How to optimise your filing system

8 Conversations

Any type of business, from the single household through to the megaglobal group holdings, produces paper. Tons of it. Correspondence,invoices, quotes, press releases, reports, studies, orders,confirmations of orders, birthday faxes, telephone notes, file notes,the contents and types of these bits of paper is infinite.

The best way to deal with this avalanche of paper would be to hold a great bonfire every night and all stand round it drinking mulled wine and eating hot potatoes, to get in the mood for the paperless evening of television, food, cinema, football , knitting or other enjoyable pastimes.

But we are begrudged this wonderful tradition, because most of the papers need to be kept in a place where they can be referred to, and put away somewhere where they can be quickly retrieved.

The science - or art - of putting papers away and devising systems for it is probably one of the most underrated of today's society. As a working mother, I have probably put as much thought into the subject as I have into bringing up my children, all in all.

The philosophy of paperwork and filing is another subject in itself - and will only be touched on here.

Everyone who works in an office, shop or small business of any sort will have put some thought into how they organise their filing. Usually a newbie arrives and has to grapple with the office's filing status quo. Eventually (s)he has got into the swing of things, by which time all the idiosyncracies and anomalies are well-known, and any ideas as to how to improve it are undermined by the sheer effort of keeping the 'filing' basket down.

This entry does not pretend to offer the definitive answer to filing problems or to provide a single system which would suit everybody. But it hopes to pool and assimilate lots of tried and tested ideas to help others save time and energy and make the job of filing less of a drag.

If you are organised,..

.. you will save yourself time, and things (including desks) will automatically be tidy. Of course, we all know, it takes a genius to cope with chaos, but here is a lovely quote from Terry Pratchett's discworld book 'Jingo' to remind you what an untidy desk can become. This is not intended as a warning finger, just a little light relief:

(His) desk was becoming famous. Once there were piles, but they had slipped as piles do, forming this dense compacted layer that was now turning into something like peat. It was said there were plates and unfinished meals somewhere down there. No-one wanted to check. Some people said they'd heard movement.

Among the H2G2 Researchers there must be a gigantic potential and a wealth of ideas, based on a total of some centuries of experience, which can be pooled here for the benefit of others.

So please feel free to expand on the following, giving tried and tested tips and comments.

The Rules

A very first rule, which can be applied to so many things in life is:


For example: 'How can I best peel potatoes?'


Cook them in theirskins. It has the advantage of preserving the vitamins and the peel just falls off (if boiled) or you can spoon the contents out of the baked potato.

Or another example: 'How should I bring up my kids?'


Just be a good example, but most of all, make sure your partner is a reasonable, calm and sensible person with no skin, heart, teeth or asthma problems. The genes and environment will do the rest, and you have no hassle constantly telling them off and interfering with their personalities (at least, I was lucky enough for this to work for me).

And the first thing you should ask yourself when filing is

'Do I reallyneed to file this?'.

When in doubt, don't!

Wherever possible, roll out the shredder. This is where the piece of paper would have ended up in a year's time anyway, not having been looked at once in the meantime. It may not be a good idea to put your potatoes or your children through the shredder, though.

Throw it out

Far too much stuff is kept. In some cases this is legally necessary, but lotsof things are kept "in case we need it". (Academic offices are terrible for this). Here is a suggestion for a system which will keep work to a minimum and mean that your reference files are always up-to-date and not clogged up with old information, prices of three years ago, addresses which are no longer valid...:

  • Do your filing at least once a week and fill the recycling bin.

  • Sort e-mails every morning and delete the superfluous ones.

  • Go through the paper filing system twice a year and throw out anything not used since the last sort-out/in the last six months.

  • Apply this thoroughness to your personal papers. If you move around a lot,you will notice how much paper builds up in a short space of time!1

Little and often

Another rule which is hard to learn, but which can also be applied to life in general is: Do a little bit every day. In fact,with filing, you should do it all every day. Funnily enough, practice proves that it is best to do it first thing in the morning (while the computer is booting). If you put it off until the evening, you can't always take the time needed. This is illogical, as it would seem best to concentrate on getting the post off and doing the filing after the post has gone, but, honestly, in practice, it doesn't work.

Always keep a pencil ready

Never trust your memory. So many things can distract, like sudden phone calls(are there any other kind?) or a hitch in your computer which waylays you for half an hour. Write down your own thoughts and plans, write down what other people say or tell you to do. (Other people's thoughts are even harder to reconstruct at a later date). This doesn't exactly fit into the topic of "Filing", but experience has shown that it is invaluable advice at any time.

