How to Create a Flawless Filing System

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Imagine pulling out a drawer and flipping effortlessly to the desired
file within seconds. Only a fantasy? It doesn't have to be. Once you
have a working system in place, the filing cabinet of your dreams is
within your grasp.

  • Decide on a system of categorization and labeling. The best way to begin this is to sort the paper piles on your desk into groups; a pattern will soon emerge.

  • Name your file folders with nouns. Choose the ones that first pop into your mind when you need the material. If you think "Background Stuff" rather than "Research Materials," then use the more informal heading. You'll find the file more easily later on.

  • File papers promptly. If you absolutely can't take the time to file a paper immediately, at the very least scrawl a file name on it. This will speed up later sorting and filing.

  • Write the date (month and year) you start a file on its label. This tells you how long you've had it and makes it easier to purge later. If the file gets too fat, just open a second one with the same name but a new date, so you don't end up with overstuffed long-term files.

  • Locate important material quickly by color-coding certain file folders. This works best if you reserve two or three colors for specific file types: perhaps red for "Crisis Pending," green for "Travel Arrangements" and black for "Most Irritating Client." More than three colors become too difficult to remember, which defeats the purpose.

  • Keep your most frequently consulted files in your desk file drawers or in a rolling file holder that fits under the desk or close to it.

  • Devote part of your prime file-cabinet space to a tickler file--an accordion file with numbered daily and monthly slots. Use the daily slots to file date-related papers for the current month, and put longer-range material into the appropriate month's section. See 10 Set Up a Reminder System.

  • Purge your current files, vigorously and without mercy. Limit active files to two drawers. If you start eyeing a third drawer, consider it a sign that you need to go through the main two again and move more material to archives--or the trash can.

  • Establish a purging schedule for archived files. Put papers you are uncertain about discarding in a box and then choose a date for making a final, no-turning-back decision about them. Mark your calendar with the box's execution date. When that day arrives, give the contents one more look and then discard them.

Tips & Warnings

  • Store a few empty folders at the front of your most accessible file drawer so creating a new file is easy.
  • Store financial records from previous years in storage boxes labeled by the year. Check with the IRS and your firm's legal and accounting departments as to how long you need to keep these. When the time limit is up, feed the contents to the shredder.
  • Banish the concept of a miscellaneous file from your life. If something is worth putting in a file folder, it's worth putting in a folder that has a specific label.

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