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:
- 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.
- 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.
- For papers you’re keeping, do you prefer binders or file folders — or some combination thereof?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.