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.