A filing system should be simple

The criteria are: Filing should be easy to sort, put away, and above all everybody should be able to do it, so that the work does not rest with one person. If you have a complicated system that only you can understand, then you can't expect colleagues to help you with it. Andwhat is worse, when you are ill, or away from the office, no one will be able to find anything. There is always a simpler, more obvious, way.

Everybody is responsible

If a file or letter can't be found, and you were the last or one of the last to have it, then it is your responsibility to look for it. No passing the buck. I fmany people are involved with the same filing system then some unwritten rules are indispensible - such as

  • Until proven otherwise, the missing file is on the desk of the person who had it last

  • Everyone should have a say in the organisation of the files, but one person should coordinate (This applies to most things in life, but sometimes there are just too many cooks)

  • Everyone should do their own filing, according to the rules agreed on by all

  • An accurate and up to date list should be kept of the way the system works

These are only examples, and are subject to variation, depending upon the size, requirements and pecking order in the office in general

Filing is always sorted by alphabet, then by date.

Learn the alphabet, or if you have trouble, hang one up on the wall.This is no joke. Misplacing a file can cause a lot of time-wasting and cross words. (see below)

The top sheet of paper is the most recent. The rest workchronologically backwards

Files, trays, boxes and drawers of filing cabinets should be clearly marked

Preferably using a uniform system. It is more pleasing to work in a tidy office and visitors will immediately have the impression that they are dealing with well organised and competent partners.

It can be great fun spending a quiet afternoon at your computer designing a system for labelling the spines of your files, and then printing out lots of uniform stickers. You can then dance round the office, sticking the new labels over the old ones and the office looks better in minutes. Persuade the boss you need lots of new stuff and order some new matching files or labels. (S)He may begrudge the allowance at first, but (s)he won't be able to stop making a favourable comment that 'It's much better than that hotch potch of scribbled labels, or haphazard computer printouts with higgeldy-piggeldy stickers, that weused to have in here.'

There is no such thing as 'miscellaneous'

This gets misused by people who don't know the system and correspondence can get slipped into files called 'Miscellaneous' when it has a perfectly good home somewhere else, and where, of course, it will disappear into oblivion.

Double check before you put the file back

That is, intentionally, a bit exaggerated, but it is vital that nothing gets put in the wrong place. If you're in a hurry, or the phone rings, keep the file in your hand until you are sure that you can pay full attention to putting it back in the right place. If a file 'Smith and Co' accidentally gets put among the 'T's it might never be found again. And worse still, if this happens more often, you will have up to four files for the same subject because new ones keep getting started when the existing one isn't immediately to hand in its proper place.

Align papers neatly

There are a few people who are really anal about the papers being in line, squared up and punched in exactly the same place, so be careful when punching and filing, to avoid incurring their wrath. It's not asking a lot, and it saves a lotof aggro. If you don't like these people, you can annoy them some other way, like putting salt in their coffee.

Catalogue files which contain collections of information

This would apply, for example, to a collection of suppliers' brochures or a chronological file of events, such as seminars or trade fairs.

A hand-written list at the front of the file is sufficient.

Or: The contents can also be kept up to date in a computer file to which everybody has access. This could even be coupled with a database for printing out orders (if we are talking here about a list of suppliers in a not too large company), using the mail merge function. The workings of this may have to be explained to some colleagues, so have patience with them.

In smaller offices which are not networked or not to be persuaded to work with one, the list can also be stored on a floppy which is kept in the front of the file, for each person to update, print or download as necessary.

Always keep your hands well moisturised

Heavy files with smooth sides slip easily out of dry fingers, especially of a smaller (woman's) hand.

Paper is lethal!

Beware, when sorting fresh papers, of paper cuts.There may be a way to avoid them, but they usually occur when you aren't expecting them. Banging the paper on the desk before handling it may soften the edges. Usually paper that is to be filed has been handled a couple of times already, and is 'mostly harmless'

Listen to newcomers

Someone seeing your filing system for the first time may have some constructive criticism to make, based on their experience at previous jobs. We can all learn from each other. Your first reaction will be -"But we do it like this because.....". Is that really the reason? Is it still applicable? Do you just do it like that because the boss wants it that way? When does the boss ever use the files - who is doing the filing around here, anyway?


The other end of the filing system is finding things once they have been put away. If you have kept to all the rules above, anyone should be able to walk into your office and find anything almost immediately. However, Murphy has two laws about this:

  • When looking for something you won't find it, but you will find whatever it was you were looking for in your last fruitless search.

  • If you are really determined to find it this time, you will find it the third time you look in the place you first looked. (Murphy has lots of little leprechaun friends helping him here!)

What to do with all those 'pending' bits

Never pick up a piece of paper more often than necessary.

