How to Organize Files

Four Parts:Making Your Plan of AttackEvaluating the Content of Your FilesPutting Together Your FilesMaintaining Your Paper Files

Paper documents can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to tell which of these you might need to be keep and which might want to toss away. By sorting your paperwork, making a plan of attack, and using a consistent system, you can conquer that mountain of old paper documents in less time than you might have thought!

Part 1
Making Your Plan of Attack

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    Sort and log your files. You will need to determine just what kind of information you are dealing with so that you can put your files into order. Take your pen and paper in hand and while you are perusing your files, log the subject of each file and write down the information.[1]
    • For example, you might log receipts from groceries on your paper and then define the subject for these entries as "Living expenses" or "Spending."
    • If any files contain conflicting information, a broad array of documents, or are particularly full, leave a short memo to yourself next to each file subject.
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    Devise master categories to fit the subjects in your log. Now that you have a list of the subjects contained in your files, you need to gather these into broad groups. Try to collect you file subjects into as few main categories as possible. You'll want to come up with broad categories until all your subjects fit into a corresponding master category.[2] You never know what future files might come into your library, and you want your system to be flexible enough to accommodate. Some examples of main categories are:[3]
    • Money
    • Household
    • Health
    • Work/Business
    • Education
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    Code your colors. You're in pretty good shape now that you've got your files sorted and your system categorized, but you'll be able to jump to your files in a jiffy if you include a color code. This allows for even more flexibility in your files, as you'll be able to cluster your files by category while still being able to apply alphabetization.[4][5] You might consider coding your files with:
    • Green for finances
    • Red for personal documents
    • Blue for medical documents
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    Declutter your files. Take a look at your file log. Any place you've noted clutter, fullness, or discrepancies deserve a second look. Is there anything that looks like it might be unnecessary? This is the point where you should pitch all the junk you don't need right into the garbage.[6]
    • To help deciding whether or not a document should be kept, ask yourself, "When have I needed this document? Will I need it in the future?"
    • Receipts are major contributors to clutter and, unless you are holding it for the potential future return of a product, can be thrown away almost immediately.[7]
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    Choose the right container. This will change considerably based on individual need, but taking a look at the shape of your files should give you an indication of what kind of container you will need. Offices and large personal file collections might need a filing cabinet(s). Smaller archives can sometimes be housed in a small file box.
    • Be sure to purchase a quality file container. Your hard efforts at organization could be ruined by a spill if your container cracks or a handle is torn loose.[8]

Part 2
Evaluating the Content of Your Files

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    Know your time limits. Some paper documents appear important but don't really need to be held on to, while other paperwork you need to keep your entire life! Every few weeks you should think about time sensitive documents, like bank records, and give your files a once-over to see if any time limits have finished.[9]
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    Shred old bank records. You should keep deposit and ATM slips until you reconcile them against your monthly bank statement. Your monthly checking and savings account statements can be saved until tax season. After you complete your taxes, you can file the bank statements you need to prove deductions with your tax records. The rest can be shredded.[10][11]
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    Cleanse your files of old credit card bills. Once you've checked and paid the bill, you won't be needing it unless it confirms a deduction to your taxes. You should also hold onto bills for items paid with credit that are under warranty until after the warranty expires.[12][13]
    • It's a good idea to keep warranty and corresponding receipt documents collected together by stapling the credit receipt to the warranty.
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    Hang onto your insurance policies. These documents should be kept until expiration or replacement, then destroyed. Much of your personal information is included in these kind of documents, so you might consider shredding these for disposal.[14][15]
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    Thin out your tax related documents annually. You should keep any tax related documents for the year in which you are filing it in a single file. If this file is too large, an accordion file might better accommodate the papers. After you file your return, feel free to trash the document.[16][17]
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    Retain your state or federal tax returns long term. It is recommended that you keep all state and federal tax returns for a minimum of seven years, though if you file with an accountant you should inquire with him whether there are any associated files you might remove that are no longer necessary.[18][19]
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    Store birth and death certificates, wills, and marriage licenses. These important documents should be kept for as long as you are alive. You may want to consider using a plastic sleeve to protect these, as normal wear and tear can make the paper delicate.[20][21]
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    Keep your life insurance policy information. You do not want to throw these documents away unless you have a term life policy, in which case you can throw out the paperwork once the term is up.[22][23][24]

