Declutter Your Desk with a General Reference Filing System

First, a confession. I don’t do what I’m about to recommend, at least not anymore. My current job involves zero paperwork, but in my previous, paper-based job, I was able to manage a mountain of paperwork while maintaining a pristinely clean desk. If you’re willing to put in a few hours to set up the general reference filing system I describe, you’ll not only find it easy to keep your desk free of clutter, but you get to the point where seeing extraneous paperwork build up on your desk will feel as unsettling as not showering. Think of clutter management as information hygiene.

Filing Goes Beyond Clerical Work

Few things in life seem as boring as organizing your filing system. If the goal of filing is neatness, I’d agree, but the real objective is something more practical: removing distractions. All the extraneous paper in your visual field may not seem like a distraction right now, but once you remove it, and more importantly, have a place to remove it to, you’ll gradually start to crave the clarity of focus a clean desk reflects. The clean desk doesn’t create that clarity; the organization that leads to the clean desk is what does the trick.

There’s a lot of psychobabble surrounding the reasons behind why people have messy desks, but the real reason is much simpler than explanations offered by personal organizing gurus. People are using their desks as to do lists. They keep paperwork on their desks are reminders of what they have to do with it. We want to create a system that makes haphazard reminders unnecessary.

The problem occurs when you’re working on X, and the other paperwork on your desk not related to X is constantly issuing reminders of Y and Z. You have to make a conscious, continual effort to ignore those distractions, but making that effort is, in itself, a distraction. Test this for yourself by shoving all the papers on your desk not directly related to your current task in a drawer, or somewhere else out of sight, and see how much easier it is to focus on the immediate task.

Some papers are obviously trash. Whatever doesn’t go in the wastebasket represents something that requires imminent action, something that requires future action, or something that may be useful at a later date. For many office workers, the desk becomes a way station for anything that’s not trash, and all of that non-trash amalgamates into a single category called “stuff,” which magnifies the sense of workload it represents. Let’s get stuff off our minds.

The General Reference Filing System

General reference filing serves a different purpose than conventional filing. Conventional filing involves making files for sets of papers “important” enough to merit labeled folders. Things sit on our desks indefinitely until they escalate to archival status. When paperwork is implicitly used as a to do list, there’s a strong urge to keep it in sight to keep it in mind, creating an equally strong resistance to filing it away.

General reference filing involves deciding if action is required on each piece of paper, and if so, putting it on an actual to do list or calendar. Once we extract that action, the resistance to filing the paper that represented it diminishes, since it’s no longer an action reminder. We give ourselves permission to let it go.

In some cases, letting it go means tossing the paper in the trash: a handwritten note that says “Amy called: 555.123.4567” can be thrown away now that you have “Call Amy at 555.123.4567: inquire about X” on your action list. But in many cases you’ll need to file and retain the paper to support the action, like the order form you’ll need to pull out for the task on your list, “Complete order form for blue widgets from Supplier X”. In the meantime, get stuff you’re not doing out of your face, and off of your mind.

So a general reference filing system allows us to implement two guiding principles:

  1. Don’t put things down, put them away
  2. Have the material needed for your current task in sight. Keep everything else out of sight.

Determining What Needs to Be Filed

A general reference filing system isn’t necessarily a “one system to rule them all” solution. You might want or need to keep special filing systems for your financial records, a drawer full of recipes, or anything else that has more volume than a few files can accommodate. It’s also not necessarily for files you’re retrieving multiple times during the day. It’s often more efficient to keep them above your desk in a tray underneath your in-basket.

We’re talking about an A-to-Z filing system that holds any paperwork you’re not actively working on or throwing in the trash, except for the material in your in-basket that still needs to be processed.

“Processing” is reviewing is a paper, consciously asking yourself what it is, then asking yourself if there’s any action required on it. If there isn’t, you decided whether it needs to be filed or trashed. If the paper contains something that requires further action, do the action on the spot if it can be completed in under two minutes; otherwise, put the required action on the appropriate list.

If you repeat this processing loop with each paper, you’ll end up with:

  1. An empty in-basket
  2. A bunch of very short tasks that you got done immediately instead of let sit on your desk or a list
  3. A list (or set of calendar entries) of longer tasks that don’t require reams of paper on your desk as reminders
  4. A bunch of papers that would’ve lingered on your desk indefinitely that now resides in your wastebasket
  5. Another bunch of papers that would’ve lingered on your desk indefinitely that now resides in your file cabinet

Setting up Your Files

To be effective, filing needs to be fast. If you implement the following guidelines, you’ll possibly have a couple of tedious hours setting up the system, but afterward you might actually find yourself enjoying the act of filing incoming paperwork.

Make filing simple for yourself by constructing a straight A-to-Z system. The invoice for Acme plumbing goes in a folder labeled “Acme Plumbing,” your iPhone manual goes in a folder labeled “iPhone” (or “iPhone Manual,” if you’re not into the whole brevity thing), the napkin with the home page redesign you sketched out goes in a folder called “Web Redesign”.

