How to Create an Organized Filing System

How to Create an Organized Filing System

 The test of a good filing system is being able to find something when you need it, regardless of how you choose to organize it. However, there are two basic approaches to setting up a filing system: 

Establish categories for like items by subject (e.g., Hobbies)

Establish an index based system with files identified numerically by item (e.g., File 1=Document 1) 

You can choose the method that makes the most intuitive sense to you.  People who have trouble categorizing may feel more comfortable with the indexing approach.  Regardless of which type of system you choose, if you feel overwhelmed about where to start, pick a group of papers in any pile.  It does not matter where you just need to start with a manageable subset of paper. 

Active files are those which you must access regularly.  Historic files are those that it is unlikely you will need to access, but which you must keep for record retention purposes (i.e., tax files).  Your inactive files should not be kept in your active file space, if file cabinet space is limited.  These files can be stored in boxes in an out of the way location (since you should not be accessing these files regularly).  To create your active files, follow the steps outlined below.

Organizing By Category

Step 1: Sort & Discard

Review your papers and discard any papers you no longer need to keep.  If you feel unsure about discarding an item, in order to make the decision easier, ask yourself what's the worst thing that could happen if you throw it away?  It helps to put things in perspective. 

When you decide to keep a paper, sort the paper into various categories/piles. Use post-it notes to label the top page of each pile until a permanent file location/category name is established later.   

Use categories that are broad for sorting.  For example, if you have lots of information on various leisure interests, you can create a hanging file called Leisure (vs. creating a hanging file for every type of leisure topic in your papers).  

If you have a major hobby such as photography, for which you collect a lot of information, create a separate hanging folder named Photography.  This makes more sense (so that the leisure file won't become too unwieldy). 

You can create multiple interior file folders that reside within the hanging file folder, each labeled with the category sub-topic.  This makes it easier to search by sub-topic.  For example, within the Leisure hanging file category you might have file folders for the sub-categories of Art, Music & Reading.

Step 2: Determine Quantity Files Needed   

Once you are finished sorting, count and double check the number of piles you have to keep.  The number of piles equals the number of hanging file folders you will need for your active files. You should buy a minimum of the same number of interior file folders to insert inside the hanging file folders (more if you will have some categories with multiple sub-topics). 

Step 3: Identifying/Labeling the Files 

Create a set of hanging file folders and associated interior file folder(s) for each pile and its sub-categories. 

In order to maintain the transition from active to historic status at the end of each year, the interior files should be labeled by subject and current year (e.g., Life Insurance 2009). This dating approach is best for those categories that involve monthly statements or bills.   

For your hanging folders that do contain dated material, it is best to keep static papers that dont change from year to year in front of the interior folders (e.g., the life insurance policy versus the quarterly invoices).  This will make it easy to transition files from active to historical status at year end.

Step 4: Estimate file cabinet size

Once you put the appropriate papers in the files, you can get a sense of how many file cabinet drawers you will need. Using a single Bankers Box (heavy corrugated storage box) to stand the files up to measure the inches in depth needed is very helpful.  These boxes are available at office supply stores, and also will serve later for inactive storage purposes).  

The total number of depth inches you have equates to the number of file
drawers you will need in the file cabinet.  Be sure to measure the depth of any file cabinet drawers you may be thinking of buying to ensure youll have enough space (allowing at least 4 inches in each drawers clearance for sliding & viewing files).

Maintaining the System Annually.

At the end of the year, transfer the past years interior files to inactive storage.  Keep the same hanging file folder in place, and create a new set of interior file folders labeled with the New Year.  Keep the static materials inside the hanging file folders from the past year. 

Suggested Category Headings

Credit Cards (Mastercard, Visa, Am Ex, Discover)
Frequent Flyer Program
Life Insurance
Renters or Home Insurance
Business insurance
Medical Insurance
Dental Insurance
Disability Insurance
Long Term Care Insurance
Finances (Stocks, Bonds, 401K)

Index Based Organizing 

Step 1: Discard & Pile

Review your papers and discard any papers you no longer need to keep.  For the papers you need to keep, sort your papers into a single pile (no need to categorize)

Step 2: Create the File Index.

For each one of these papers or related group of papers (if that relationship is very obvious to you), you will create a numerical file.  You will then record File #1s contents in an excel log (or other computerized tool) that describes the contents of the file.  For example, if I have a utility bill from March 2004, you would make the description March 2004 Utility Bill.  This file description will get assigned a random file number in a pre-identified location (i.e.,  File #1 in the office filing cabinet).  Should you ever need to find this bill again, you would do an Edit/Find search in Excel and enter March 2004 utility to find it.  The advantage of this approach is it does not rely on categorizing.  When your May 2004 bill arrives, you can assign a totally unrelated file # to it. 

You can create & record these indexes with Excel or Access by using their search capabilities.  There is also a software program called The Paper Tiger from The Hemphill Productivity Institute that is designed for this purpose, and it adds some nice bells and whistles (like tracking files that have been pulled out but not put back). There is a free trial offer and tele-class if you are interested (information can be found at their website 

The major disadvantage of the indexing approach is that you must maintain many more files in your storage unit, as well as the data base to track them. 

Other Filing Tips  

You should have action folders for bills to pay, things to do and pending matters.  This serves as a holding place for things you have not had time to get to that week, but that still require action on your part.  It is also helpful to have a calendar file to keep things needed for events already recorded in your calendar (e.g., directions to event, handouts, etc.) 

You can use color coded folders to visually identify subject categories 

You can alphabetize your file folders by hanging folder tab name, but if you use staggered file tabs, youll have to redo the order every time you add or delete a subject.  

Pendaflex, a leading manufacturer recommends that files should be no more than ¾ thick.  If you need a file with a greater thickness, you can use the box bottom hanging folders. 

Copyright 2004 The Organizing Wiz

Ilene works with residential clients who are typically "overwhelmed by their stuff" and who want to get and stay organized in their home or home offices. She is a member of the industry's leading resources for professional organizing: National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD)
Ilene has honed her organizing skills during 20 years working in corporate operations management. Her work was focused on redesigning & streamlining processes, as well as helping project teams to be more organized. Ilene has earned a certificate of study in chronic disorganization from the NSGCD and has a B.S. in Business Administration.
Ilene’s “How To” articles have been published by: My Organized, Online, Dan's Papers Weekly Hamptons News Magazine,Manhattan Chamber of Commerce "Business Matters", Professional Organizers,Only, Work-At-Home Mom
Ilene is an honored member of “Empire’s Who’s Who (2004-2005 edition)"The Organizing Wiz™ 201 East 87th Street #11G New York, NY 10128 Phone: 917-301-1981,FAX: 212-828-3663,