Whether your filing system has gotten away from you or it was never really under control to begin with, you can use our handy guide to beat it back into shape. Photo by juan23for.
Many people have a filing system that is largely accidentally. At some point they had more papers than they could store effectively on their desk so they started squirreling them away in cabinets, drawers, and so on. In other cases you inherit a filing system like with a new job and an office packed with paperwork.
What can you do to tame your file cabinet and make it a useful storage and reference tool instead of a paper orphanage? You need a filing system workflow. A filing system workflow is a road map for papers to follow as they navigate through your office. We can't provide an exact road map for you, but by answering some of the questions below and assessing your home and office needs you'll be able to construct and effective filing system workflow of your own.
Make an Assessment: What do you want from your filing system and what does your filing system need to provide? Whether looking at your personal file cabinet in your home office or a bank of cabinets in your traditional office, before you do anything with your file system you need to hammer out what exactly it is that you want from the system and why you're displeased with its current state enough to be reading a guide to beating it into shape.
- Can you easily find documents?
- Is file removal and replacement easy to do or do you have to force folders back in?
- Are files within cabinets you use most frequently current and immediately necessary and useful?
- Do you have adequate space for the files you need to have on hand?
Some issues are easily resolved. If your difficulty in finding documents is the handwritten labels left by the previous occupant of the office you can remedy that situation with a label maker and a free afternoon. Other issues will take a little more time to sort through, like having far too little storage space for the files at hand. Before you put in a purchase order for ten new file cabinets however, you'll need to something first.
Purge Your File Cabinet: You've looked over your cabinets and listed some reasons why you're not happy with them, but before you make any radical changes you need to dive in and ditch the dead weight. There are two kinds of file cabinet purges, in one phase you shred old and unnecessary files and in the other you move necessary but old files into deep storage—deep storage can be a separate file cabinet in the basement, the records room at your office, or any place that is away from your central office. What are candidates for the categories?
Candidates for Shredding:
- Utilities Bills - If you have a current bill in your hand and the information on it is correct, you can shred the old ones. Do you really need a cable bill from 2002?
- Pay Stubs from Prior Years - Once you receive W-2 or other official document from your employer at the end of the year, you can ditch the pay stubs.
- Bank and ATM receipts - When you see the amount appear on your online or paper statement, there is usually no pressing need to keep these annoying little pieces of paper.
- Credit Card Statements - You can shred these, like utility bills, once you have a new one with the correct balance on it. You may consider placing a credit card statement that has a large purchase on it like an HDTV in with the warranty information for that large purchase if your credit card has extra consumer protections that would help with replacing the larger purchase.
Candidates for Deep Storage:
- Tax Returns - The oft cited rule here is 7 years. Almost all audits occur within 3 years, but who are we to risk the ire of an agency with an 8 million dollar firearms budget?
- Bank Statements - Keep bank statements for at least 3 years, most people error on the side of caution and keep them for the same 7 year span they retain tax documents.
- Critical Personal Documents - Marriage licenses, birth certificates, and other difficult to replace documents should be kept in deep storage—preferably a waterproof and fireproof deep storage location.
- Retirement Saving Statements - Anything related to investments, contributions to an IRA, and so on should be kept indefinitely.
The above example list is in no way comprehensive but it gives you a starting point for considering the lifespan of your individual files. If you have a fairly simple tax situation you can find tons of reference lists online regarding how long you should keep various files. If you have any questions we highly recommend consulting with your accountant.
Create a Work Flow:Now you've assessed things that you would like to change about your file system—needs better labels, cabinets are poorly designed, etc.—and you've purged files to create some room in your cabinets. The creation of a file work flow will ensure that you're not sitting there in a year spending a weekend beating your file system back into shape. Your file work flow can take several shapes depending on the needs of your office and the size of the organization system you're wrangling, but for simplicities sake we're going to assume you're not the archivist for multinational corporation.
A common file workflow for a home office might look something like this:
Daily: Empty inbox and sort mail. File or shred new documents by end of day.
Monthly: As new bills come in, shred old statements. Once a month take a few minutes to read over the labels in your file cabinet and determine if any files can be shifted to deep storage. January is a critical month for being merciless about what goes to deep storage, lest you start the new year with the old year's clutter.
Quarterly: In addition to your monthly appraisal, look over your deep storage and see if any files there have outlived their usefulness.
Yearly: Once a year you'll be sifting through files for information related to taxes. This is an excellent time to be brutal in your weeding. Send old files to the shredder, cull out files related to projects that are defunct or no longer interesting. Any old bills, receipts, and so on that aren't directly related to your taxes and some how escaped your eye earlier in the year should be shredded.
Adhere to the Workflow:You don't lose weight by thinking about exercising and intending to eat better, and you don't get a tight and easy to control file system by intending to finally empty your inbox and get around to sorting through your files. If your file system is a wreck you're going to have to spend some time beating it into shape, labeling folders, and making decisions about what to shred and what to put into deep storage. Once you've got the file beating out of the way however, you'll simply need to follow the workflow you've set down for yourself and the documents and files will naturally find their way to where they belong and practically march themselves to the shredder when their time is up. Using a file workflow is a habit that rewards you with an easy to use filing system and a file cabinet that won't creak under the weight of useless files.
For more information about setting up a functional file system we'd recommend checking out a past feature Geek to Live: Extreme Makeover, Filing Cabinet Edition. Have a filing tip or two of your own? Let's hear about them in the comments.