How To Set Up An Efficient Filing System

colored folders

Nathalie Ricaud is a Professional Organiser and the founder of Get Organised & Beyond, a Singapore-based company that helps individuals and families de-clutter and get organised so that they can regain control over their space, time and most importantly sanity. She’s also the author of a blog and gives plenty of tips on her Facebook page to help you make your life a little more organised.

Do you feel overwhelmed by stacks of documents that seem to re-appear within hours or days of your past attempts to straighten up?  Do you or your family find it difficult to locate a document when you need it?  Do you waste time, get frustrated and sometimes overlook bills and other important documents, resulting in late fees or other costly penalties?  Well you’re not alone!  Paper is truly the biggest organising challenge in most households.  So how would you feel if you could find any document in say less than 2 minutes?  Awesome right?  But mission impossible I hear you say?  No, in fact, mission more than possible if you follow this approach.

Start by creating a document retention guidelines list where you specify how long you need (or want) to keep the various categories of documents you’re dealing with.  For example, in Singapore, you need to keep your tax records for 5 years but you don’t have any obligation to keep your credit card receipts for personal expenses.  That’s said some people like to keep them until they reconcile them with their monthly credit card statement, others for one year etc.  If in doubt, I suggest you speak to an accountant or a financial professional as document retention requirements will vary based on your home country.

Clear an area big enough to allow you to sort your papers into various piles.  Then go through your home and gather all the papers from your dining table, your kitchen countertops, your desktop etc. into one place.

Start with the most recent and active documents, likely the ones you’ve found on a flat surface such as your desktop or countertops.  You’ll deal with your backlog and your current files later.  After all, they’ve been there for months or maybe years, so they can wait a big longer, don’t you think?

Take one paper at a time and decide what you need to do with it:

Do you need to keep it?  No?  Throw it right away.  It’s actually a good idea to have a waste basket by your side.

Do you need to keep it because you need to take some action?  Yes?  Write the action in your to-do list.  Reassess whether you can get rid of the paper.  If you do need to keep it until you’ve completed the action, put it into an action file.  An action file can be just one file where you put all your to-do’s or several files based on what needs to be done, for example, to discuss, bills to pay, to read, invites, vouchers, “insurance for new baby project” etc.

Do you need it to keep it but for reference only whether temporarily (because there are legal or tax implications) or permanently (because it’s a vital record such as a marriage or birth certificate, a health record etc.)?

Yes?  Sort the papers you decide to keep into piles.  Make sure all the papers face the same way with the most recent one on top.  Use staplers instead of paper clips if you need to keep several pieces of paper together.  Paper clips always get stuck with other papers.

Use post-its to label the piles.  Choose a name for the file with retrieval in mind based on whatever words would first come to your mind when you would want to retrieve the file.  For example, you may refer to your car by Your name’s car, or by its plate number, or by its brand and model etc.

Even though it can be tempting to read some of the papers you’ll come across, an appraisal letter or an article you had forgotten about, or to start actioning your to-do’s such as paying a bill, don’t do it while you sort otherwise it’ll slow you down or even stop you completely.

Once you’ve sorted your papers into piles, combine them in categories.  Again there’re various ways to categorise.  You could have a category for Health records, and inside a file for each family member.  Or you could have a category for each family member and inside a file for Health records, School records etc.

Use different coloured file folders for different categories if colours help you find a file faster.  But remember that you may face the risk of not having the right coloured file folder when you need it.

Create a master index of all your files.  Indicate the category they belong to, how long you’ll keep them and their location (paper, electronic or safety box).  Print it and keep it with your files.  Give one to your spouse.  That way, you’ll not only save time to file or retrieve a document but also avoid creating duplicate files.

Keep your action files into a magazine holder on your desk as you’ll need to access them frequently.  Your reference files can be kept in a filing cabinet, or on a shelf in magazine holders or binders.  Whichever option you choose, remember to file, never ever pile.  A pile attracts clutter and makes it difficult to find a document when you need it.

Work with your files for one week or two in case you need to change the name of a file or a category or move a file from one category to another. Then label your file folders properly.

If you file some of your documents electronically, use the same filing structure and naming convention than for your paper files.

Maintain your filing system by purging regularly, for example at the end of a project for an action file, once a year for your reference files, maybe around tax filing time.  If possible, apply the one in one out rule: when you file your latest phone bill on the top, discard the oldest one at the bottom.

Having a well-thought workspace, process and time in your schedule to deal with incoming papers will also help you stay on top of your paperwork.  But focus on your filing system for now, it may take a bit of time depending on how much paper you’ve accumulated but I guarantee you that you’ll feel much better once you’ve accomplished this mission!  Good luck!

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