As often as possible, deal with it immediately, and file it away.

The next best thing

Sort your filing while you still have it in your hand

Try and avoid using a general 'filing' tray - slip the sheets straight into a divided folder with alphabetical compartments. This means you don't have to stand up and walk over to the file every time you take a piece of paper in your hand, but it speeds up the job when you do get round to it, and makes retrieving things much more speedy in the meantime. But...

Careful with those sorting trays

It may look organised to have everything sorted into little trays but this is not an entirely reliable system. They can easily get messy and, if too full, will topple and tilt. Also they somehow seem to hide what you are looking for - see 'Murphy's Law' above. Should you befriend this system, and have room on your desk for it, here are some suggestions, perhaps not to be taken too seriously!

  • Read and Throw away
  • Throw away later
  • Notes for use of Computer
  • stationery for ready use
  • Useful stuff
  • Useless stuff
  • Really useless stuff, but let's keep it
  • think about keeping

A working copy is often a good idea

If your boss tends to misplace things (which (s)he will then blame on you, and don't we know it), or maybe you don't trust yourself not to lose/misplace things, make a copy of all incoming post - hand out the copies and put the originals straight in the files. (You will often have the file out anyway to provide relevant information to the incoming letter to remind the colleague of what went on before). If someone makes notes on the copy which will be needed later, this can always be filed, too, but more often than not, the copy can be thrown away, saving you a later trip to the filing cabinet, with the constant uncertainty in betweentimes as to the whereabouts of that particular piece of paper.

The same can be applied to outgoing post. If collecting signatures is a difficult task, or if you have a post room which takes a day to send the copies back, take a copy of outgoing post before it is signed and file this, at least until the signed copy of the letter comes back. If you file your copies without signatures anyway, then it is still a good rule to file the copy as soon as the letter is ready to go out.

Never try and keep things in your head

Start clearly marked folders and files which show exactly what is happening to each piece of paper - even if it only says "Waiting for phone call" or "Waiting for enclosure" Stick post-it notes (on outgoing letters) or make a note on the paper itself (see below), to state exactly what is happening - with the date! For example "Miss Peters will call back with prices for 100 items" or "Formal quote is being bound". Prepare address labels and keep everything together in an open-sided , transparent plastic folder.

Try and make more use of your "brought forward" folder, but this is not ideal for things which are expected "sometime" but not on a certaindate, e.g. a letter/fax/e-mail you have written and are expecting areply to.

Oh - and never jot down a telephone number without writing whose it is beside it. By next week it will have become a useless bit of paper to you, and at no timewill it be of use to anyone else.

Always prepare as if you are going to be run over by a bus on the way home, so that your colleagues can pick up the threads.

To apply this rule to filing: If you are planning to open a new file,do so as soon as possible, in the meantime, collect the papers for it in a folder, clearly marked.

Make notes directly on the paper itself

My last boss stuck post-its on everything. This is entirely unnecessary, unless it is an important legal document, or is something which has yet to leave the building.

Write directly onto the paper itself. You have no "post-it" to lose, which may well happen with all the shuffling ofpapers that goes on all day, and it is always clear to what the note refers. Always date these jottings, so that the order in which things happened can be reconstructed. And the money you save on "post-its" ... well, that may not be an argument.

Some offices already practise this, otherwise, you can try introducing it for yourself: Initial everything you read, and mark it with the date. This can save a lot of arguments at a later date! Others might tag on and start doing this, too. This may not be directly a method of filing, but you can this way, check that everyone that should have done has seen it before it is put away for good.

Equally, if, for example, copies are required, or another note is made on the paper, such as 'please correct this address in the database' or 'request further info', mark it 'done' with your initials and the date. This will save work, as the next person to see it might do the same job again if it is not clear who was supposed to do it in the first place.

Paper clips are for getting dirt out of your shoes

Do not use paper clips for holding papers together. They come off, or they cling like mad and gather all other papers into their little bundles and run off with that Very Important Fax that just came in, caught up in between the lists you made while collecting for the tea lady's birthday. Staple everything together - if needs be, with the stapler set at 'open' for easier dismantling. Documents which shouldn't be stapled can be held together reliably in those wonderful transparent plastic folders which are open at the top and side.

(Further suggestions for alternative uses for paper clips can be posted at the bottom of this entry!)

Some handling tips

It is surprising how often you see people doing things like: Punching a single sheet from a pile in front of them. Straighten the lot and punch them all at once! This is the first job you should do anyway when you set to to sort your filing.

I have also seen someone sort papers into an alphabetical folder in such acomplicated way, I couldn't believe it. And just as she was holding a lecture on"working rationally"! She had the folder in front of her, with its opening to the right. The papers she was sorting were on the left of the folder, so she had toreach over the folder every time to take the next sheet. I rest my case.

