Anatomy of a Filing Cabinet

Published Wednesday, January 26, 2011 4:35 PM

What's that you say? You want to file, but don't know where to begin? We have a comprehensive overview of what a well-executed filing system looks like to get you started.

The hallmark of an effective filing system is being able to easily retrieve what you need, when you need it. Filing systems generally fall into two broad categories: 1) working (or temporary) files and permanent (archival) files.

Temporary folders, which can reside either in a desktop file system, or in a nearby filing cabinet, include documents frequently in use such as:

  • Action items requiring immediate or regular decisions
  • Project items related to current tasks
  • Reading items intended for immediate consumption

Permanent files should be kept separate from working files, either in a separate filing cabinet or in archival cardboard boxes in storage. When a project is finished, or a document is complete and no longer needed (i.e. old taxes), it's time for permanent storage.

Keep in mind that not all completed projects or documents need to be saved indefinitely, so assess what you have, purge what's not needed and set up a retention schedule for documents you do keep, specifying how long each file should be stored.

Maintain the retention schedule separately from the archived files and synch it to your computer or paper calendar for a year-to-year review. Purging archival files after they've outlived their usefulness keeps your paperwork from growing into a mountain.

Love Your Labels

Good filing systems make effective use of labels. Be sure to use broad, generic headings that are meaningful to you and comprehensible to others if the filing system is shared. Think thick, not thin: files shouldn't be subdivided to the point where it's difficult to keep track of categories, (i.e. design your files to capture about two-inches of material, rather than say, two sheets of paper). Consider color coding your files if doing so makes sense to you.

The Art of Arrangement

Before labeling your files, decide on your organization strategy. Design your system, with headings and subheadings on paper, before you beginning labeling. Choices include:

  • Alphabetically: great for client or customer name files.
  • Subject: a good choice if you're using subfolders.
  • Numerically: excellent for dated material, such as purchase orders and bills.
  • Chronologically: a good solution for back-up files that need to be set up by month.
  • Tickler files: great for very detailed tasks, such as tracking bills, correspondence and reading materials. Set up tickler files by the day, month, and/or year.


To Cabinet or Not?

Not all filing systems need to be kept in a cabinet. Consider using a desk-top holder or wall file similar to a magazine rack to keep daily or to-do files close at hand. One idea is to keep a desk-top folder with files that contain all the general categories in your larger filing cabinet, so you can keep documents at your finger tips before moving them into their corresponding category at the ends of each week or month.

Not every item is easily filed so consider using boxes or bags to store unwieldy or oversized items. Cardboard or metal boxes can capture magazines or fabric samples, and keep tubes handy if you often need to store maps, prints or other oversized documents.

Finally, make it easy to add new files to your system. Keep labels and files on hand so you can quickly add a new file rather than starting a new pile!

How does your filing system work? If you make clever use of color-coding or unorthodox filing set-ups, please share your thoughts or photos with us here by leaving a comment!

by Carly Fadako


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