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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting Organized: "Filing" or "Piling"

Does your filing system include stacks of paper? Is your desk and/or entire office in reality one large and overflowing “To Be Filed” zone?

Maybe I can help. First, let me assure you that you are not alone. There are a bunch of us out there.
Yes, I said, “us”. I admit it ... I tend to “pile” as opposed to “file.”
I have trouble filing documents.
But somewhere along the line, I figured out that a little organization would make me simplfy my life and reduce stress. It also occurred to me that some increased productivity would sneak in to the benefits, as well, so I had to find a simple system that I could maintain.

If you are a “stacker” (not “slacker”) like me, maybe my approach can help you get more organized, reduce stress and positively impact productivity.

First Step: Realize that you are not alone and that there is nothing wrong with you.
Maybe you’re just more visually oriented and don’t like the “out of sight-out of mind” result of filing. Or perhaps, you tend to organize in a not traditional “horizontal” style as opposed to the traditional “vertical” style.

I can identify with those reasons, but for me (and, if you’ve read this far, perhaps you, too), there have been 3 major stumbling blocks to organizing; and, specifically, dealing with documents
1.      It is difficult for me to throw documents away – I’m fearful that I will miss an opportunity or make a mistake.

2.      As a result of reason 1, I tend to get overwhelmed by paper. And once I get behind on document filing, I shut down and stop dealing with it;

3.      Until I was able to figure out 1 and 2, I didn’t realize that I really didn’t have a clue about setting up an effective system for dealing with paper.

Second Step:  Understand that it’s not complicated.
It all boils down to having a place for everything and developing the habit of putting things where they belong as soon as you are no longer using them.

Third Step:
O.K., not that we’ve got the basic mindset in place, let’s take a look at a simple 5-step system to keep things organized that can work for you.

1. Trim. Some focused research has taught me the first rule to organizing: Identify and eliminate the unnecessary BEFORE organizing at all.
Here’s how to reduce and simplify your papers and files before organizing:
  1. Make one big stack. If it’s gotten to the point that it can’t all fit in one pile, make more than one, but consider them as continuations of the first pile. Even you have folders in your file cabinet that are a mess, take ‘em out and add them to the pile.
  2. Physically go through them, one at a time. Pick up each document or folder and decide what needs to be done with it. If you can’t see yourself needing it in the next three months, trash it. Eliminate as much as you can; you “default” mode is trash (recycle or shred if sensitive). Get rid of as much as you possibly can.      
  3. Route. If you can’t trash something, can you route it to someone else? Either way, it’s gone from your “to be filed” zone.
  4. File. If a document is absolutely critical, and you’re absolutely sure you will need it in the future, then file it.
Don’t be surprised if this system cuts your stacks by one-half to two-thirds. Great, huh? But you still have one-third to one-half of the original stack to file. What do you do now?
2. Simple filing. Follow the lead of David Allen. In his book “Getting Things Done” he recommends that you use a simple, alphabetical filing system -- just use plain folders with labels, creating a file for each client, vendor and/or project. Don’t overthink this and complicate the process. Keep it simple by merely creating a file and filing it alphabetically.

3. File right away. Getting organized is not the tough part, staying organized it. It is essential to keep your system up-to-date by filing things immediately. When you’re dealing with paperwork from your inbox and you discover something that doesn’t require action but that you might need to file later, resist the urge to put it in a pile to be filed later. And don’t put it in a folder labeled “To Be Filed” or “Miscellaneous”.
So, what do I do? Just open your filing drawer, take out the appropriate folder, put the document in it, and file it. It’s about a 7 second process and if you don’t do it at that point, stuff will start to stack up and you’ll be “piling” again ... and you know that that doesn’t work.
What I’ve learned about “piling” instead of “filing” is that it just doesn’t work. It just keeps piling up and eventually the pile gets intimidating and then you’ve got a massive pile and then you start shutting down and stop dealing with it. Then you can’t find stuff you need when you need it and Viola! You no longer have a filing system, you’ve got inefficient piles of documents that not only slow you down but also distracts you from your work by cluttering up your work space.

4. Be prepared. At all times, have a supply of manila folders and labels on hand. A great excuse for putting off filing a document is, “I don’t have a folder. I’ll just set this down in this pile of stuff that’s waiting for folders.” Have your supplies fully stocked and convenient to  eliminate the ease of putting off filing.

5. Trim your needs. Over time, you can consciously reduce your filing needs; here are a few tips:
  • Store reference information online. Contacts, budget information, ideas, logs, and much more can easily be stored online, so you will no longer need hard copies of them.
  • Reduce incoming paper. Get as much as possible via e-mail. Press for digital communication and discourage hard copies.
  • Give your printer a rest. Don’t print out copies of information you receive digitally. I still like to do proof reading with a paper and pen, but once I’m done; I recycle the printed version and file the update digitally. Not only does this reduce paper clutter, but it is much easier to search for digital information.
  • Analyze other incoming documents. Whenever you find yourself with a document in hand ready to file, ask yourself if you really need a hard copy version of it. Is it available online? Is it better to store it digitally? Is there any way to eliminate the need for this document? Under this kind of scrutiny, you’ll reduce the number of hard copies you’ll be filing.

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