Setting up your A-to- Z Filing Systems

1 Care and Feeding of Reference Files

The reference file is a collection of clearly labelled manila folders where papers are stored for quick and easy access. The reference file is an important component of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system as it is one of the storage systems for processing your "stuff". The file needs to be located close to your workspace, preferably no more than a few steps away.

David Allen writes that the lack of a good general-reference filing system is a major bottleneck in personal action-management systems. Getting your filing system fully operational the GTD way will give you a big opportunity for improvement.

Many of us dread the word "filing", most likely as a the result of struggling in the past with trying to find important documents buried in mountains of paper.

The reference file needs a "clean edge" to it so the difference between actionable and non-actionable items is clear. The filing system is for non-actionable items, in case you were wondering!

2 Implementing a filing system

What you need:

  1. Filing drawers. A filing cabinet is the logical place to store manila files. David Allen recommends disposing of the hanging files usually found in filing cabinets. This will allow more space for storing the files, and allow easier access as you don't have to wrestle with the metallic edges of the hanging files, and risk damaging your hands and fingers.
  2. Manila folders. Buy them by the box of 100. I paid just under $A10 for a box of 100 folders and I make sure a ready supply is at hand for creating new files.
  3. Labeller. David Allen recommends using a labeller (brands include Dymo and Brother) which you should always keep nearby to allow you to quickly create a label. Although I have access to a labeller (it belongs to my daughter), I find it just as easy to create labels in Excel using 20 point Arial font (Download my Excel file) Having a clearly labelled file changes the relationship you have with your files and signifies the importance of the contents. I remember retrieving my "Electricity" and "Gas" files to discuss an energy contract with a door-to-door salesman and I could see his surprise at the clearly labelled files.
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3 Success factors

What are the success factors for a good filing system?

3.1 Retrieval

It must be easy to find what you are looking for and know where the document can be found. For example, if you are trying to find the warranty form for your new television, then you know in which file it can be found.

3.2 Filing

It must be easy to create a new file and make a label. This requires having a plentiful supply of folders and a means of making professional typeset labels.

You should feel comfortable about creating a new file to store one sheet of paper, otherwise you will resist filing paper and your intray will never become empty.

4 Maintenance

The system needs to be kept up-to-date by ensuring that things are filed, and filed in the correct place. Old material needs to be purged or archived.

5 Choosing a meaningful file label

Choosing the correct label requires some experimenting and understanding of how you recall information. For example, I have a file of notes on remembering people's names. How should this file be labelled? "Memory - Names", "Remember Names" or "Name Remembering"? I ask myself "What comes to mind when I think of this topic?" and the answer I chose was "Remembering Names".

Occasionally I have trouble finding a file because I recall the a file under a different name. For example, I have a file on memorising poetry which used to be labelled "Memorising Poetry" but I always recall the word "Poetry", so I changed the label to "Poetry - Memorising". It is quicker to relabel a file then spend time repeatedly looking in the wrong place.

6 Many small files

My old hanging file system had some very fat files for with very generic labels: "School" or "Classical Music". I have now created many files with specific labels which allows me to find things much more quickly. For example, our daughters are named Katie and Emily. Emily learns piano, viola, musicianship and is currently enrolled studying in Year 10 (High School).

I have files labelled with sub topics for each girl:

Using manila folders allows the creation of many small files, but using the old hanging files was prohibited by space and cost.

Another example of many small files was when I sorted through my old "Classical Music" folder. It contained papers and brochures relating to various orchestras, composers, and notes I have made on various composers. As a result of this purge I now have files for "Willoughby Symphony Orchestra", "Kuringai Philharmonic Orchestra", "Beethoven", "Classical Music History" and many more. Now when I want to find the brochure for the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra I can go straight to the file.

7 What if there is too much paper in a file?

Once there is a certain amount of paper in a file it is time to make a decision. The contents may need to be archived, stored in a ring binder, subdivided into further files, or possibly some of the material thrown out.

8 The annual purge

Reference files need to reviewed regularly and I have chosen to do a detailed annual review after the financial year end (30th June). This allows me to gather information for my tax return. Create a tickler file entry in the month after the tax year end for cleaning out the files.

Other benefits of reviewing all files is to update the Someday/Maybe lists by being reminded of the file contents. Occasionally I decide to abandon a personal project and consign the file contents to the recycling bin.

9 Email folders

I use a similar principle of creating email folders in a strictly alphabetical system. I create folders for letters of the alphabet, then create the mail folders at the next level below. This two level structure if to allow rapid access to the folders while minimising scrolling.

(Some of the names have been smudged for privacy reasons)

10 Conclusion

The reference file should not be treated as a dumping ground where paper is stored once and never retrieved. Instead, the reference files are a physical extension to your memory and your life.


Author: Charles Cave - Date: 2006/11/06 5:08:22 PM