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Productivity / Office administration

Filing paperwork: What’s your style?

If you spend more than three minutes trying to find any document, you’re wasting valuable time and impeding your productivity. Paper will never leave our lives completely so you need to work out which system for filing paperwork works for you.

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I’ve developed a dead easy decision making tool for paper but what’s the best way to store and access paper well?

Get back to basics and implement a good system for filing paperwork.

Firstly, you need to choose a filing ‘style’. Select a method for filing paperwork that you feel most comfortable with. Or, if you like, use a combo of any of the following:

Piles

Pros of piles:

  • Low maintenance.
  • Works well for chunky paper, e.g. a project that involves books or bound documents.
  • Highly visual.
  • You’ll always look busy.
  • Can work well for work in progress as opposed to lesser used items.
  • Works beautifully with pigeon holes.

Cons:

  • You might not always be able to find things quickly or easily.
  • Most of your piles will contain ‘dead wood’ as you are unlikely to reassess the content regularly.
  • Piles on the floor can be a legitimate trip hazard.
  • Take up a lot of horizontal space.

I don’t consider piling to be the best method for filing paperwork, but if you must pile, use visual markers to segment information, such as blank sheets of coloured paper. Or turn chunks of paper at 90 degree angles, or segment with folders with larger labels on the edges, so you don’t have to unstack to recall the contents.

"Making sure you file regularly - you might manage it once a week or you might prefer to file on the fly."

Suspension files (filing cabinet)

Pros of using a filing cabinet:

  • Visually grouping categories is easy, simply align tabs. For example accounts on the left, marketing in the middle, clients on the right.
  • Information can be easily segmented within a file using manila folders, envelopes and plastic pockets.

Cons:

  • Higher set up costs.
  • Paper can be ‘lost’ between suspension files and slip to floor of filing cabinet.
  • Creating labels and tabs can be fiddly to maintain, even if you’re patient and dexterous.
  • You may be less inclined to keep the system in order when behind closed drawers!

I suggest you use a label maker or black texta to label directly onto plastic tabs instead of using paper inserts.

Want more articles like this? Check out the office administration section.

Lever arch files (ring binders)

Pros of lever arch files:

  • By punching a hole through documents, items stay securely in place and are less likely to be misfiled.
  • Files are easy to maintain and cheap to set up.
  • Great for keeping information in chronologic or numerical order
  • Thanks to a huge range of colours, lever arch files tend to have a sexier aesthetic and are well suited to those of us who are visual or creative.
  • They work well beautifully on bookcases or in smaller offices.

Cons:

  • Overloaded files can topple or be difficult to handle.
  • Paperwork can stay unfiled if you don’t like hole punching
  • Doesn’t suit spiral bound, fat or very heavy documents. However, if margins allow, you can remove spiral binding, trim or guillotine edge and punch holes.
  • Using plastic pockets can conceal tabbed dividers, so make sure you buy ‘extra wide’ tabbed indexes.

Decide if you want to use 2, 3 or 4 ring binders and adopt that format universally. Make sure you get yourself the relevant hole punch too.

Once you’ve decided your method for filing paperwork, it helps to define your informational structure by giving yourself a visual too, such as a filing map.

Start by creating a list of the file names you’ve generated. A simple list is sufficient, or take it one step further and create a table with key headings that you can reproduce as folders within email or digital filing.

A list or map will help you avoid relying on memory or creating duplicate files. A filing map provides valuable clarity.

If that sounds all too hard, at least label your files with a bold hand using thick texta or high contrast labels.

It’s a good idea to keep key categories simple and file names specific.

Next you need to commit to maintaining your system for filing paperwork. Making sure you file regularly – you might manage it once a week or you might prefer to file on the fly.

And purge regularly! Paper kept must satisfy two criteria. It must be current [eg, information that has not be superceded] and it must be relevant.

Of course, everyone has their own preferences for filing paperwork and there are many variations on these methods. What works best for you? I’d love to hear how you manage your paper.

Lissanne Oliver

is a Professional Organiser, Trainer, Author and TV presenter who helps organise people’s space. She is the best-selling author of "SORTED! the ultimate guide to organising your life - once and for all" (Hardie Grant Books).

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