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Tame the Filing Monster

2010 June 25
tags: Getting Things Done, GTD
by Andrew   

effective filingWe all have to face it, and most of us dread it. Filing.

It isn’t fun, it takes too much time, you can’t remember where you filed something so you keep it all in one pile…most of us who have to keep files have used these excuses to avoid proper filing, but the monster can be tamed!

First, let’s look at two filing “systems” that won’t work at all for more than a few days:

  • A big pile on your desk
  • The following nightmare:
    • Color-coded folders first (red for urgent, blue for special projects, green for financial, purple for personnel, orange for sensitive, yellow for discussions with your boss, etc.)
    • Then, alphabetically by business category or major project within each color category
    • Then alphabetically by topic

The first won’t work because it’s too cluttered to be useful. The latter is nearly impossible to manage because there too many combinations of colors and categories or topics that overlap, and no efficient means of referencing across color or business categories exists unless you retain a professional file clerk. And, what happens when your file needs to cross more than one of each major organizing element? Chaos and frustration.

A much better solution was invented long ago and is strongly advocated by David Allen in GTD. File alphabetically.

  • Get a five-drawer filing cabinet.
  • Separate the drawers by A – F, G – L, M – R, S – W, and X – Z.
  • File everything alphabetically. Projects, clients who aren’t projects yet, ideas for projects, reference material, things you aren’t sure about yet (Someday/Maybe).You will be able to file things more quickly and more easily. Review the following diagram for how filing and actions interrelate. You’re much more likely to consistently use a purely alphabetical system because you’ve known how to use it since primary school, it is intuitive, it’s infinitely scalable, and it’s quick.

    For those of us who must use color codes (me included), I recommend getting an assortment of colored paper dots and affixing them to the end of the label tab on your folders. You can either remove it when the color is no longer applicable or stick a more relevant color on top of it. Voila! Instantly visible, less costly than colored folders, and you don’t have to completely swap folders to change the color category.

    One final recommendation: File it when you finish with it for the day. Saving all of the filing for the end of the day guarantees it won’t get done.  Try to avoid the habit of using an interim holding place such as a filing bin labeled “To Be Filed” unless you have someone who consistently helps you with filing.

  • I’ve also written a related article about managing your inbox.

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