Options for organizing papers

Reader Vicki recently made the following comment on the post “Keeping things simple“:

I really appreciate reading about options and choices when it comes to organizing. I tend to feel a little suspicious when I read that a specific way of organizing or a specific organizing tool is necessary.

Vicki, I understand your concern. While there are some general principles that apply to most organizing situations (such as keeping similar items together), there are also many specific products and techniques for addressing almost any organizing challenge. The trick is to find the solutions that work best for you.

The following are some of the choices you have when it comes to organizing papers. While this isn’t a complete list — that would take more space than I have here — it should give you an idea of just how many options you have.

Organizing reference papers

If you’re going to keep a large number of reference papers, you’ll need to decide how to file them. The most common choices are binders and file folders. You might want to use binders for certain types of papers and file folders for the rest.

Your decision might be driven by the kind of space you have available: file cabinet space or bookshelf space. Or your choice might be based on the type of papers you have and how you use them. I’ve found binders work well when I have a large number of papers I want to quickly grab and take with me to a meeting or event. They also work well for information you want to share with others, such as a babysitter. Ease of use is a big factor, too. Which tool would make you most likely to keep up with your filing?

If you’re using binders, do you want to put papers into sheet protectors or would you rather hole-punch them? Alternatively, would you prefer a tool such as the Itoya Profolio, which has built-in sleeves for papers, but doesn’t have a way to move the pages around? It’s lighter weight and less bulky without the ring mechanism, but it’s also less flexible.

If you’re using folders, you may prefer to use a ready-made filing system, such as FreedomFiler. Or you may prefer to create your own files.

If you’re creating your own files, you have some choices to make. Do you want to use standard file folders, hanging file folders, or hanging folders combined with interior folders? The plastic tabs on hanging file folders annoy some people, but there are options such as Smead’s hanging files with built-in tabs. Again, you can use a combination of techniques. For example, I usually go with just a hanging file, but my client files are standard file folders kept inside box-bottom hanging files.

Another folder decision is whether or not to use color-coding. Having certain types of files in certain colors can provide a useful visual cue (and help you find a misplaced file), but this approach also means you need to ensure you never run out of the colors you are using. It’s a bit of complexity that will help some people and hinder others.

In some cases, you may not need either file folders or binders for your papers. You could use the approach suggested by LJ Earnest, where you put all financial and tax-related papers for a year in a single box, with no folders.

Organizing action files

Action files are those related to things you’re going to do in the near future. Papers filed here could include bills to pay, election materials to read through and a ballot to complete, birthday cards to mail, dry cleaning receipts for things you need to pick up, the scribbled notes about a call you need to return, etc.

If it helps you to have these files out in front of you, rather than buried in a file cabinet drawer, the most common tools are an incline file sorter (also called a step file) and a desktop file box. The desktop file is more transportable, if that’s a concern, but files aren’t quite as visible.

Another tool you may want to use is a tickler file: 43 folders (or sections in an expanding desk file) where you file papers by the date (in the current month) or month (for upcoming months) when you want to deal with them.

There are certainly other choices, too. For example, you might want a series of clipboards mounted on the wall, mailing envelopes on the back of a door, labeled baskets on a shelf, or hang-up bags on a desktop or wall-mounted rack.

9 Comments for “Options for organizing papers”

  1. posted by Sassy on

    I tend to switch up organizing systems once or twice a year — can’t help myself. But for things I want to save but need to get at easily, I often go back to my magazine holders — labels are easy to change and I will have one with each kid’s name on it; Medical; taxes; utilities; banking/accounting — those kind of divisions. If you have bookshelves, they can also be handing for keeping things like the scan snap and related documentation and cords; camera and cords; stationery; my big address book and the loose papers that have addresses I need to incorporate or update.

    The ultimate goal would be to get everything digital but the truth is that I feel better about having paper around for certain things — and being able to shred it or recycle it with no guilt (I have an awful time getting rid of digital files) gives me a lift.

    So many ways with paper.

  2. posted by Julie Bestry on

    For myself, I consider it all the “business of life” and treat everything like I do for business: file folders inside hanging folders, with personal papers in one file crate and business papers in a rolling file tower. My tickler file is for (almost) all of my to-dos. But, for some reason (and this is why you’re so right that it’s all about customizing for you), I prefer my to-be-paid bills to go not in the tickler file (as I’d teach my clients) but on a little financially-themed, easily accessible table where I keep my return address labels, extra envelopes and paper bills. I’ve no idea why I prefer the quirkiness of that separate financial system when I know and trust my tickler file for all other action items. But that’s why, as you said, it’s all about options!

  3. posted by betty on

    I’ve always thought backing a dumpster up to the back door might be a good place to start at my house

  4. posted by Christy King on

    I laughed aloud when I got to Betty’s comment. I’ve been there!

    What I’ve been doing is scanning reference papers. You’d be amazed at how many of them you decide you don’t need after all if faced with having to remove the staple, scan and name the document.

  5. posted by Leslie on

    I spent a few days going through 3 banker’s boxes packed to bursting with files that I’d been carting around. Once I pulled them all out and went through them one by one, I recycled more than 1/2, shredded 1/3 and the remaining were all scanned into pdf and filed digitally. There are some legal documents and health care related stuff that I kept hard copies of, but when I refer to them, I use the pdfs.

  6. posted by Fazal Majid on

    Scanning with a good document scanner like the ScanSnap, with OCR, is really the best way to go. I don’t miss all the suspended files I used to keep before going paperless about 10 years ago.

  7. posted by Kristen on

    Betty, when you’re done with the dumpster, send it my way!

  8. posted by liz on

    I am still a hard copy person. My file folders match the categories in my Quicken file. At year end, I pull the papers needed for the tax return, creating an audit file. Tax returns and supporting documents go into the multi-year tax box which has a “destroy by” date. The other folders go into a dated box. For example, I have boxes for 2012 and 2013. When I finish with the 2014 taxes, the papers in the 2012 box are shredded and the 2014 papers go into it.

    Since I am planning to do some renovation, I will develop another file to track the costs. These papers I’ll scan and keep a flash drive copy in the safety deposit box. And, I’ll have the insurance policy adjusted to reflect the new cost-basis.

  9. posted by Gypsy packer on

    I use an alarm set a week in advance of the due date for my bills. Set up electronic billing and payment so that monthly bills are deducted automatically.
    Everything else goes paperless, except for old Playgirl mags and certain receipts, held for warranty, when the retailer will not accept a scanned duplicate.

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