Write messages on full size paper

Fussy little telephone notes or carbon copies of compliments slips are a bind to file, because you can't just punch them in a bunch with the larger sheets of paper. They are a fiddle and take time to deal with.

Write all telephone or other messages on a full sheet of A4 or foolscap,whichever is to hand.

The recipient will be grateful for a sheet to make notes on when (s)he deals with the telephone message. And if it's worth keeping, it will be easer to file later on.

Writing messages - to yourself or anyone else

Write it down as if an idiot was going to read it in a few months knowing nothing of what happened at the time i.e. you might have to read it yourself in a couple of months.

The Marketing Department - Don't Panic

In Sales and Accounts you can file by customer in alphabetical order. In HR you can file by employee name. In Purchasing you can file by supplier. But when you get to the Marketing Department you throw your hands up in despair and spontaneously decide to make 52 files with "Miscellaneous" on them and hope for the best.

Slow down, it's not that bad.

Different Companies expect their marketing departments to do different things. So you may have sections like "Sales Figures", "Directives toSales Staff", "Trade Fairs", "Advertising", "Press Releases","Boilerplates", "Articles published", "Staff Outings". In this department you often have to deal with things that don't fit into thenormal book files.

Trade Fairs produce lots of paper, and in the last weeks up to the Fair a great deal of correspondence on thousands of subjects is going back and forth - you might find it best to keep these in open folders in your desk drawer as you daily add things or refer to the literature. Or you can keep a book file as well, subdivided into all the tiny little subdivisions - from serviettes to microphones,booth decoration, advertising, press conferences, invitations to important customers to hotel bookings and the booth duty roster - which is a useful reference book for the same trade fair the following year.

Hanging folders are also ideal for keeping infos about trade journals. You often only have one sample copy of each journal, and various circular letters sent out by the publishers, plus info about the odd advert you have placed there. Media Data are also always a funny shape and size. These can be sorted into an open folder, and the old ones thrown out as the new ones come in.

And so on. Divide up your jobs and the different tasks you do clearly into sections in your mind and a filing system will eventually evolve.Colour coding and good clear marking of files, folders, trays and shelves will simplify it. In fact, it will probably look so exciting in the end, everybody will want to work in the Marketing Department!

The Hardware

Nowadays there is such a variety of equipment, from designer ware down to cheap plastic or cardboard ranges.


It is worth investing in a better quality brand, especially if you are using files which will be opened and shut several times a day. Files which hold lots of paper (and paper is heavy!) will soon show wear and tear if they are shoddily made. Which will, in its turn give the office an untidy look, which will lead to a sloppy attitude to work, which will lower the morale of the rest of the staff and lead to a dissatisfied and uncomfortable working atmosphere, causing depression and eventually disputes. Bosses beware of cheap filing stationery!!


Always order at least twice as many files as you need. You will need more than you think anyway, and this way newly opened files will always match the existing ones.

Types of files available

There are the usual book style 'lever arch' files. These are the most common, andeasy to mark, by setting up a template in your word processing system and always using this for printing the spine labels. Use labels that cover the whole length of the spine (looks neater) and order them by the sheet - you can print three at a time on those. Use Dividers judiciously within these files. Is it more sensible to use a standard alphabetical index, for example, or would it be more sensible and suitable to use individually marked dividers? Colour coding could also be put to use here - for example Suppliers could be divided into the types of material they supply, then alphabetically.

The box file was old-fashioned when I was learning secretarial duties in the early 70s, but the same system would apply If you do use these for awkard-shaped documents, such as drawings or legal documents. It is literally a box, which can be stored flat or upright, with a clip in it to keep the papers in the right order.

A system of hanging folders infiling cabinets is used for most purposes; this has theadvantage that you can take out the folder with everything pertaining to that customer without upsetting the rest of the system. These should be kept strictly in alphabetical order - they are the most notorious kind for getting lost - and should not be too bulky.

Note for subed: please credit Wandrin Star (U96784) and Feisor (U38014)whose suggestions I have incorporated into the entry.

1You are allowed to keep a few things of sentimental value - but, come on, admit it, these are more fun to look through if you can find things thanks to a good filing system, even shoe boxes (personalise them by covering in gift wrap) count as a 'filing system' here! BUT: Be careful about discarding personal stuff at home - what may be useless to you a tthe time maybe a goldmine to anyone doing family research in the future. And remember to label photosfully - "Mary and I at Joe's birthday" won't help you 20 years down the track - or your ancestors later on. (We should learn from our parents and grandparents' mistakes here)

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