Ask Unclutterer: Dreaded filing

Reader C submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My husband and I have a problem — while we’ve managed to declutter our little apartment to a state that makes us both happy, we both *hate* filing papers. It’s the one task that never seems to get done because we both avoid it, hoping the other person will break down and do it. Once papers make it into the filing cabinet they’re fairly well organized, but there always seems to be a heaping pile of envelopes and documents sitting on top of it. Do you have any advice for how to overcome this reluctance to deal with our filing?

I dislike filing, too. I wonder if there is someone out there who enjoys it. Anyone?

Because filing is such a dreaded task for many people, I recommend making the chore as much of a routine as possible so you don’t ever think about it. This either means doing it every day as a regular part of your mail processing routine (open mail, process it, file important documents, be done with it) or doing it once a week at a scheduled time (Saturday mornings after your cup of coffee). And, when I suggest scheduling it, I literally mean putting it on your calendar at a specific time.

If you go with the once a week system, get a decorative box with a lid that is only a few inches deep to set on top of your filing cabinet. The box can be the depository for the papers that need to be filed until your regularly scheduled filing time. Also, if you use a shallow box as recommended, your filing can’t ever get out of control because not much paper can fit inside of it.

Be sure to check out our Paper Clutter Begone, part 4 to make sure you’re not filing papers you don’t need to keep. I didn’t get the impression you were from your question, but a nice review of what to keep isn’t a bad idea for any of us.

When at work, I’ve found it’s convenient to file whenever I’m on a conference call that doesn’t require my active participation. Also, if I’m trying to solve a problem, I’ll file to give my brain some down time. Researchers have found that alternating between mindless work (like filing) and mindful work increases your overall productivity. If you’re trying to solve a problem at home, maybe sneak in a few minutes of filing even if it isn’t your regularly scheduled filing time.

Thank you, C, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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37 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Dreaded filing”

  1. posted by GMTB on

    I keep a pretty tray in my workspace just for things that need to be filed, and while I wait for videos to load on my older laptop, I empty the tray and file things away so that I can see the tray’s surface again.

    I disliked filing until some years who when I was able to use those files to prove that I was written the wrong prescription that was almost fatal.

  2. posted by Alice on

    If I had a filing cabinet, I would definitely like filing! What I have instead, though, space limited, is a portable filing case with a flap-over-top. This means that in order to do the filing, I have to bend down, lift it onto a table, hold it open/balance it with one hand, and file papers with the other. So no, I do not like filing, but not for the same reason as everyone else.

  3. posted by pkilmain on

    I like your ideas, Erin. I’d add that two other points. First is actually open the mail every day, so nothing that has a deadline gets missed, and things that are just advertising/solicitations can be discarded immediately. Second is to discard the envelopes as soon as you open the mail. Nothing clutters up a pile of filing like envelopes. I also discard the return ones of bills that I pay online, along with any advertising that comes with the bill. Most of this can go into paper recycling, of course, just using “discard” as a generic term for getting the stuff out of your filing. 🙂

  4. posted by y on

    I used to have what Alice had, a portable filing case, and hated it. now i have replaced it with a series of white binders ($1 each from the dollar store), where each of them are labeled (e.g., house, financial, employment, health, etc). inside each of the binder i have plastic sleeves (e.g., in the “house” binder, property taxes, management fees, repair and maintenance invoices, etc.), so that when I file i DO NOT need to punch holes. for those items that i intend to keep for one year (e.g., visa bills, phone bills, etc.), i use the one-in-one-out method and shed them immediately so there is no massive shedding at the end of the year. I do my filing every two weeks as I pay my bills, which also coincide with my paycheque deposit day. this works for me as it’s routine and is doable during the commercials inbetween my favourite TV shows.

  5. posted by Catherine on

    I hated filing for years; mostly because overstuffed hanging files are difficult to navigate and I always ended up with paper cuts. Then I found a system that works for me — each year I create a new 3-ring binder with alphabetized dividers for every category: electric, health insurance, etc. There’s a section for every bill I owe or association I belong to – essentially, anyone who would send me mail.

    Opened mail goes into an inbox – I only take a few moments to pull the stub off the bottom of bills. (I post this on my corkboard as a reminder to pay the bill online.) I sort through the inbox once per week; I punch holes and file everything into the binder. It never takes more than 10 minutes, and it’s a blessing to know exactly where everything is – without paper cuts or confusion.

