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Start Your New Year With a Workable Filing System

a man using a workable filing system

While making a workable file system may not be top of your list of fun things to do, you will thank yourself over and over throughout the year for having made the effort.

A workable file system will make you more productive.

Having that workable file system in place will expedite clearing your desk and greatly reduce the amount of time you spend looking for documents. For the purpose of this article, I am focusing on the basic file system for papers that are needed most frequently.

Analyze the current problem

If you have a file system now but it is just not working for you, take some time to figure out why it is not working. Does your current system have:

  • Too many categories
  • Vague inconsistent file labels
  • Overfull and never purged material
  • A location that is not at your fingertips

If your system is not working or if you don’t have a file system at all, your papers are probably scattered about in your work area and even beyond.

8 Steps to follow

Gather all papers in one spot:

right now just put them all in one big stack or container.

Gather materials you need to put the workable file system together:

for example – trash/recycle containers, a shred box, a labeler or pen, tabs, hanging files, and interior files.

Sort through the papers and stack them by categories.

Your categories will be determined by what you have. Common global categories are financial, medical, pets, work, house, car, insurance, and tax. You may also come across projects you are working on that are not ready for a file. Put these aside for another day.

Eliminate all old stuff that you no longer need:

put old papers into the trash/recycle container or a shred box.

Subdivide your large categories.

For example, your financial paperwork may be divided by banks, credit cards, and investments. Your insurance papers may be divided by type like car, house, life, or long-term health. Investment paperwork might be pulled and put into notebooks or files that are not at your fingertips as they are not as active.

Set up and label your new hanging files.

Some people like to color code their files and if this makes it easier for you to quickly locate files, go for it. If you decide to use color coding, make sure you have extra files in each color, so you don’t get stuck with your filing if you run out of a color. When putting on labels it is easier to find and read the labels if you put them all on one side of the file in a straight line rather than zig-zagging them.

Set up interior files with manila folders.

I prefer folders with large center tabs for easy to see labeling.

Put your files in your filing container.

This might be a filing cabinet, a desk drawer, or a container. Have whatever you chose close to your working area so it is easy to file paperwork as it hits your desk. Your workable file system will stop working if you make it difficult to reach.

Make it work for you

When putting your files into the container there are several ways to go about it. To make this a workable file system for you, your system must make sense to you. When clients ask me, “Where should I file this?” I answer them by asking, “Where would you look for it?”.

The files should make it easy for you to file and easy for you to find. Some people like to use an alphabetical system. Others file by categories with all related files together. Or it can be a combination – a category like insurance where the subfiles are alphabetized. I have a file section that is about my home. In that section I have files with big repairs, landscaping, maintenance contracts, and utilities.

It’s worth the effort

Setting up these files into a workable file system can seem like an overwhelming project. Break down the tasks and work at your own pace. Put on some music. Get help if necessary. But stick with it. You will be so glad that you did. Spending this time now will save you time and time again throughout the upcoming year.

If you recognize that you are struggling with setting up a file system or want some help or accountability in developing and working your organizational home maintenance plan or other projects, join Diane Quintana and me in our Clear Space for You virtual support group.

Jonda S. Beattie, Professional Organizer owner of Time Space Organization, and co-owner of Release, Repurpose, Reorganize. She is based in the Metro-Atlanta area. As presenter, author of four books as well as a retired special education teacher she uses her listening skills, problem solving skills, knowledge of different learning techniques, ADHD specialty, and paper management skills to help clients.



  • Seana+Turner says:

    Getting paperwork in order really makes me feel like a superhero. Love this!

  • I love creating filing systems! For those that don’t enjoy it, your explanation for how to create one is super clear and friendly. People get overwhelmed with paper and can create an overly complicated filing system. But that’s not necessary. Having some basic categories, as you suggested, makes filing and retrieving important documents easier.

    I like the question you ask your clients when they say, “Where should I file this?” You turn it back to them to identify how they categorize and think about a particular paper or category. The filing system will be most effective if created from the client’s perspective…as in, how they think. I also like that you suggest setting the file tabs in a straight line instead of a zig-zag pattern. I’m sure this is a personal preference, but I find it easier to read and locate files. Plus, it’s more visually pleasing to my eye.

  • I have been working on setting up some client’s files recently and it is so important that it works for them. Do they file car information under “car”, “Volvo”, or the “Blue Unicorn”? Doesn’t matter as long as they are consistent.
    I was resistant to putting my tabs in a straight line for a long while but once I did it, I never turned back. I suggest it to my clients but don’t push it.

  • Great tips! I have two different filing systems, one for personal and one for business. Keeping personal and business paperwork separately will help you immensely when you need them for your tax return.

  • Julie+Bestry says:

    Well, given that I’m Paper Doll, you knew I’d love this discussion. I’m glad you made the point about moving papers related to projects to handle later. I’m a big proponent of separating reference files from action files, and ongoing projects are definitely more action-oriented than reference.

    You did a great job breaking down the steps, and I especially appreciate that you focus on filing something where you’d look for it. Access is key, because what good is filing if you can’t find it again? So why not making the place you file it make sense to you?

  • Lisa Gessert says:

    Great step by step!! I am a paper person working with people in their offices all the time..thank you for a clear a direct way to be filing!! Paper is my number one client, it’s something that comes into our homes and offices everyday!

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