Filing It and Finding It Again


By Odette Pollar,

How long has your "to file" pile been sitting there, calling out for attention? Are the items at the bottom old enough to be considered archives? Have you needed something that you could not put your hands on quickly? Setting up and maintaining your personal files is the cornerstone to getting organized. It is also the area where it is the most tempting to throw up your hands in frustration.

Common Filing Mistakes

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Creating a separate file for every type of document. This is the culprit when you have lots of files with only a few pieces of paper in each one.
  • Not remembering how you categorized something. Wondering, "Where would I have put that?"
  • Creating a perfectly good system but not keeping up with it. "It works when I use it."
  • Filing indefinitely. Having no provision for purging files is the equivalent of saying, "If it was good enough to file then, it is good enough to stay now."
  • Creating an overly complex system. A mini-Dewey Decimal System for the 30 files you keep in your immediate workspace is unnecessary

Your Personal Files

Information retrieval is a key component to peace of mind. Your filing system should be simple, easy and manageable. Consider your major areas of responsibility. Although you probably wear different hats, most jobs have an administrative element as well as a project component.

Start by creating working project files. They may be client or customer files—key projects, committees or contracts. If you are a recruiter, you may have a group of resume submittals and open requisitions. Your other main category will contain your ongoing operational files which deal with administrative activities. These can include budget, newsletters, travel, vendors, staff meetings. If you have a third component to your job, create a section for those as well. The goal is to have a few, hopefully not more than four broad areas. Each section represents a logical division and should contain a number of individual files.

Filing Principles

Principle 1: File papers in the broadest possible category. Thick files are easier to deal with than thin. Consolidate all related materials under the most general category that is practical.

Principle 2: Head files with a noun. To help make Principle #1 easier, find a key subject area and use that to label the file. Avoid labeling a file with a number, date or adjective. A more effective label than "How to negotiate contracts" is "contract negotiation."

Principle 3: After dividing files into broad areas, group each subject area together. Then alphabetize within each grouping. That will make retrieval smooth and easy.

Principle 4: File articles by the subject they discuss. When you tear out or copy interesting information, place that with related materials according to how you use it, not where you found it. A resource file items titled "articles" is not helpful.

Filing Tips

  • Avoid nonspecific file labels, such as "General," "Miscellaneous," "Overall Information" or "Pending." These are traps for loose paper.
  • Keep extra file folders close at hand. Create a new file as soon as you receive documents related to a new project.
  • Place the most recent document in the front of the file. This will save much searching time.
  • Resist the impulse to copy papers and place them in different files. Place papers in the category most likely to come to mind when you think of the subject.
  • Maintain your filing system. Keep it simple and remember to file regularly. Backlogs become procrastination traps. Purge files frequently of excess information, old notes and out of date items.
  • Do not bother to file every business card you receive, information you already have in another form, duplicates, or items other people simply insist you take.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.

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