  6. posted by Beverly on

    I use one of two filing systems as I also hate filing.

    1) The OHIO system: only handle it once. Open it and if it’s just something that needs to be filed, FILE IT.

    2) File everything in chronicle logical order. It’s not a very effective file system but at least there is minimal order.

  7. posted by Jen on

    If a task is going to take more than a few minutes, I’m far more likely to avoid doing it. If it’s a hated task, I definitely dread it far less when I know I’ll only spend a couple minutes on it. I’ve actually gotten in the habit of breaking down almost every chore I have that lasts more than 20 minutes and doing small bits over a few days instead of doing them all at once.
    I definitely recommend filing a document immediately after you’re finished with it instead of letting it build. It’s also one of those tasks where I can put something on TV and do it at a leisurely pace.

  8. posted by the other Tammy on

    I am the designated office filer…and believe me, working in a bank, we save EVERYTHING. For many years. It’s a lot of paper.

    My filing goes pretty fast because we took the time to create a good system for it. Now it takes only a few minutes per week to file everything. At the end of every week, papers are sorted from our holding drawer into their respective categories and filed into hanging files in our vault. The hanging files are not allowed to get too full, they must be archived before that happens. So at the end of the year, we get a few bankers’ boxes and empty the contents of the file cabinets into manila envelopes or folders, label them, and pack them into the boxes with the date on it. Then on top of the box, we tape a list of what is inside the box so that if you must dig through the archives, you can find what you are looking for quickly.

    Our old archive room, before I took the project over…oh my goodness…you couldn’t even walk in there, let alone find what you needed. It took me 2 weeks and a special trip from the shredding company (80 cases of papers to shred!) but now you can walk in, find the boxes stacked neatly against the wall, find the date you need and the category you are looking for. So much nicer.

    The important thing is to keep up with the retention guidelines and shred stuff when it is too old. It piles up quickly if you don’t! We follow the one in one out rule on a yearly basis.

    At home, I try to implement the same rules. Junk mail is shredded immediately. Papers are recycled. Important stuff is filed immediately after being dealt with. Files are archived with tax documents every year.

  9. posted by Alex on

    I file in steps. I agree with Jen above that I don’t like doing things that take more than a few minutes, but for filing at work I can hold on for about 20 minutes to a task like filing, so I’ve created three steps. After each step, I go away and do other things that are nothing like filing.

    First, I alphabetize the whole pile so I won’t be going back and forth looking for files and pulling out different drawers (we have three large filing cabinets, so this is a really useful step).

    Second, I file the “easy” ones. For me, this means I don’t have to make a new folder, I don’t have to find accompanying paperwork, and I have no questions about which folder it goes into, or whether it should be filed right now anyway.

    Third, I deal with all the problem files at once. I make all the new folders and file them, I ask all my questions and deal with them accordingly, and I track down all the accompanying papers that I need.

    All three steps have a combined total of about an hour, since I do all the filing for everyone, and I only do it about once a week.

  10. posted by Leslie on

    Okay, I’ll ‘fess up to being one of those freaks of nature who actually LIKES filing. But then, my husband and I are both trained as librarians, so maybe that’s why.

    BUT, we have been called in on many occasions to develop filing systems and practices for members of our families who don’t share our fascination with orderly paper. We’ve both found the following tips to be very helpful for people who don’t like filing (they worked for my dad, who used to be very close to a paper hoarder):

    – don’t let crap into your house. Shred junk mail AT THE DOOR (my mother has installed a shredder next to the umbrella rack and uses it religiously) Crap includes envelopes, inserts, fliers, anything you don’t want or need.
    – put all non-crap paper in ONE spot. The same spot, over and over. I suggest a filing tray, but anything could work (box, accordion file), as long as everyone knows this is where the important stuff goes. It should be visible so you won’t forget about it. (Plus, that’s an incentive to keep it neat.)
    – set aside 15 minutes at the same time every day to “conquer” the paper (this can be ramped down to once a week once you’ve got things under control). Deal with as much as you can in 15 minutes, in as disciplined a fashion as you can muster. Then stop. Do it again tomorrow.
    – “place for everything and everything in its place.” Find a place, which for us is a four-drawer filing cabinet, for your processed mail/paper: Drawer 1 is for his bills, statement and other stuff, Drawer 2 is for mine, Drawer 3 is for joint stuff (including copies of deeds, insurance policies where the originals are stored in a safety deposit box) and Drawer 4 is for archive
    – stop paper at the source (i.e. sign up for e-bills, put your name on do-not-mail lists, put a note on your mailbox that you don’t want fliers, etc.)

