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Organize Your Paper Files

6 Questions to Ask Before You File It


Canada, Ontario, Toronto, Files drawer
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Is your filing cabinet overflowing? Is it so stuffed with papers that it's difficult to open and close? Do you spend considerable time searching through your filing cabinet for documents you know you filed but can't find?

There is a better way to organize your paper files. It starts with a basic decision of what documents even need to be filed. Ask yourself these six questions before you file anything.

1. What is the likelihood that I will need to reference this document in the future?

The only reason to file something is because you anticipate needing to reference it at some point in the future. If you won't need to reference it, don't file it. Many of us file things out of habit or just in case. Consider the costs associated with clutter as well when deciding what to file.

2. What would happen if I lost this document? Could I easily get a copy from another source?

Before filing, weigh the risks. What's the worst possible thing that could happen if you don't keep this document? What if you do keep it but can't find it? Could you easily get a copy from someone else? Perhaps the project manager or a co-worker? Or maybe you copied the document from a book in the library or a trade journal. Are archived copies available? If the answer is yes, don't file it.

3. Is it available in an electronic format?

While electronic filing systems can be just as cluttered as paper files, the general rule of thumb is that if the document is available in an electronic format, there is no need for a hard copy in a paper file.

When you request a document or receive one in a meeting or in the mail, always ask for it to be sent to you electronically as well.

4. How many other people are saving the same document for similar reasons?

If your company is like most, it's full of small individual filing systems, many with duplicate documents and information. With today's technological advances, there's simply no need for multiple people to be physically filing the same documents in multiple filing systems.

Consider setting up a shared access directory on your company server to store electronic documents that are accessible to individuals with a login and password. Or consider an online repository such as Google Docs. With this application, you can choose what documents to share with others and what documents should remain private.

5. If I do file it, how should I name it so I can find it later?

While there is no fool-proof method for naming files, here are some suggestions:

  • Start with the overall category such as project name, division name or event name.
  • You can then further break down the category by topic such as: sales, budget, promotions, marketing pieces, research, etc.
  • Consider including the year as well. Year labels for paper files are available and useful for this purpose.

For example: a quarterly sale document might be filed under "ABC Division: Sales 2011." Market research results might be filed under "XYZ Project: Market Research 2011."

If you file alphabetically by the first letter of the overall category, all of your files for a project or division will be together in your central filing system.

Consider using this same naming convention for electronic files as well.

6. Do I need this document forever?

Oftentimes, we file a document because we have a short-term need and then end up keeping it forever. Why? Because we don't have a good system for purging documents that are past their useful date.

The solution? Use self-adhesive pockets or sheet protectors to house short-term documents within paper files. The self-adhesive pockets can be attached to the inside of your file or the sheet protectors can simply be inserted in the front of the file.

Each time you pull the file, review the documents in these temporary holding areas to see what can be discarded.

Ask yourself these six questions and follow the suggestions above. Soon you'll have a neat, organized and efficient system for your paper files.

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