Lets get you set up to maintain your filing system!
Now that you’ve got your filing system set up and your action items in their proper places, it’s up to you to keep it that way! The best way to keep clutter from coming back is to maintain your filing system. Some tips on maintaining your filing system:
If you have temporary files, file them by month and year, which allows for quick archiving.
Purge your files regularly—I recommend at least annually. You could do it every six months or every quarter to cut down on the time it takes to purge.
File at least weekly, more often if you are a paper-intensive home. Ideally it’s best to file things as soon as possible, but setting aside time each week that’s dedicated to filing will make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
A lot of clients have tons of paperwork because they’re not sure how long they’re supposed to keep it. So how do you know what to hang on to, and what to shred? Different documents have different expiration dates.
Lifetime: Keep this paperwork for the life of the item. Ownership documents like car titles and deeds belong in this category. Once you no longer have the item, and are sure you won’t need to refer to the paperwork, then you can let it go.
Permanent: These things should be kept forever, like your social security card. Things that are crucial and difficult to replace go in this category.
Temporary: Keep this paperwork according to their document retention guidelines, like supporting tax documents, medical records, and receipts. Consult the IRS, DMV, your insurance company, your CPA, and lawyers for the most accurate information on document retention.
You can use our guide as a starting point, but please consult your professionals to confirm the specifics for your situation.
Using these maintenance strategies will help keep your paperwork to a minimum, so you can find what you need when you need it.
For more information, download our Residential Records Retention Guidelines by clicking the picture on the left!
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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.
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.
I have four suggested methods for prioritizing paperwork in increasing complexity: an in/out tray, a 3-level priority system, Steven Covey’s quadrant method, and tickler files. Use the one that suits you best and is going to be the easiest for you to maintain. Remember the point is not to organize the paperwork, the point is to take action on your paperwork.
In/Out Tray: An in/out tray is a very simple way to keep track of action items. When you have a task to complete or a reminder of something due, it goes in the In tray. Once completed, move it to the Out tray. You can always look in your In tray to remind you of what you need to accomplish.
3-Level Priority System
3-Level Priority System: There are many ways to do a 3-level priority system, according to what works for you. Create three folders and label them based on level of importance or urgency. Hot/Warm/Cold, Do Now/Do Soon/Do Someday, Today/This Week/Next Week, and Red/Yellow/Blue are just a few ways to label these folders.
This kind of system breaks down action items into easy-to-understand categories. That way, you can see at a glance what needs your attention.
Tickler Files: Tickler files – file folders labeled with dates – are a great way to keep action item paperwork accessible and organized. Here are two ways to use them:
8 Folders By Week: This system consists of one folder for each day of the week and one folder for the next week or later. As you go through the week, complete items in the appropriate folder. Once a week, review the items in the “next week” folder, then decide when to do them in the coming week.
43 Folders By Month: This is a more detailed system consisting of 31 folders (one for each day of the month) plus 12 folders (one for each upcoming month). At the beginning of the month, review all items in the monthly folder and sort them depending on which day you want to do them. Complete items in daily folders daily to keep on top of your action items.
The Quadrant Method
Stephen Covey’s Quadrant Method: Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, had a simple way of categorizing tasks based on urgency and importance, and this works with paperwork too. The infographic below shows how to use this system.
Using these strategies, you can organize your action items and work more effectively! Which of these do you think you’ll try when you’re prioritizing action items?
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?
Recycle any paperwork you no longer need that doesn’t contain sensitive information. This includes things like advertisements, takeout menus, old Post-it notes, or junk mail.
Don’t forget that you can also repurpose paper! Anything with a blank back can be used as scratch paper for quick notes! If your home has kids, they can color on unwanted paper, too. You could even use it to make paper mache art! Why not?
Action items are anything that needs your attention, like a bill to pay or a letter to reply to, or phone calls to return. I will address action items in more detail in my next post!
File paperwork that contains things you will need later. Statements, school records, and policy documents fit into this category. For more about how to file paperwork, check out this post!
Trash/Treasure: Go through your paperwork and decide what’s worth keeping, and what’s worth letting go. Any paperwork with grease or other food on it can go. Treasure could be anything from special holiday cards to important documents that must be kept. If you’re holding on to something you can’t remember receiving, consider recycling or trashing it to minimize clutter.
Shred anything with account numbers, social security numbers, or other non-public information that you no longer need. You don’t have to shred items with your name and address because that’s public information.
Any questions about how to use RAFTS to sort paperwork? Ask them in the comments!
Stock your desk with these essential tools and supplies to make working simpler and easier!
Your Favorite Writing Instrument
Do you have a favorite pen, pencil, or fountain pen? Make a home for it on your desk. Always put it back in its home when you’re done with it, and it’ll never get lost! (Pro tip: that’s true with all of your belongings.)
Keeping track of one pen or pencil is easier than keeping track of a bunch. That’s the secret of minimalism and sustainability! Living simply with fewer possessions lets you have favorites, and choose higher-quality things that will last longer.
I love a good rollerball pen like these from Uni-Ball! Or, if you want to totally splurge on your one-and-only work pen, Montblancs exist, too.
It usually makes sense to put your printer/scanner on the dominant hand side of the desk. It’s easier to operate that way and if you have it just in reach, you still have space for project items in front of you. It’s okay to place it slightly out of reach so that it gives you a break from sitting.
A good arrangement for your desk not only makes work easier and more enjoyable, it makes it better for your body! Don’t let pain and discomfort distract you from your work.
The New York Times article7 Things You Need for an Ergonomically Correct Workstationhas this to say about an ergonomic setup. When you’re using your keyboard, “your arms and wrists would be in a neutral position: parallel to the floor or angled down toward your lap to reduce strain.” Test it out at your desk! If your arms aren’t parallel for angled downward, you can raise your sitting position, or lower your keyboard using a pull-out shelf.
For your monitor, make sure “your eye level is about 2 to 3 inches below the top of the screen and about an arm’s length away.” That will help keep your neck straight and avoid a lot of backaches!
There is also always, of course, the super extra option. Ergodox makes seriously cool, seriously fun-to-use keyboards that can be configured in tons of ways, including raising the keyboard up and down depending on where you’re using it.
Have a Clear Space in Front of You
Keep a space in front of you clear from distractions or extra clutter. That gives you space to create, and a place to put materials relating to the task at hand. If you’re working digitally on several projects, consider using different desktop views for different projects.
For instructions on working with Mac spaces, click here!
For instructions on working with Windows virtual desktops, click here!