    Works for us!

  11. posted by DawnF on

    My thoughts for once you get it under control:

    Get as little paper mail as possible – sign up for online banking and online bills and be VERY selective who you give your mailing address to in order to avoid as much junk mail as possible. Also, you can sign up for the Opt Out of junk mail service – sorry, I don’t recall the exact website right now.

    I pick up my mail every day from the mailbox and as I am walking into the house I walk STRAIGHT to the recycle bin. I immediately toss out unwanted junk mail (after removing my address label) and I also toss any unneeded return address envelopes.

    Next, I shred the address labels and unwanted junk mail (say like credit card applications) in the paper shredder immediately.

    Next, I process anything remaining – if it’s a bill, I put in my portofolio that holds my bills (I only receive a few paper bills from the companies who don’t do them online) along with our family budget, Gift List and stamps. If it’s something to file (for example, a new insurance benefits list or important memo) then I file it immediately in its designated folder in our 2-drawer filing cabinet.

    If I received an interesting magazine or catalog I immediately put in my living room basket that keeps my magazines. The basket is pretty and small and forces me to be very selective with magazine purchases/subscriptions.

    It’s very rare that a piece of paper ever lands on our kitchen counter, desk or anywhere else because I handle incoming paperwork/mail/door solicitations immediately on a daily basis – no pile-up! Some days it’s literally a 2 or 3-minute process.

    If something needs to be reviewed by my husband then I will leave it out for him to review and then I will process it thereafter – that same day.

    Twice per year, I go through our 2-drawer filing cabinet and purge and shred documents/receipts/etc no longer needed. You can access so many things online now (even things like owners manuals) that I am quite selective in what I keep in order to keep stored documents under control.

    To get your current situation under control I would suggest setting aside a free day to do it – just get it done together as a team and hopefully you can establish a new system to avoid the pile-up again. Best wishes!

  12. posted by OogieM on

    Nice neat labeled files make filing much easier. Part of why I hated filing was that the neatly printed handwritten labels were still not easy to read. Replacing those with nicely printed black text on white tape from a tape labeler made all the difference in the world.

  13. posted by maxie on

    Leslie’s last point and DawnF’s first are absolutely essential. You’ll be surprised at how much less paper you’ll have if you follow just this one tip.

  14. posted by Mletta on

    The physical process of filing, no matter what system is used, can often be tedious and time-consuming…and worse, if you’ve let things pile up.

    I actually enjoy filing and really enjoy setting up a filing system, for just about everything. (I don’t know where and when this developed because I spent a lot of years without files of any kind. Now, well, let’s say there’s a cabinet for just about everything!)

    Part of this enjoyment comes from the feeling that my life is just a bit more under control if things are filed away. Of course, that is an illusion on some levels, but even my to-be-filed piles are organized.

    I think a lot of people avoid filing, especially financial stuff, because it means you do have to confront your stuff and pay attention to a lot of things people don’t want to pay attention to.

    Filing is actually kind of soothing depending on what else is going on in my life. I try to set aside a bit of time each week, put on some of my favorite music and sometimes get a drink and just go to it.

    The reason I keep it up is because of the feeling I get when I need to check something (and there’s always something to check) and I can quickly and easily find the information I need.

    FYI: I have a home office and to keep it functional requires that I do stay on top of things.

    If you create a system that works for you, it’s really not all that hard.

    I’ve got a vertical file (cardboard) with about slots, which I’ve labeled. Every day, I slip stuff from the mail or my work into the slot.

    At the end of every two weeks, I sort thru the materials and put them in the “permanent” files.

    On a daily basis, I have a small, portable plastic file on my desk with folders for stuff that must be attended to on a daily basis for work and home life.

    You certainly don’t need to be as detailed as I am, but being able to find things makes a huge difference in one’s daily life.

