The simplicity of alphabetical filing

As the final installment of my exploration of alternative filling systems, I want to look at the simple system that is often overlooked: alphabetical filing.

When I became highly interested in productivity a few years ago, I noticed that my routines grew slowly, but steadily, more complex. On the digital side, I added rules to incoming email messages and later introduced tags, color coding, special mailboxes, and more. On the analog side, I made subfolders, employed more color-coding, and eventually had unique file bins for varying categories of documentation. I thought I was a filing ninja, until I read this old post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits that’s all about the simplicity of alphabetical filing.

I know that ABC filing isn’t exactly an “alternative” system. But for many of us, especially the folks who enjoy the pursuit of clutter-free, efficient organization, it can get overlooked as being too simplistic. Leo makes a great case for the opposite.

“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.”

I like this idea a lot, as it’s incredibly intuitive. For example, say you purchase a new vacuum cleaner: you simply grab the manual, open your file drawer, and place the manual in the “V” folder (“V” for vacuum). No over-thinking, no deliberation, no searching for the right spot. Searching for the manual ends up being just as easy. Everything is in one place and easily found.

Now, a caveat. Many of us have home office situations or, more likely, work requirements, that prevent a simple ABC system. A medical office, for example, couldn’t file all patients whose last names begin with T all in the same T file. This basic system just isn’t for you.

But if the work you do doesn’t need to be subdivided, consider it. I recently bought a simple file box and several manilla envelopes. I labeled each one A through Z and placed them inside the file box. For a few weeks, I’ve been filing according to this system and loving it. One note: make sure your filing box or cabinet is within “swivel distance.” Swivel distance is the distance you can reach without getting up from your chair. Why? Because humans tend toward the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to stack folders than to walk over to the cabinet, you’ll be tempted to stack. And as Leo explained, stacking is not ideal:

[Stacks pile] 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.

Finally, if you’re going to try this, make sure you have plenty of fresh materials ready to go. A stack of folders, fresh batteries and ink for your label maker, a new marker, and so on. That way you won’t be tempted to “just put this down” until you get said materials from the store.

6 Comments for “The simplicity of alphabetical filing”

  1. posted by Marie on

    Librarians have been using this simple filing system — with a few variations — for centuries.

  2. posted by infmom on

    For user manuals, we file them in folders labeled by the room the item is used in. There’s a separate folder for portable devices. Before that, we’d tried sorting them by type of item and that led to a couple of folders getting overstuffed and others hardly used at all. This system works really well for us.

    Other things, like coupons, not so easily dealth with. My husband tends to sub-sub-sub-sub-divide stuff and create folder after folder with names that make sense to him, that I can never figure out. I tend to find the broadest possible category, which confuses him (we once had quite a discussion over whether a coupon for ketchup would be filed under “condiments” or “prepared foods”). Does laundry detergent go under “cleaning supplies” or should there be a separate category for laundry?

    He created three different folders labeled “housing” in our file drawer. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

    And the notion of scanning in all these documents rather than endlessly filing them is another whole topic of discussion.

  3. posted by Beverly D NP on

    Manuals in my office go under I In the file labeled “instructions”. The exception is for electronics, in which case the manual goes in the zip lock bag with charging and other cords for that device. The bags are in a *sort of* organized drawer just for them.

    When you get older, you may find that you have more to file than just one drawer. For example, my husband and I have each and jointly owned several houses, and there is a file for each one, with closing paperwork from both the buying and subsequent selling, along with any improvements made. I suppose I could put these in some sort of storage, leaving available only the most recent. But I have room in my file cabinet, so it suits me to keep it all together, most recent in front and least in back.

  4. posted by JC on

    Although the system is simple, it still requires some guidelines to make it as efficient as possible. At work I recently scanned in 10 years of records for a small tourism related business that used an alphabetical system. I couldn’t tell if one or more persons were filing, but there didn’t seem to be agreement on some of the “rules”. For example: whether to file checks under the first or last name of the payee (I found them under both), or if gas went under “gas” or “Tesoro”. It was a small business, so it wasn’t terrible to sort out the inconsistencies, but search/records retrieval results could have been misleading if the seeker didn’t know to look under all possible headings.

    I personally have been gradually incorporating my files into the Freedom Filer system. I use their main system and have multiple files sorted alphabetically under the main headings. For example: family members’ folders are alphabetical under the main “Medical Records” heading.

  5. posted by Lisa Zaslow on

    After helping thousands of people set up filing systems over 10+ years, in my experience, straight alphabetical systems as you’ve described don’t usually make it easy to FIND information (tho they may seem simple to set up). Using broad categories almost always works better – despite what David Allen preaches :) People forget: is that manual filed under V for vacuum, H for Hoover, A for appliances, M for manuals – you get the idea. With broad, non-overlapping categories (with alpha sub-categories if needed) there are fewer places to look for the info you need. The system has to be customized to reflect a person’s particular memory abilities, with labels based on how they think (which is why pre-labelled systems have a tendency to fail.) Happy filing!

  6. posted by Harry on

    “People forget: is that manual filed under V for vacuum, H for Hoover, A for appliances, M for manuals – you get the idea”

    This. Sigh. I have a system that works for me, and contains little enough paper that someone else could look through it manually if necessary. The biggest disagreement in my house is location. My roommate prefers distributed systems: appliance manual next to the appliance, several rolls of TP in each bathroom. I prefer centralized systems: manuals (with receipt stapled to it) in a folder; TP kept in the closet with one extra roll per bathroom (so you don’t run out at an inconvenient time). [Exception: there should be pens EVERYWHERE.]

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