The Art of Filing

Managing Your Documents... and Your Time

Filing is an important skill!

© iStockphoto/sdlocal

Have you ever kept a client or your boss waiting on the phone while you've searched the piles of papers on your desk for an important document? If you have, then your boss and your client may not have a good opinion of you, because in a key encounter, you've let them down.

And if it's your job to help people, how much of other people's time are you wasting if you can't find the documents and papers you need, when you need them?

You owe it to yourself to file effectively, however boring this may seem. Imagine how much more impressive it would have been if – when asked – you'd smiled, accessed a well-organized filing system, immediately found the document, and quickly given the answer!

Managing Time

Even in the age of email and the Internet, we still deal with many paper documents and files. There's a flurry of data pouring in from all directions that we need to process and, usually, store to retrieve later. We want to be able to lay our hands on the information we need – at the right moment, when we need it – so it can be used for further analysis or report writing, or perhaps for creating a presentation.

All too often, though, we waste our own time (and often the time of other people) searching for data that's actually sitting somewhere on our desk or in an office filing cabinet. This adds to our stress, and makes the task of putting the data to use more difficult than it ought to be. So we need to get more organized and efficient with our file management if we're going to get our work done in a timely manner.

Managing Information Efficiently

When you receive a document from a co-worker, vendor, or customer, it's tempting to "just put it away" in a pile on your desk or drawer for the time being. "Hmm. looks interesting, but I'll take a closer look at this later, when I've got more time." Sound familiar? After a while, many such documents build up, leading to a lot of clutter. It's highly unlikely that you'll ever find time to go back and get all of that information organized, especially considering that you're usually under pressure with other things.

You can spend hours of precious time searching for documents that you've filed away somewhere, because it's easy to forget where you put it – or even to forget that you have the document in the first place. So how can you go about simplifying your work? Get better at managing files.

Effective File Management

Effective filing boils down to this: store the information in folders – by category, and in a sequence that makes sense to you.

Here are some tips to help manage your files:

  • Avoid saving unnecessary documents – Don't make a habit of saving everything that finds its way to you. Take a few seconds to glance through the content, and save a file only if it's relevant to your work activity. Having too many unnecessary documents adds to clutter and makes it harder to find things in the future. Be selective about what you keep!
  • Follow a consistent method for naming your files and folders – For instance, divide a main folder into subfolders for customers, vendors, and co-workers. Give shortened names to identify what or whom the folders relate to. What's more, you can even give a different appearance or look to different categories of folders – this can make it easy to tell them apart at first glance.
  • Store related documents together, whatever their type – For example, store reports, letters, presentation notes, spreadsheets, and graphics related to a particular project in a single folder – rather than having one folder for presentations for all projects, another folder for spreadsheets for all projects, and so forth. This way, it's much quicker to find documents for a particular project.
  • Separate ongoing work from completed work – Some people prefer to keep current or ongoing work on their desk until a job is completed. Then, once it's done, they move it to the appropriate location, where files of the same category are stored. At periodic intervals (for example, weekly or every two weeks), move files you're no longer working on to the folders where your completed work is stored.
  • Avoid overfilling folders – If you have a large number of files in one folder, or a large number of subfolders in a main folder, break them into smaller groups (subfolders or sub-subfolders). For instance, you can divide a folder called "Business Plan" into subfolders called "BP2008," "BP2009," and "BP2010." Likewise, you can divide a folder for a client named Delta Traders into subfolders named "Delta Traders sales presentations" and "Delta Traders contracts." The idea is to place every file into a logical folder or subfolder, rather than have one huge list of files.

    Having said this, there is usually little point in creating a folder for fewer than about five documents.

  • Make digital copies of paper documents with a scanner – This is useful if you don't have much space to store paper documents, or if you want to archive documents without destroying them completely. (This won't be appropriate for all types of documents, for example, with legal contracts or documents with original signatures. So use your best judgment here.)

Prioritizing Your Files for Action

Take these approaches further by customizing your file management. This can help you prioritize your work, which can lead to better efficiency.

