filing should be used only where necessary.

Chronologic Filing
Chronologic filing is filing by date. This system is necessary to file items according to the
day/date received - such as applications for permits or licences or the dates when vehicles in a
company fleet were services.

Particularly useful when actions need to be taken on a cyclical basis - like relicensing cars
annually, good for cross-referencing - file on vehicle and relicensing date records can be quickly
This systems requires an index and explanatory back-up system. It is time-consuming to access
data held in a manual filing system.


A file drawer or shelf should be filled to no more than 90% of its capacity. Tightly packed files
slow filing and finding to a crawl.

Index Guide
All active files should have a guide every 10 to 15 folders. Anything less means you are wasting
time pushing and pulling folders back and forth, looking for the required record.

Folder Tabs
Folder tabs should be visible immediately upon opening the file. A well-run file must have
folders of uniform size and tab styles. Mixing folder heights and tab positions can reduce the
efficiency of a filing system.

Folder Tab Identification

Identification on the tabs should be typewritten. Handwritten labels or labels with the names
crossed out and re-typed should never be permitted.

File Overload
Don't overload your files to hold more than its capacity. If more files are placed in a folder than it
can hold, the tab will slump down and out of sight.

Cross Indexing
Make a reference in one file of related or helpful/additional data held in another file.

Noting Files In Use

A file borrowed without a record of who has it, when it was removed from the filing system etc,
is a file lost! Make sure you have a 'file in use' set of slips to be filled out showing: user, date out,
date due back etc.

Maintaining Security
Some files will certainly contain highly confidential data; make sure you control who may access
what and keep a secure system for sensitive files.

How to Simplify Your Filing System; or, Why Stacking Just

Doesn’t Work
By Leo Babauta

Does your filing system include stacks of paper, or is your “To Be Filed” folder overflowing?
If you have trouble with filing your documents, you may need to find a way to simplify
your filing system to keep yourself organized.

Filing is something many people have a problem with — you’re not alone. But organization can
not only make you more productive, it can simplify your life and make it less stressful.

Being organized doesn’t take a complicated system for filing. It simply requires that you have a
place for everything, and get into the habit of things where they belong right away.

Whether you’ve got a complicated filing system you’d like to simplify, or whether you have no
filing system at all, let’s take a look at how to simplify the system and keep things perfectly

1. Reduce before organizing. The first rule to organizing is that you should eliminate the
unnecessary before organizing at all. If you’ve got a filing drawer that’s overflowing, or stacks of
paper that need filing, it’ll take forever to organize — and even then, it’ll be hard to find stuff.

Here’s how to simplify your papers and files before you organize:

1. Put everything in one big pile. If it can’t all go in one pile, make more than one, but look at them
as continuations of the first pile. If you have folders that are a mess, take them out and add them
to the stack. I recently did this with my home filing system and reduced the files by two thirds. It
took about an hour.
2. Go through them, one at a time. Pick up each document or folder and decide what needs to be
done with them. If you can’t see yourself needing it in a couple of months, toss it. Default to toss
(or shred, or recycle). Get rid of as much as you can. I’ve never regretted tossing a document.

3. Route. If you can’t toss something, try to route it to someone else. Get it off your desk.

4. File. If a document is absolutely critical, and you’re sure you’ll need it again, then it needs to be
filed. Let’s take a look at how to set up a simple system for doing that.

2. Simple filing. I agree with David Allen’s Getting Things Done , which recommends that you
use a simple, alphabetical filing system. Just use plain manila folders with labels (you can buy a
label maker if you like), creating a file for each client, vendor and/or project.

I believe that most people only need one drawer for filing. Now, I’ll admit that there are some
jobs that require much more than this, but for the average employee (or self-employed person),
one drawer is all you need. And if you limit yourself to one drawer, you force yourself to toss out
unnecessary files when the drawer gets full.

Don’t overthink this. Just create a file, and file it alphabetically. Keep it simple.

3. File immediately. The key to keeping your filing system up to date is to file things right away.
When you’re processing your inbox, and you run across something that doesn’t require action
but that you might need to file later, don’t put it in a pile to be filed later. Don’t put it in a folder
labeled “To File” or “Miscellaneous”.
Just open your filing drawer (it should be close on hand), pull out the appropriate folder, put the
document in it, and file it. That takes about 5 seconds, and then you’re done. If you don’t do it
now, it will start to pile up, and stacking just doesn’t work.

Why stacking doesn’t work: Because it just piles up and then the pile gets a little intimidating
and then before you know it you’ve got a huge pile that you never want to go through. Then you
can’t find anything when you need it, and now you no longer have a filing system. I know some
people think that their piles are organized into a kind of system, but piles are inefficient (if
you’re not working on them at this moment) because you constantly have to re-factor what pile is
for what and which documents are in each pile, and when you need a document, it takes too long
to find it. Plus, it clutters up your desk, distracting you from your work.

4. Have materials on hand. Always have a big supply of manila folders and labels on hand. If
you have a document that needs to be filed for future reference, but no file exists for it yet, you
will put the filing off until later if you don’t have the materials on hand. You don’t feel like
getting up to get a manila folder or label every time you need to file something, so you’ll put it
off. And that will create piles.

So instead, just have the materials in a drawer, for easy access. When you need to make a new
file, just put a label on, stick the document in, and file it alphabetically.

5. Reduce your needs over time. Over the last year or so, I’ve consciously been reducing my
filing needs so that I now barely use my filing drawer. Sure, at least once a week I’ll pull open
the drawer to look at a file, but I file many fewer documents than I used to. I recommend that
you do the same, slowly and consciously reducing your filing needs. Here are a few tips for
doing that:

 Store reference information online. Now when I need to look something up, I press a hotkey
combination (I use AutoHotkey to open websites and documents) and the appropriate document
opens up with all the info I need. Contacts, budget information, ideas, logs, and much more are
all online, so I no longer need hard copies of them and don’t need to file them.
 Reduce incoming paper. Ask people to email you instead of faxing or sending a document by
post. In this age, everything is created on computer, and sending hard copies is outdated. Insist
on digital. Also take steps to stop paper versions of newsletters, magazines and other such
regular documents.

 Stop printing stuf. Lots of people still print out email or documents they receive, or even
documents they create themselves. But then you have two copies of it, you’re killing trees, and
you now have to file the paper version as well as the digital. And it’s much easier to search for
digital information when you need it.

 Analyze other incoming docs. Every time you file something, ask yourself if you really need a
hard copy version of it. Is it available online? Does it really need to be sent to you? Is it better to
scan it and store it digitally? Is there any way to eliminate the need for this document? And
slowly, one by one, reduce your need for all the incoming stuff.