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:
- Don’t put things down, put them away
- 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:
- An empty in-basket
- A bunch of very short tasks that you got done immediately instead of let sit on your desk or a list
- A list (or set of calendar entries) of longer tasks that don’t require reams of paper on your desk as reminders
- A bunch of papers that would’ve lingered on your desk indefinitely that now resides in your wastebasket
- 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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