I’m serious about filing the napkin. If the options are firing up Photoshop to redraw the sketch into something “worthy” of filing, leaving it on the desk, or putting it away for quick retrieval when it’s actually needed (but not before), I’d always choose the latter. Sometimes it’s faster to put a single business card in its own folder and file it than to enter the contact information into Outlook, especially for short-term contacts that don’t need to go in a permanent record.

Replace hangers with a follower block

If you can’t stick a piece of paper in a folder, label it, and file it in under 60 seconds, then sooner or later you’ll start leaving things on your desk again. One of the biggest barriers to the one-minute threshold is the Pendaflex hanging folder system. On top of putting the paper in a folder, you have to grab another “folder” (the hanger), write a label, and insert the label into a plastic tab. Worse, hangers double the thickness of your files (folder plus hanger), reducing your file cabinet’s capacity by half for no good reason.

The simplest way to get rid of that overhead is to ditch the hangers and use a follower block (the metal backstop in most file cabinets) to keep your folders upright. If your file cabinet doesn’t have a follower, find an online office supplier that sells magnetic followers; or you’ll probably be able to work with a magnetic bookend, which is easier to find in retail office supply stores. If you’re forced to use hangers, ditch the plastic tabs and label the folder tab itself.

Use a labeler

Electronic labelers have a couple of advantages over handwriting file headings. First, the labels they create are typically easier to see from a distance, reducing the need to crouch down significantly to sort through your files. You’ll really notice the difference if you actually take an afternoon to relabel all of your handwritten tabs. Second, you can type your label once and print it twice  (the significance of which I’ll discuss shortly). Third — and this won’t be true for everyone — it’s faster to type out a label than to print neatly with a pen or marker.

I’ve seen lots of discussions in productivity forums that carry on about the importance of labelers. Other filers insist that labeling files creates more overhead than filing warrants. To be honest, I’ve always used a labeler right from the beginning, so I can’t assert with authority that it’s the One Best Way, but I do think that typographic labels are neater and that electronic labelers are cool. File this tip under recommended, but optional.

Use an Action Support tray for temporary files

When I worked in a paper-based office, I kept two trays above my desk: one for incoming paperwork that had to be processed (“In”), and another for papers and folders I would’ve otherwise filed and retrieved from the file drawer several times throughout the day (“Action Support”).

An action support tray holds two types of folders: a single folder labeled “Action Support,” and one or more folders dedicated to projects under way that day. You can also use it for folders containing stock forms you use on a daily basis, like invoices.

Suppose that one of your projects that day is configuring your new Blackberry (for work, of course), so you take the folder with the manual out of the file cabinet and stick it in the action support tray. So when you’re reading the manual, and the phone suddenly interrupts your reading, you toss the manual back in the folder and toss the folder back in the action support tray.

Why put the manual back in the folder instead of just throwing it directly in the tray? Well, that’s why I mentioned adding a second label to your folders at the bottom edge. If you put the folders in the tray so that their bottom edge are facing you — i.e. tabs facing inward — you’ll be able to sort through everything that’s in the tray in a single glance. You’ll be able to look in the tray and see, say, half a dozen labels instead of having to thumb through a bunch of papers to find what you’re looking for.

The Action Support folder is for holding individual, assorted documents you’re going to handle that aren’t worth filing long-term, or will file once you take the next action on them later that day.

That seems to contradict an earlier statement about filing everything, that referred to things you’re going to keep for more than a day. If you’re going to call Fred next week, but don’t need to keep his contact information in your cell phone after that, it’s often faster to just throw his business card in a folder, then throw the folder away when you’re done with it. But if you’re going to call him later that day, don’t bother creating a new folder; just throw the card in Action Support. There’s no hard and fast rule for whether something should go in Action Support instead of it’s own file, but you’ll learn to make the judgement call soon enough.

Prune Your File Cabinet

A library is more useful than warehouse with a random pile of books because you can actually find things when you need them. But a library full of books no one reads isn’t useful at all. Organizing the clutter on your desk into a file cabinet doesn’t eliminate clutter; it shifts it.

To streamline your file retrieval, make it a point to ruthlessly eliminate obsolete files. You can either schedule full sessions where you review your files from A to Z and systematically prune them in one fell swoop, or you can use ad hoc windows of time where you get rid of a few at a time — for instance, when you’re on hold on the phone for a few minutes, or when you’d rather avoid wasting time in meetings.

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Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe


  1. Jon Watts on the 9th February

    Great article Andre, thanks.
    I set up a similar type of system in my office as part of my GTD ( implementation and I clear my in tray once a day as part of a daily review of my tasks. The only thing I do differently is if an action (or to-do) will take less than 2 minutes to complete (e.g. email proposal X to client Y) then I do it there and then. That way my list stays “trim” and only contains things that items that require more concentration.

