Miscellaneous papers can wreak havoc with your filing system

Managing paper is often a reason I’m called in to help clients. They are usually frustrated by growing paper piles and, almost always, there is a Miscellaneous (MISC) file among the piles. The MISC file is like a junk drawer for a diverse set of papers they’re not sure how to process.

When files are labeled MISC, it’s difficult to figure out (and find) what is inside because the label is broad and encompasses several categories. This will ultimately slow you down when you need to retrieve information, and on days when things are hectic and particularly fast-paced, you can quickly get frustrated. So, why are MISC files created so often? Perhaps because it’s easier to put everything in one general file than making more complex decisions. Figuring out what to do takes time and some decision making, like what to keep and what to recycle/shred, what categories to use, and making room for new items.

To banish that catch-all file and make deciding what to do a little easier, follow these steps. Of course, not every system will work for everyone, but this three-step process will at least get you thinking about creating one that will work for you.

  1. Ask yourself a few questions. Before you decide where to put a specific piece of paper, decide if you actually need that piece of paper. Can you access it in some other way (internet, a digital scanned copy)? How long has it been since you last referred to that document? Does the responsibility of storing it still lie with you or does it now belong to someone else or another department?
  2. Determine the next action needed. Once you’ve decided which papers you need to keep, these papers will need a permanent living space (just like everything else in your home or office). Think about the next action that needs to be taken so that you can determine the paper’s category. Do you need to make a follow up call to a client? Pay a bill? Edit a manuscript? Then, you could have folders with the following labels:
    • Current bills
    • To call or Today’s tasks (or add client call to your to-do list instead)
    • Editing or the title of the manuscript

    The names you use will be particular to you and the typical documents you need to keep. Also, consider looking at your existing categories to see if you can find the right match for your papers (then you wouldn’t have to make a new folder or come up with a new category at all).

  3. Use easy-to-remember categories. Putting things in categories actually helps us to remember those items better. This means you’ll be more efficient at finding the files you want when they are grouped by a specific topic that makes sense to you. For instance, you might have a Utilities category in which you put the current telephone, gas, electric, and water bills. Or, a “Blogging” folder for articles that inspire your future posts.

You can really simplify the filing process by removing your MISC folder from your paper filing system. You’ll find that there really isn’t a need for a general file once you have determined the correct category for your papers. And, keep in mind, the less you print, the less you have to file and retrieve. When possible, use online bookmarking tools (like Delicious and Instapaper) and/or tag your documents and save them to your hard drive and/or cloud server so you can find them easily.

7 Comments for “Miscellaneous papers can wreak havoc with your filing system”

  1. posted by cassi on

    As with filing bookmarks and adding tags (in google bookmarks), I stop and ask myself what will come to mind when I need to find this in 6 months? For example it would not be the name of Steve Curry but the category of ‘electrician’ that I’d think of.

    I sill have issues with filing but I find if I concentrate on retrieval instead of filing, it does seem to make it easier. I don’t think there’s any perfect way.

  2. posted by DawnF on

    I would like to suggest that whichever method you choose for filing that you make sure your spouse/significant other understands the method (both in paper files and electronically). My sweet neighbor who lost her husband suddenly (who maintained the family finances) could not find anything and was completely lost when she had to try to locate documents and important papers.

    She could not even access the home computer (where the finances were handled) because she didn’t know the password. The whole situation was so sad and frustrating for her.

    So, once you find an organized, clear method for filing information make sure your spouse understands it and can find information if/when they need to.

    I look forward to reading comments regarding reader’s filing methods and how they handle the dreaded MISC file.

  3. posted by Sue on

    I used to work with someone who fell victim to the “misc.” category. Her preferred label was “Documents”. When I took over her projects, I found a huge range of items stuffed into her Documents folders, including things that she claimed she never received. Sometimes, I’d find more than one Documents folder because she had temporarily misplaced the original, so she created a second. I also found all sorts of things misfiled. What a mess! I ended up tearing the files apart and putting them back together, with appropriately-labeled folders.

    Her inbox was a graveyard for papers she didn’t know how to file or handle. So that was another “Misc.” folder.

    It really comes down to processing. If you aren’t making decisions, as suggested above, you end up with items that you aren’t sure what to do about.

  4. posted by Steve on

    I really enjoyed this article. However, I would love more information about cloud storage and digital storage. We are thinking of getting a document scanner to cut paper storage, but I don’t want cluttered documents on a computer or taking up precious space in a cloud storage solution.

    Any advice what needs to be kept in a household? After you pay a bill do you need to keep a copy of it? Should you keep electronic bank statements and credit card statements after you have balanced your accounts (my bank keeps them for 3 years already).

    I would also love to hear about ways to bring a husband and wife onto the same page like the previous poster, so that if one of us does fall ill the other can take over the filing, paying bills, and balancing the check book and credit card statements.

  5. posted by Pat on

    This was my big organizing summer. I haven’t been as diligent with filing in the past year and I promised myself I would clean out the old files and update all the labels. I was surprised how quickly it all happened (during one wash cycle of laundry). I also took photos of all my shoes and put the pictures on the outside of the boxes they are stored in (I’ve wanted to do that for YEARS). It looks fabulous and makes me happy every time I step into my closet. I also sorted out my handbags and kept only those that I use and sold the rest (ka-ching!) This Friday is my garage sale to unload some extra furniture and clothing also discovered in my organizing extravaganza. I am so tired of just ‘storing’ stuff and it is time it just went away. My house just breathed a sigh.

  6. posted by WilliamB on

    Steve – I keep my bank and credit card records forever.

    Banks keep records for only a few years, take forever to get you what you need, and charge you for the “service” of accessing your records for you. Furthermore, banks go out of business, merge with others, or get bought. Under all these circumstances records get lost.

    Further, what if you need something older than 3 years? I’ve had numerous instances where I benefitted from having older info. I used 6 year old credit card records to prove to a moving company that the thing they lost was worth 10 times what they estimated. I used 19 year old bank records to find an old address, needed to free several hundred dollars of retirement benefits from an old employer.

    It helps that bank and credit card info are so easy to organize (shove all of a year’s records into a shoe box, or scan and label by bank name and date).

  7. posted by David Wilson on

    I have managed to archive almost all my paperwork to my PC and file it there. It is such a space saver! There are still certain things that I need to have physical copies of though like birth certificates etc.

    For this, I have a basic file (like this: http://www.amazon.com/Smead-Fr.....words=file)&tag=unclutterer-20

    Then I use a labeling gun (like this: http://www.pricinggunsworld.com/monarch-1110.html) to add the tags.

    I use five or six tags and one of them is misc and I have another current. The current is used to file all the paperwork I have not yet addressed and the misc is for the stuff that doesn’t fit into another category.

    I’m not really sure where I would put the stuff in the misc file if I didn’t have it.

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