Creating a personalized filing system

There’s not a single right way to set up a filing system; the right system is one that works for you, where the time you spend filing pays off in ease of finding your documents when you need them.

Let’s assume you’ve already decided which papers you need to keep. The following are additional questions to consider:

  1. Does someone else need to share your files? If so, be sure to answer these questions with whomever else will be filing things away or retrieving things from your filing system.
  2. How much do you want to scan? If you’re comfortable with digital files, you may want to scan many of your papers and then discard or shred the originals (the ones that are legal to shred). Sometimes, you may want both a scanned copy (for backup and easy access) and a paper one.
  3. For papers you’re keeping, do you prefer binders or file folders — or some combination thereof?
  4. For action papers, are you comfortable using a tickler file? Action papers are those that need attention versus reference papers (such as your insurance papers) and archives/historic papers (such as your tax returns from 3 years ago). A tickler file creates a space for papers associated with actions, based on when you’re planning to take that action. There’s a section for each day of the current month and a section for each of the next 12 months. If you don’t want to use a tickler file, you could create files labeled by type of action needed (pay, call, enter into address book, etc.), or by urgency.
  5. How many files do you really need? Don’t be afraid to create a file for a single piece of paper, if it really doesn’t fit with anything else. But don’t go overboard with subdivision either, if it doesn’t help with retrieving your papers.
  6. Do you really hate to file? Could you get by with the “one box” approach from the Simple Productivity Blog? Here’s how that works: “Grab a small, empty box. … Throughout the year, toss in the things you need to hang on to for financial and tax reasons: paid bills, tax documents, bills. At the end of the year, go through it and shred what you can. Then stick it on a shelf with an appropriate label and start a new one.”
  7. Are you more of a “piler” than a “filer”? If so, you can still organize your piles to make things easier to find, for you and others; consider the Pendaflex PileSmart products. You could also use a series of baskets or bins on a shelf to hold your various piles.
  8. Where do you want to keep your files? Action files need to be close at hand to where you work. Many people prefer to keep them in some sort of step file, desktop file box or wall-mounted file — but some people prefer to keep them in a file drawer. Reference files need to be convenient to get to, but not as close by as action files. And historic files can go anywhere you have secure storage space; you don’t need easy access to them on a regular basis.
  9. Do none of those filing options sound quite right? Get creative. Keep important papers on a wall, using a series of clipboards. Use a collection of transparent bags hanging on racks. Go wild!

If you decide to use file folders:

  • Are you OK with basic manila file folders and green hanging folders? Or, do you want something snazzier? You’ve got lots of choices, from a rainbow of solid colors to a huge range of patterns.
  • Do you want file folders inside of hanging folders or just hanging folders, or just file folders? If you’re going with file folders inside hanging folders, you may want what’s called “interior folders,” which won’t obscure the labels on the hanging folders. You may also want box bottom hanging folders to hold a large number of file folders.
  • Do you want folders made from recycled materials? If this matters to you, look for folders with a high percentage of recycled and post-consumer material content.
  • Is color-coding useful to you, or just one more thing to worry about?
    You can always use colored folders just because you like them, without assigning any specific meaning to a color.
  • Do you want folders with the normal 1/3 cut tab (left, center, right) or with straight-cut tabs? Straight-cut tabs, which go the whole length of the file folder, give you room for longer labels. In either case, if your file folders will get a lot of use, look for ones with reinforced tabs.
  • Do you want to use a label maker, or just hand-write your labels? Labels made with a label maker are very easy to read — especially helpful for those of us with older eyes — and have a nice polished look. But plenty of people are happy with hand-written labels, too. In either case, I suggest avoiding dark-colored plastic tabs on hanging files, because these make the labels hard to read.
  • Do you want to use straight-line filing, or staggered? For my own files, I use straight-line filing with all the tabs in a single position; I like not worrying about messing up my staggered tabs (left, center, right) when I add a new file. (I use a new tab position to indicate a new grouping of files.) But others find staggered files easier to use.
  • Do you want to group related files, and, if so, how? Some prefer a simple A-Z filing system, while others prefer to have groupings: financial papers, family member papers, etc. Do you want to put all your insurance papers together? Do you want to put all your car-related papers together? Where does the auto insurance go?

Got your answers? Now you’re ready to create your filing system. As you work with your files, you may change your answers to some questions; that’s normal. Keep adjusting your system, so it keeps working for you.

10 Comments for “Creating a personalized filing system”

  1. posted by Pat on

    THANK YOU for this post about the “one box ” approach! For years I have been struggling with how to get my ADHD son to file his paid bills etc. This will work great and end my frustration with him. I’m going to give him a plastic portable file box each Jan 1. Then he can find his papers.

    I guess not everyone is an complusive filing accountant type like me!

  2. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd: Home Organizing on

    Wow, Jeri, thanks for writing such a comprehensive post! In regard to the Pendaflex piler collection, have you found that this system actually work with your clients who prefer to pile instead of file? Seems like the whole collection requires a lot of up-front work (eg. slipping things into labeled folders, finding and using labeled clips) that a piler may not be willing to do.

  3. posted by Charles on

    A marvellously-organized article on filing!

    Another tip for pilers – which I am – is using one of those ‘document sorters’ that you can get at an office supply place. These are traditionally used to store forms and paper stock near printers, etc. I use the ‘cubbies’ to store my documents; all piled, but clearly visible and easily accessible.

  4. posted by Theresa Finnigin - Ready Aim Organize on

    Great post. Sometimes it’s good to stop and catch your breath when it comes to filing. Great questions to ask yourself.

  5. posted by John H. on

    Regarding dark-colored plastic tabs, I find that they are less of an issue with a label-maker than with hand-written labels because you can simply adhere plastic labels to the front, rather than sliding them inside like the little paper slips.

  6. posted by Sue on

    As a Piler, I appreciate the suggestion regarding the PileSmart products. I am going to invest in a few things to see if they can help me manage my office “stuff”.

  7. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    MaryJo, I haven’t used the PileSmart products with any clients myself, but I’ve heard other organizers say good things about them. I imagine, as with almost everything, that it depends on the specific person’s style and preferences.

  8. posted by Whitney on

    One other thing about folders: when you’re buying, make sure you know the difference between TOP tab and END tab. Most people will want top tab folders, which go in regular file cabinets. End tabs stick out from the right or left side of the folder and are used for filing on a shelf, like at a doctor’s office. Very useful if that’s what you need but a common mistake made when ordering them online (much cheaper than Staples!).

  9. posted by Nadja on

    this is amazing ;-) thank you so much for so many creative ways to organize myself!

  10. posted by Nancy Nino on

    Super helpful! I have a questionaire that I use when helping my clients put together filing systems, but this is even more comprehensive. THANK YOU! And thanks for the product recommendations as well :)

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