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.
Filing systems aren’t just for physical folders! Digital files can use all the same principles to help you find paperwork fast.
Dates: Use “yymmdd” dates at the beginning of file names to keep them in chronological order.
Labels: Use specific labels in file names if you have multiple types of files in one folder to cut down on search time. To use the bank statement example again, if you’re only putting the bank name in the file and not the date, you’ll have to look through every statement to find what you’re looking for. Adding the statement date makes it searchable, so you don’t even have to scroll through the folder at all!
Use cascading hierarchies minimally on your computer. Extra clicks into folders waste time. Whenever possible, use the search function on your computer. I can almost guarantee that your computer is faster than you at looking through its contents.
The 5-20 rule of thumb does not apply to digital files because the computer search function is so useful. You can keep all the paperwork for all your insurance policies in one folder as long as they are named appropriately. A quick search for the type of policy you are looking for pops it right up.
Automatic Filing: Check out an automatic filing and naming tool like www.filethis.com, which specializes in financial document management.
OCR: Scanners with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) can automatically name files based on their content.
Scanning paperwork eliminates a TON of clutter, and helps you find paperwork fast. Invest in a scanner with a smooth document feeder, as well as software that manages files after scanning, so you can add or delete pages, rotate, and so on.
Be sure to check out options for presets in your scanning software. Presets let you decide in advance a job type’s resolution, paper size, color mode, and so on. Save that set of options so you don’t have to select them all each time you scan.
Be sure to recycle paperwork after you’ve scanned it! Shred documents that contain personal information like social security numbers and bank accounts before you send it to recycling. Why make looking through paperwork harder? Live life on easy mode by setting up a consistent filing system. You’ll thank yourself!
So many great ideas here! Keeping a filing system (digital and paper) as simple as possible makes sense. And if the two can mirror one another with the categories, it makes things even easier to find things.
A great point, Linda. Consistency within a filing system is great, consistency throughout all your filing systems is better!
It’s funny how we can go through the effort of scanning, and then still be apprehensive about getting rid of the paperwork LOL!
I started with digital naming conventions about a decade ago and I love it. I never did it with my physical files, though. I need to give that some thought.
Thanks for these great tips. 🙂
So glad they were helpful, Seana!
I’m a hearty user of Evernote, but it took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of shallow hierarchy (notes/notebooks) and relying on the powerful search. My brain naturally creates hierarchies, both for labeling paper and digital files, but I can appreciate the additional power of search. I like that you recognize that while some of our paper and digital files can be labeled similarly, there are different techniques for each.
Transitioning to a “search” mindset is a big step for many of us! It wasn’t too long ago when clicking through file hierarchies really was the best way to find what you needed on a computer.
I haven’t really gotten onto scanning yet. I am finding that my need for this is sort of evaporating as more of my important documents are now coming in digital form. My husband likes the paper, so I’m not sure if this is a plus or minus in our household, but it is happening. I love the suggestion to put the date at the beginning of a document name. This just makes so much sense, and keeps documents chronologically organized, regardless of when I open them up.
Thanks, Seana! Yes, as I opt for digital documents more and more often, paper clutter becomes more scarce.