    Actually doing it is easier than avoiding it. I’m always amazed at folks who are constantly wasting huge chunks of time and getting major upset because they can’t find things like warranties, copies of policies, bills, etc. they need.

    And for folks who say they don’t have time, unless you’re a single parent raising multiple kids, you do.

    If it’s something you either can’t or won’t do, consider asking a friend for help. I have actually “gifted” friends with a half-day or day of file organizing and filing every couple of months. I’m happy to do it because it’s easier than hearing my friends get frantic when important papers go MIA.

  15. posted by Chaya on

    You need 4 items to make this happen: a filing cabinet, a staging area (the box that Erin mentioned), a shredder, and a recycling bin. The shredder and recycling bin are crucial. How can you declutter if you can’t easily dispose of your paper waste? The shredder is the best thing that happened to me. All those ATM receipts that I didn’t want to throw in the trash but didn’t want to file — they can be easily disposed of now.

  16. posted by Another Tammy on

    I’m a nerd and actually love filing.

    That being said, any task will become hated if it is too difficult or inconvenient. So take a minute to write down WHY you hate filing. Yes, actually write it down. Is it hard to find new file folders? Are there things in the way that make it difficult to get to your filing cabinet/system? Once you identify those problems, fix them once and for all and with a little retraining, it will become so much easier (and maybe even fun if you doll it up, maybe buy purple file folders or something if that will make it more enjoyable!)

  17. posted by Kari on

    You must check out Freedom Filer. It makes filing and cleaning out files nearly painless.

  18. posted by Ella on

    Since this couple is in the same boat — both of them hating to file — I’d recommend that they make a date to do it together once a week. Put on their favorite upbeat music, work at filing together for an hour or so, then reward themselves with a treat, such as dinner out or a movie. I’m a big fan of using positive rewards to built good habits!

  19. posted by Anne on

    Simple: scan, scan, and scan some more! Then shred. If you look into it, you’ll probably be surprised at how little you need in paper form. If you OCR the scans, you can just do a search of your computer hard drive if you need to find anything later, so you don’t even need to worry too much about having a filing system.

  20. posted by mili on

    the problem with scanning is that it’s not a universally accepted method if you later need to produce the documents in some kind of official capacity. Maybe it is in the US, but that’s sure as heck not the case everywhere 😛 Most of the rest of the world (even the developed world), you’d be SOL if all you had was digital copies. So you might still want to create them for your own personal reference, but you’ll still need to hold onto the hard copies. And if you need to do that, then usually the endless scanning is too much work for too little benefit.

  21. posted by Another Deb on

    I just closed out my classroom for the summer, leaving a large collection of unfiled papers. It’s been one of those years when there are files and papers everywhere. I don’t use the sink in my lab station, I keep a file box in it with the handouts for that week. Then I have a file box 31 hanging folders folders in it to place the handouts by date. That way a student who was absent can get their work. This almost works, but the file box is too small for many sets of leftover handouts. I also procrastinate on making new file folders for new handouts, so theya re loose, stacked.. a mess!

    I have good intentions but for today, it was all I could do to just throw it all in a cabinet and haul myself home. I’ll think about it tomorrow: tomorrow is another day!

  22. posted by Amanda on

    I file by date. Important papers like the car title can have its own file, but bills, tax stuff, receipts, coupons, etc. all go in a monthly folder within a yearly binder. If I need a phone number or an account number, I can get that right off any bill. If there is anything unusual filed in a certain month, I just write what the item is at the bottom of the folder. Like instructions for my new phone. Just write at the bottom of the folder “phone instructions” and if I ever need it, it’s super easy to find. The quicker that stuff is out of the way, the better.

  23. posted by Anne2 on

    I don’t like filing. I dream about being organized. I try. I have worked on all kinds of different systems. I think I’ve figured out that I’m a visual person so once papers “disappear” into a filing cabinet, they no longer exist in my mind. I rarely go back to anything I file. I just feel the need to hang on to most paper things because my brain doesn’t want to retain what’s important and what’s not (a paper pack rat).