  2. Brady on the 9th February

    Thanks for the article.

    The “filing” image seems to be linked incorrectly or corrupted.

  3. Amy Hadley on the 9th February

    I’ve pined after decorative folders for ages, and now I have an excuse to use some (ex:! Yes, this post got me excited about decorative folders. I’m a crafter/decorator. Don’t judge.
    And PS: THANK. YOU. I’ve stopped working at my desk b/c it’s driving me crazy. And now so it my kitchen table. Great post!

  4. Richard Tidman on the 9th February

    I’ve been running a similar system for about 6 months.
    It’s a fantastic way to work.

    Nice article too.

  5. AW on the 11th February

    I am a case manager for a non-profit. My job involves lots of paper and individual case files for each of my 50+ clients. By the end of most days my desk has stacks of the case files. I’ve thought of having a drawer of files I’m currently working on but there are times of the year when that’s most of them. Also in the rare chance that a coworker needed to find a file they wouldn’t know where to look. I should probably just file them all away but I often use their presence on my desk as a reminder that I’m waiting to hear back from another office about their case. Having a to do list does not work in my job as there are so many little things I do and each client’s needs change constantly. I’ve tried a to list but in this job it seems like it takes more time than it’s worth.

    Anyone have any organization ideas for this type of situation? I’m open!

  6. Shawn Wright on the 11th February

    I disagree with your suggestion about using hanging folders. David Allen of GTD fame also suggested that you use your filing system but I have found that using a follower block tends to make my files a mess. I use hanging folders and put one file in each and no plastic tabs. I also use the folders with straight cut tabs so my labels start on the left on all folders. This makes finding what I need easy and quick.

    If you don’t have hanging folders I would not suggest buying them. It is an expense you could do without. With hanging folders you won’t be able to put as many files into your cabinet but the upside is it forces you to purge.

    Great post by the way.

  7. Jon Watts on the 12th February

    @AW: Have you ever tried using a Kanban system? There’s a good article here ( I’ve never tried one myself so I couldn’t vouch for it’s usefulness but it’s another avenue that you may wish to investigate.

  8. Stephen Smith on the 12th February

    Thanks for the shout-out, Jon, I love my Kanban system – it is really useful.

    Andre, good post, I like your thinking. I only use my filing cabinet for an archive, and I have an “Action Support” tool – a vertical file holder with the 3 most important folders labeled “Today”, “Tomorrow”, and “Later”. This has become the core of my practice and it really streamlines the workflow.

  9. wedding invitations on the 11th July

    and I have an “Action Support” tool – a vertical file holder with the 3 most important folders labeled “Today”, “Tomorrow”, and “Later”. This has become the core of my practice and it really streamlines the workflow.

  10. boots on the 19th August

    Thanks for the shout-out, Jon, I love my Kanban system – it is really useful.

  11. zhiguang on the 4th December

    Thank you for sharing, learned a lot here

  12. Ellen W. on the 20th March

    I agree ( or disagree) that hanging file folders can work. Use them as indexes for your alphabet labels and use a label maker to make large tabs with 3 letter like this: AAA BBB CCC etc. You will be able to see them quickly in the file. Stick with one color to avoid lots of visual noise. If you have one or two pages put them right in the hanging file, otherwise use a manila third cut file labeled appropriately (Auto Insurance) for instance and put in the AAA file. Use a black sharpie marker so your file names are easy to read, using a label maker for all files can be costly. If you have lots of files for a letter add hanging file folders behind each letter. If the folders start to stick up in the file switch to a 2″ box bottom files that can hold more and thicker files.
    With ths system you can easily take out the whole file folder you need, use it, then drop it back in its’ hanging file when you are done.
    I have installed this system for many clients and it really helps them get into good filing habits rather then creating their own often inexplicable filing systems such as “I put the important files in the front” …what if they are ALL important?! Happy organizing.

    • Nicola on the 19th July

      Thanks, Ellen, for this tip. I’m in the process of implementing the David Allen (GTD) system, but have been wondering how to get my files to stand up straight if I get rid of the hanging files. I really like your suggestion of just labelling the hanging files that start a new section of the alphabet. I think I’ll try that! Thanks to everyone else, too. Great to hear what works and what doesn’t work in peoples’ real lives.

  13. Libby on the 2nd September

    In a new job, I “inherited” someone else’s bank of filing cabinets and couldn’t remember where things were; so I took time out to create a one page spreadsheet with a list for each drawer of each cabinet (e.g. Cabinet 1: Drawer 1: Superannuation, Workcover, Awards…. Drawer 2: Insurance, Vehicle Registrations …). Then I could just run through the spreadsheet or do “find” and know where something had to go. In “Insurance”, I run a manila folder for each financial year so they don’t all get mixed up. With lots of vehicles I have found it worthwhile to have a manila folder for each vehicle so I can easily see the relevant registrations etc. This approach works for me.

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