  • Organize documents by dates – Write a date on the document. This will help you organize your documents into date-order, without having to open the folder and read through all documents.
  • Use "Tickler" files – Tickler files, also known as the "43 folders" method, are a unique system that's used by many people for organizing files. Create 12 folders (one for each month of the year) and an additional 31 subfolders (for each day of the month). Fill each folder with the documents that you need to work with on that day. At the beginning of each day, open the folder for that day. Take all the items out of the folder and move them into a "today" folder or onto your desktop. Then move the empty folder into the corresponding slot for the next month. If you can't complete some work items by the end of the day, transfer them to the folder for the next convenient day. This system of file management helps you keep track of everything you need to do, and it also doubles as a diary.


For any system to be useful and effective, it must also be convenient for you. To some extent, this depends on the nature of your business or the work that you do. So, although there's no "one size fits all" solution to file management, you will likely profit by using some of these file management tips, and by customizing them in a way that best serves your own needs.

Key Points

Are you losing too much time searching through the clutter on your desk for files that you need? And when you're under pressure, can you retrieve information quickly and easily?

Spending precious time looking for documents can take the pleasure out of any kind of creative work you might be doing – and it adds to your stress levels as well. Simple good file management habits can hugely simplify your working life!

Apply This to Your Life

We know this is boring, but you know you need to do it!

Clear an hour in your schedule somewhere in the next week, and set your filing system up!

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Comments (24)
  • Yolande wrote This week
    Being well organized when you're busy makes a big difference.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Shanay wrote This week
    These key points in this article are greatly applied to my busy schedule
  • enlighten79 wrote This month
    Thank you for this article. I love to be very organized and self disciplined and am sure this article will help me...:-).. I am planning to implement different techniques and see what suits the best for me.
  • Donald wrote This month
    The key points in this article would be greatly applied to my busy schedule
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    JamieJay, Affinity diagrams is a good approach, in my opinion and the decision on new or expanding is an interesting one. Filing needs to be quick and obvious with the stuff you need often close to hand and the reference stuff referenced. I typically use a grouping like I have a current customers drawer in my desk - then simply A-Z the contents with every account having its own file.

    My approach in your case would be to find a way of integrating the existing into a simpler more relevant index , location or order. Good luck - What advice do others have?
  • JamieJay wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    Having skim read this very useful article, I have one question that I hope some of you may be able to answer. The question is with regard to setting up a new filing system, and/ or expanding an existing filing system.

    I thought about how to approach setting up a new filing system, and/ or expanding an existing one, and felt that it may be appropriate to apply an 'Affinity Diagram' process to establish the names of the different files and folders within.
    It would be very interesting and appreciated to hear your thoughts on the above approach.

    Many thanks.
  • SDorotic wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All,

    Thanks for the useful tips. I work for a design company and I need to find a way/ system to label and file our binders.

    Is there a program that I can use to auto generate a number for each file?
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Vadenoire, tks for the great tip, finding things in seconds is always an elusive goal for me!.
  • vadenoire wrote Over a month ago
    You can use automated document managment system or modern windows explorer.

    I use the following system. Two folders "INBOX" and "OUTBOX". Every file in each box starts with YYYYMMDD for the dates of receiving and issuing respectively. Then the number (it could be the same for the connected docs). Then the name of issuer or reciever respectively and then the brief content.

    It takes seconds to find what you want.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    I have a Sony Ericsson phone and I sync it with my computer and I believe that there are many different phones on the market that also act like PDAs with email functionality.

    I'd be lost without mine!! Very glad I finally figured how to use it and sync it because it saves me carrying around a separate PDA or diary.

    Perhaps I'm being stubborn and refusing to 'get with the times', however, the one thing I do not sync is emails (have avoided getting a blackberry!!), nor do I use the send/receive email functionality on the phone ... I actually do want a break at times from my emails!!

    Anyone else find it someone annoying to be out, say for a coffee with a friend, and they are sending / receiving emails - be that work related or personal?

Show all comments

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