When it comes to paperwork, the easiest thing to do is to make sure it never arrives in the first place! Go digital when you can. Not only does it reduce paperwork that takes up physical space in your home, it reduces paper usage in general. Good stuff! At Organize to Excel, we aim to eliminate waste and help the environment wherever possible.
If (when!) you follow my advice about paperwork, you’ll end up with more digital files than paper ones. But if you don’t have a filing system in place on your computer, you’re just swapping paper clutter for digital clutter.
Here are my top 4 tips for digital organizing, keeping your computer files as neat and tidy as your physical ones.
1. Mimic Real Life
Would you throw your mail on the floor as soon as you brought it in the house? Do you file everything as “Important”? If you do, give us a call and we can help you straighten that out!
It doesn’t make sense to do these things, because all you’d get is a big pile of mail on your floor, and tons of time wasted spent searching for that one bill you kinda remember being in this pile…or is it this pile? Eek!
Physical clutter is more obvious than digital clutter because it’s in the way when you try to eat dinner at the table, or a tripping hazard in your hallway. And, you have to physically go through items one at a time. But digital clutter is real, and it’s costing you time and money you don’t need to spend.
Imagine your computer is a tiny filing cabinet. It needs labels, folders, and subfolders. It needs an internal logic, so the folders and subfolders are useful. If you think about digital files like they’re paper, it only makes sense to put them in some sort of order.
Let’s talk about how to file paperwork so you can find what you need, fast!
The whole point of filing is to find paperwork fast! If your filing system is chaotic, you’re making yourself work harder. I don’t want that for you! Dial down the difficulty when searching for paperwork by using these tips.
File Naming Conventions
Having standardized terminology for your files keeps search time to a minimum, with both digital and physical files. For physical files, use consistent dates and names. You want to make it easy on your eyes to follow along as you look through the files. If you’re looking through the files you have on home maintenance, and most of your files are labeled like “2020 Repair Bills,” and a few are named like, “Housekeeping – 2020,” you’re making your brain do extra work when you search. Keep it consistent, and save your brainpower for something more fun!
To make searching for digital files easier, include multiple search terms in the file name. Think about what you’ll want to know when you’re trying to find it. If you’re looking for a particular bank statement, what search terms would you use to find it? Adding the bank name, the account name, and the statement date means you can find it three different ways!
Paper Files: 5-20 Items Rule of Thumb
Use cascading hierarchies when creating your paper files. For instance, you could keep all your insurance paperwork together in one hanging folder, and have paperwork for the individual policies in separate interior folders. This means you only have one place to go to look for anything regarding insurance, and if you know which policy you’re looking for you can narrow it down even further. Instead of flipping through dozens of different pieces of paper, you can go right to what you’re looking for.
It’s hard to find paperwork fast when your files are three inches thick. The best rule of thumb I have for keeping hierarchies neat and easy to use is this: If you have fewer than five items in one category, that’s a sign that you could condense it with another. More than twenty items should be split up into subcategories.
For instance, say you have files relating to places you want to travel to. If you only want to go to New Zealand and visit Lord of the Rings locations, you only need one folder. If you want to go to every state in the US and have paperwork about each state you want to visit, then a folder for each state will be helpful. This helps avoid overstuffed folders that are difficult to look through and avoids having unnecessary folders as well.
Make it even easier on yourself by using labeling, color coding, or different locations for these categories. If you use your labels or colors consistently, soon you’ll be able to see what you’re looking for at a glance.
Action items are a type of paperwork that needs attention, like reminders of appointments, or a bill that’s coming due.
One common mistake people make when organizing their paperwork is keeping action items out to help them remember. Put away the paper and keep the reminder. Keeping an action item on your desk leads to clutter. Have a specific place for action items, so you know where to look for them when it is time to take that action.
Have a reminder system in place. You can set a reminder on your phone, write it in a paper planner, or use one of the action item systems below, and put the paper away.
Organizing business paperwork takes dedication and consistency, but once you have systems in place and you (and your employees) use them, it becomes a routine part of business life. Here are my ways to make organizing business paperwork go more smoothly.
1. Shred it and Forget it
When paperwork is past its “keep until” date, shred it if it has personal information. If you have a small business you may be fine with a small shredder. For larger businesses, there are also services like Shred-It that pick up shreddable materials and turn them into recycled paper.
2. New Year, New Folders
At the beginning of your financial year, create new folders you can use throughout the year. Keep in mind the 5-20 rule! Any folder with fewer than 5 items in it should be combined with another, and any folder with more than 20 should be subdivided into other folders. This streamlines searching for documents, saving you time and money!
Why organize your paperwork? Organizing your paperwork clears piles of paper cluttering your space, helps you find information efficiently, keeps you on top of bills and to-dos, and avoids late fees, missed deadlines, and wasting time. Organize your paperwork to reduce stress, have a clear mind, and focus on what matters.
The first step toward fully organized paperwork is to sort. When I am clearing someone’s desk, we use use RAFTS to sort paperwork. What does RAFTS stand for?