Like a wagon train making camp for the night, paper piles surround many of our desks. We justify those stacks by saying it helps us keep things at our fingertips … serves as a reminder of things that we still need to finish … keeps things close that we haven’t had a chance to really look at. But, admit it: Those dusty stacks in the back aren’t even in the running for your time anymore. You’ve moved on. Those piles are forgotten … destined to spend their lives on the back of your desk … until one day (in about 3 years) you give them a quick scan (or not) and toss them in the trash.
Filing. Remember this lost art? Done correctly, it’s an impressive organizational skill. And one that sets you up to save time. And, when someone asks for a document, rather than saying “yes, that’s here somewhere,” and shuffling crazily through various stacks, you can quickly reach into the right file and viola!
This type of organization is possible. I have proof.
My brother’s a banker. The first time I entered his office I was fascinated. Other than his computer and a couple personal decorative objects, his desk was completely clear, and so were all the surrounding flat surfaces (including the window ledges and floor). Not a paper, not a sticky note, not a file was in sight. Because he’s my brother, I naturally asked if he really had a job. He laughed, and admitted that he was organized, but since he handles customers’ private financial information it’s critical that nothing be visible to the next person who comes into his office.
Wow, I was impressed. I don’t remember these organizational habits in play when we were kids. His room was just as cluttered as mine. His school papers were just as messy as mine, weren’t they?
Even in the digital age, we all still deal with a lot of paper. And letting things stack up makes it harder to find them when we need to.
How can you make the transition from a system of piling to organized files? Here are tips including some from mindtools.com:
- Don’t save unnecessary papers. Skim the item when you get it and keep it ONLY if it’s relevant to your job. Learn to recognize unnecessary clutter.
- Don’t put all your papers in one basket. If the volume of paper reaching your desk is high, get out of the habit of putting it all in one spot. Create “to-do,” “to file” and “to read” baskets, suggests dummies.com. Make filling a habit and do it often.
- Consider retrieval first. Base your filing system on how you’ll use the documents. If you’re responsible for a monthly report that includes data from several client files, consider first putting the documents in one file … and then after your monthly report is complete, refile it into a more segmented archival file.
- Start with simple broad headings and be consistent in naming files. “Customers – 2012” is an example of a broad heading. If there are different types of customers, use different colored folders or labels within this heading. If this file grows to an unmanageable size, you can segment by pulling “red” folders and moving them to a more segmented category, e.g. “Customers – Retail – 2012”.
- Organize documents by date. Write a date at the top of the documents that go into your files.
- Store related documents together regardless of type. Rather than storing all presentations in a folder, put individual presentations with other documents related to that project or client.
- Separate completed work from ongoing work. If you must keep ongoing projects close at hand, set up a location with folders (possibly a stand), to keep all the information on each project together. Periodically, move the files you’re not working on to the completed area of your files.
- Don’t overfill folders. Instead segment them into subfolders of 5 or more documents.
- Create a “tickler” file. For some jobs, folders for each month or week or day make sense, enabling you to easily access what you need as the day comes closer.
- If physical space is limited, go digital. This is perfect for archiving. Use care in naming the documents so they’re easy to find on your computer.
- Don’t let the piles start accumulating again. Make a habit of going through this week’s stack every Friday. And do something with each document … even if it’s as simple as putting it into a “hold” folder.
- Straighten your desk. Start each morning with a clean desk by straightening before you leave each day.
It’s easy to let papers pile up. But searching for documents wastes time. Consider what’s in those stacks around your office and create a simple systematic way to organize papers … one that’s based on easy retrieval. Work hard to stick to your new system for a few weeks helps to make it a habit.