    That said, I’ve been mulling over a new system for me. A few years back I tried something new. I set up a paper box (the kind reams of paper come in) as my place to file almost all papers – bills, 401K info, pretty much everything. I use that throughout the year. At the end of the year we go through everything to sort the info needed for taxes and file those. All papers supporting taxes go into a file for that. All other papers go into an accordian file for the year. I bought 10 accordian files so each year I pull out the back one, shred everything in it and put the new year’s stuff in it. That way I know I’m hanging onto ALL papers for 10 years which eases my pack rat mind but I’m also getting rid of old papers each year which is easing the effects of being a pack rat on my storage space.

    I think I’m going to invest in a bookcase that holds baskets that can hold files. But instead of using file folders, I’ll just toss the appropriate papers in the boxes (school, same old bill one, my freelance work stuff that’s completed, etc.) That way I don’t have to stress out about what files I need to create, whether something should be filed in this category or that one, and stuff goes in easy. Since I hardly ever look at stuff once it’s “filed” I think this will work. Then at the end of each year I’ll combine it into the accordian file or shred, whichever is appropriate. So that’s what I’m going to try next. We’ll see how it works. 🙂

  24. posted by Sara on

    I can totally relate to this. I LOVE to buy file folders (like seriously, my heart goes all a flutter when I see new designs at Office Max, that’s the kind of dork I am), but I’m TERRIBLE about actually using the folders. You gave great advice, and I’m loving exploring the blog.

  25. posted by Tom on

    I’m done with cabinets and folders and all that. After putting it off for years, I finally bought a ScanSnap. I scan everything to Evernote where it’s indexed and searchable. In the near future I’ll be able to get rid of a very large lateral file.

    I’ll still have a small drawer for a handful of items where I need originals (vehicle titles, deeds, etc.) but everything else is scanned and shredded.

  26. posted by cheesehead4ever on

    Y- I am intrigued by the idea of putting everything in binders. Right now we have about 3 portable filing boxes and we don’t have a filing cabinet (or really room for one). Plus the boxes we have are not easy to get access.

    Eventually I was thinking of getting a desk for our office with a built in file cabinet, but I am really liking the idea of binders. We just moved into a new smaller home so I will think about these solutions for awhile before I act.

    I was looking at the link about when to throw certain papers away. Would credit card statements fall into the 1 year category?

  27. posted by Emily on

    I too have eliminated much filing by way of online banking and billing – if you get as many bills as possible online, pay them online, and get your bank statements online, you can eliminate much of what you need to file.
    Every couple of months I save the statements to my hard drive as a pdf, and should I ever need an official copy, the bank is more than willing to print one (I had this happen and they did it.)
    I scan receipts, and have found that they are actually much more useful this way, as the ink on many of them fades very rapidly, making them useless after a few months.
    It seems to me as if society is becoming more paperless with each passing year – even most of the contracts my husband and I sign for our work are now done electronically and saved to the computer.
    Which is a good thing, because I hate filing. 🙂

  28. posted by Austen on

    Interesting thought, what would I need to have to file and have on hand by this time next year. One new tax return finished, one trashed from 4 years ago. Two ongoing insurance policies, two trashed. For me all else is clutter.

  29. posted by gypsy packer on

    Are these documents before or after paperless filing? The IRS now accepts scanned documents. Most docs can be scanned and backed up, with the exception of birth certs, etc which should be scanned in case the original is stolen or destroyed.
    I keep everything paperless except certain receipts. These can be photo’ed to a smartphone and then downloaded to their various folders.

  30. posted by Jay on

    For those who are concerned about the acceptability of a scanned version, please let me know how a print out from the scanned version is different from a photocopy. If you need to give the scanned version to someone who will not accept the scanned version, just print it out.

  31. posted by Daniel M. Wood on

    I am very much for creating systems that force you to get things done. That way it is hard to procrastinate on it.

    When you have a prioritized system that lets you know when you have done everything you need to do today you might as well get it done at once, because then you are done!

  32. posted by Natalie on

    Paper can overwhelm you, and it’s difficult to tell at first if certain papers are going to be important or not. For years it stressed me out. Here was my solution.
    It requires minimal maintenance and eliminates the guess work of “do i need this or not.” We’ve used it for over two years and I’ve loved it.

