For many people, filing is one of their biggest information-management challenges.
Common filing challenges - do any of these sound familiar?
• You can't remember where you put something, even though it seemed wonderfully logical at the time!
• When you remember to use your system it works well, but you lack consistency. Some days the filing is done, but more often there's a pile waiting for attention. (One client proudly showed me his 'To be filed' pile - all 6 months' worth, and about 60cm deep! No wonder his boss thought he needed a 'Getting a grip on the paper war' course.)
• You've gone into great depth with your headings. Outcome? You've got too many files, some of them with only one or two pieces of paper in each one. Then, when you want to file something there are so many choices you get confused, and either put it in the 'I'll get around to it later' pile, or an enormous and quite useless 'Miscellaneous' file.
• Your file headings are too long, neither specific nor clear to anyone else (and sometimes even you have trouble remembering your original logic).
• Purge and archive? What does that mean? You don't like to throw anything out, because 'it might come in handy one day'.
• You can't fit your hand in the file drawers, so avoid putting anything else in there either.
• You don't like filing, think it should be someone else's job, and why can't the boss hire a file clerk to run around after you? (Oh dear, you are the boss, and the funds don't stretch to that luxury!)
Run an audit - and if you're not ruthless enough, pull in an honest friend!
• When were your filing drawers or shelves last reviewed? At random, pull out any file and thumb quickly through. What is the oldest document there? Do you notice anything that has passed its 'use-by' date? Any duplicates?
• How full are the drawers (or the shelves if you're already using a lateral system)? How full are the files themselves? Can you get your hands easily in to pull out documents, or is it uncomfortable?
• What does it look like - a dog's breakfast, with tatty scraps of paper sticking out like a bad hair day? Do files sag off the rails of the drawers, spilling their guts like the stomach of a heavy beer drinker?
Congratulations if everything is neat and aligned, labelled and efficient looking (but I have to tell you such systems are the exception rather than the rule!)
Try this for a new way of thinking:
Filing is easy, fun when you know how, and one of the most valuable functions in the company. After all, we pay a lot of money for information. What's the point of having it if we can't find it?
The 'Keep it Simple' Laws of Filing
File in the broadest possible category. You can always make sub-categories as the main one expands. Think of how we address an envelope and reverse that order.
Label, label, label! I can't begin to tell you the number of filing cabinets I've seen with no labels in sight, or scrappy pieces of cardboard on some files, no obvious system, and embarrassed owners who say, 'I'll get around to sorting these out - one day!' In truth, many of them are overwhelmed with the thought of tidying up, have a rough idea where everything is, and don't count the minutes they constantly waste as they thumb through their scruffy-looking files trying to find something they know 'is just here somewhere'. At the very least, even if no sorting out were done, a label on every file and a quick re-arrange into alphabetical order would save 50 per cent of the time-wasting daily scrummage.
Be selective. After all, 85 per cent of what we file is never looked at again. If in doubt, throw it out. Yes, Murphy's Law will prevail, but if something's really so important that you may need it one day, make sure you can get the information somewhere else before you consign it to the Permanent Resting Home in the Sky (alias a shredder or rubbish bin).
Find the easiest and most obvious system for you and any other users. Avoid unnecessary complication. And don't go any deeper than necessary. Just be aware that the finer you make your distinctions the harder it is for other users to use the same logic as yourself. Of course that challenge is reduced with good labelling, both on the outside of the drawer, and on the suspension files.
You'll be delighted with how efficient you feel once you've got your filing system sorted and simplified. (But give us a call if you're still stuck.)
Robyn Pearce (known as the Time Queen) runs an international time management and productivity business, based in New Zealand. Get your free report 'How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds' and ongoing time tips at gettingagrip.com.