Part 3
Putting Together Your Files

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    Gather or purchase your materials. The right filing equipment will ensure your files are orderly and safely organized. Depending on how extensive a filing system you are making, you may need to add a few items to this list, but the essentials for your personal filing system include:
    • Black Sharpie
    • Classification Folders
    • Colored markers
    • File box/cabinet
    • Folders (with tab for label)
    • Hanging files
    • Two-hole punch[25]
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    Label where necessary. Your sharpie and log are going to be your best friends while you write out each folder heading on the label of your new folders. Write clearly, and leave some space on the label for a dot of color for color coding.[26]
    • Readability is key for your labels, so consider using all caps, but whatever you do, keep the style in which you write consistent.[27]
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    Devise a system of alphabetization, if desired. Your alphabetic system is a matter of personal preference. Some people find it easiest to alphabetize all files according to first letter, some alphabetize master categories, then sub-folders, and finally individual documents in sub-folders. Apply whatever system you find most natural consistently to your files.
    • Some people prefer to use the law of superposition to organize individual documents in sub-categories. This means that each new document you add to a sub-folder is filed first, which will place old documents toward the back of the folder and newer documents toward the front.[28]
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    Color code your files. Bold colors that can be seen quickly and obviously are the best options for your color coding system. Try to match colors to commonly associated categories. For example, if you have a "Money" category, you might want to use green to color code this folder.
    • Each folder should receive a bold dot to the right of the written label of each folder. This way you can tell at glance the category every file falls into, even if you've laid several on your desk.
    • It might be helpful to use different colored files for each category (or for one important category) as well.
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    Remove active files. There will be likely a few files that you use or reference frequently. These "active" files might be a little more convenient for you if you had them on your desk or somewhere else readily available.[29][30]
    • Remove active files after you have labeled and color coded. This way you can move active files seamlessly between your desk and file container.
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    Insert your files. Put your hanging files into your file container. These will form the main divisions in your filing system and will keep your file groups from getting too ungainly or cumbersome. Into each hanging file you should put 2 to 3 regular file folders, although you may be able to fit more or less depending on the size of the folders.[31]

Part 4
Maintaining Your Paper Files

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    Replace wear and tear in your files. Time will take its toll on your files, not to mention various things can happen throughout the years to fatigue your filing system. Keep some extra files folders and hanging files on hand, as these will absorb much of the weathering over time.
    • Keep an eye on your file container as well. A broken handle or clasp on your file container can save you from hours of work down the road.
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    Revisit your log and system. When you're working hard trying to get everything in its right place, it can be difficult to see the whole picture clearly. Returning to your filing system after a few days or weeks can improve the efficiency of your system greatly. At that point you should be familiar with any of the weaknesses of the system, and a few small changes can make a big difference.
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    Sub-divide full files with folders. When a particular hanging file gets overfull or becomes unmanageable with too many documents, you can add a smaller sub-folder to it so that it isn't so ungainly or split it into two separate hanging files. For example, if you have a lot of business expenses under your "Finances" category, you might collect these documents into a single "Business Expenses" folder, and nest that under "Finances."
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    Add tabs to the mix, when applicable. Tabs are a great way you can further subdivide your filing system for ease of use. Tabs are excellent markers of category, but can also be used to help you pinpoint slender, but vital, file folders.[32]
    • You can also use insertable tabs to designate your active files. You may want to label these tabs: Do now, Do later, and Pending (with pending indicating documents on which you are awaiting a response)[33]

Sources and Citations

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