  33. posted by Christine on

    I solved this problem by buying a four drawer plastic storage cabinet at Lowes (about 1 by 1 by 4 feet high). I labeled the four drawers in a way that made sense to me (medical, taxes, receipts, other), but often I throw things to file in any old drawer. If I’m not sure if I need an item, in it goes. I know where everything is and have no clutter. Every 3-6 months I sit down, sort, and file away. It works great! And I prettied it up by draping a silk scarf over the side that shows.

  34. posted by TootsNYC on

    Especially when you hate a chore, you MUST make it easy to do it. Remove every barrier.

    I would ask the letter writer, “Do you have a really GOOD filing cabinet? One with full-extension drawers and solid glides?”

    if not, spend the money on it–it absolutely makes a huge difference. Don’t cheap out. You can get the lower-end at a true office-supply store but not a huge amount of money–but they MUST have full-extension drawers and solid glides.

    You want it to be almost no extra work at all to open the drawer the drop (yes, “drop,” not “stuff”) the paper into its spot.

    (so scanning, or punching holes for binders, may actually defeat the purpose, unless you genuinely like the “play with the hole punch.”)

    Then, get decent files (hanging ones are easy, easy to use; and you can put subfiles in them easily), and install them.

    Don’t get too granular with the categories. Don’t make it too hard to decide where stuff goes.

    And get a little ruthless about what you want to keep. Quarterly investment-account statements? You can toss them. Consider tossing utility bills.

    Then empty out the files now and then, so they’re never crowded. Once at year at tax time, maybe.

    Scanning would be bad for me, because it’s chore clutter.

  35. posted by Pairiegal on

    I LOVE organizing, but I hate filing because I never felt I had a good, efficient system. I spent a lot of time trying to come up with something great, and settled on a modified tickler system. I have one folder for each month and almost everything I touch that month goes in the monthly file. (Bills, receipts, pay stubs, misc stuff I’m not ready to throw out, and anything I’m not sure what to do with.) I end up keeping it all for a year. When the new month starts, I flip through last year’s file to make sure nothing is valuable, and usually shred it all. If I need to find something it is most certainly in one of the monthly files so I don’t have to look far to find it. I also have tax file for everything I need to file my taxes. Oh, and I get most of my bills electronically, so there isn’t even anything to file.

  36. posted by Melissa on

    I completely disagree about having a tray – I’m sure this is not the case for everyone, but for me this is an open invitation to pile things as high as physically possible – and then groan and get frustrated when they all topple to the floor. 😛

    Here is what has worked (enormously! perfectly! beautifully!) for me: I have three magazine files on top of my file cabinet (which is one of the low & long numbers, so a convenient height to set stuff on top of and easily access). They are labeled “Bills”, “To Shred”, and “To File”. Nearby I also have a trash can & paper recycle bin. On the wall nearby is a dry erase calendar and a cork board. When I bring in the mail, I do not allow myself to set it in a stack anywhere! I immediately go through the pile – bills go straight in the bills container, anything I know I don’t need but don’t want to toss in the trash because it has account #s, etc. goes in To Shred, and anything I know I must keep goes into To File (which is not much). Anything related to a specific day/time but is not a bill to be paid gets pinned on the corkboard and marked on the calendar (for instance, birthday party invite with directions & map). Junk mail obviously goes in trash or recycle bin as applicable.

    Every pay day, I pull out the Bills box and pay everything. In addition to the bills, I also keep a little container that has my checks, 2 pens, stamps, return address labels, and spare envelopes. After paying the bills, they go in my purse to drop off at the post office. The statements go into To Shred or To File. When the To File box gets a little full, I file everything. The magazine files work perfectly for me because they are super easy to drop stuff in, everything looks neat and clean on the side facing out, and it keeps the filing pile from growing to ridiculous proportions before I deal with it. (I hate filing too!)

  37. posted by Sarah on

    I got rid of filing cabinets and hanging files. SO annoying and difficult to use. I’ve now switched to binders, plus an inbox to sort through every few months or so to throw out or file (usually file – I’m pretty good at throwing stuff out as I go).

    You do need to be careful how much paper you throw out. If you need a security for clearance for work then you generally need to show physical proof such as original versions of utility bills or old rental leases going back 5 or 10 years or even longer.

    Finance files going back many years is also helpful if you have to go through a divorce settlement and there are differences in opinion in how much each person financially contributed over the years.

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