Many business owners complain about paper. Who knew something so simple could become so complicated? They have too much paper. They don’t know what to do with all the paper. Their filing system is a disaster or non-existent. For those of you dealing with the same issues, here is a brief guide to organizing your papers, setting up a system and taming the madness. Apply to home or work life as needed.

Prep

1. Gather all papers together. Know what you are dealing with. Gather everything you can find – from inside the filing cabinet, your desktop, the pile in the corner - all of it. Do not dump everything out of folders and create a big mess for yourself, especially if you will be doing the project over the course of a few days. Note: Keep an eye on the most recent active files. Put them in a folder of a different color than all the rest or leave them on your desk. You do not want to get active files mixed in with the madness – again, especially if you are not starting and finishing this project in one day.

2. Go through everything one sheet or stapled stack at a time. Take stock of what you have. Write down some general category ideas that come to mind as you go through everything.

3. Route as necessary. If you no longer need the paper in question, send it back to where it belongs – to your boss, co-worker, employee, the recycle bin, or the shredder. Do not create more work for yourself by filing things that you do not need to keep.

Setup

If you took notes on some category ideas, review your list. Notice any common themes? Can certain categories be combined? Figure out what kinds of documents you are dealing with before you start labeling folders.

How does your brain work? If it is easier for you to file everything from A to Z, file your papers this way. This is the fastest, simplest method of filing, and it definitely gets the job done. If you can handle categories, with the files within them alphabetized, follow that system. Example: Kids – Subcategories: Medical Records, Report Cards, Summer Camp Info.

Note about filing supplies: It’s always good to have supplies on hand so that once you get started, you have everything you need. With other kinds of organizing projects, you can wait until you have sorted and purged before purchasing any supplies. For organizing paper, if you will be using a traditional filing system, it is a good idea to have plenty of manila folders and hanging files on hand. If you prefer to write or type on labels instead of directly on the folder, pick up some filing labels.

If a file is overflowing ask yourself: Do I need all of this? Can this be broken down into subcategories? Make sure papers are easy to find within their respective files, otherwise the system is pointless.

Help yourself. You can write notes on the front of file folders indicating what is inside. On an assessment form folder, for example, you might have four sets of forms, all paper clipped. On the outside of the folder, write which forms are inside. You could do the same thing for a former client folder (if you do not keep a lot of client paperwork). Have a list of names written on the outside. Write information on the outside of the folder that saves you from having to open it up and search.

Maintenance

Ask before you file. Do you need a hard copy of this document? Why? Where does it fit in your system? Do you need to create a new file? Is there any way to eliminate the need for this? If possible, can it be scanned and saved on your computer? Don’t worry – you can usually get the answer to these questions within a second of looking at the document. Our brains work incredibly fast.

File immediately. If you have a system in place, it does not take long to drop a piece of paper into its home.

Send emails instead of faxes and snail mail when possible. Sometimes when we send something via fax or snail mail, we’re tempted to keep a hard copy “just in case.” Try asking if you can email invoices. When someone asks for a fax, you have to print the invoice, fax it to them, and then wonder if you should keep it, since you went to the trouble of printing it out. Faxing creates two pieces of paper for each one sent – the one you put in and the one they take out. Try online fax services like eFax instead, if you must fax.

Ask people to send you emails instead of faxes and snail mail.

Avoid printing things whenever possible. “Well, I used the ink – I should probably keep it.” Just say no.

Purge regularly. If you purge on a regular basis – at the end of the month, when summer camp is over, when someone else takes on the account – you won’t have to find the time to spend a day doing this all over again.

Keep electronic copies of documents whenever possible. The less paper that hits your hand, the less you will have to file. And please, if you are doing this, back up your hard drive on a regular basis.

Remember

Avoid piles as much as possible. Unless you are working your through the pile in front of you, right now, piles are pretty inefficient. If someone opens or shuts the door quickly, a breeze comes in through the window, or you accidentally knock the pile over, you have a mess on your hands. Finding papers in a pile can be time consuming – have you ever looked through a pile several times, saying to yourself, “I know I put that piece of paper in this stack”? After a couple of tries, you find it. Wouldn’t it have been easier to go directly to its file?

If you land a new client or start a new project, don’t wait until you’ve amassed a ton of papers to create a file. Do it now and you’ll be ready to handle each new document as it comes in.

Avoid creating “To Be Filed” folders – especially if you know you won’t go through it.

Avoid creating a “Miscellaneous” file to avoid forgetting what you put in it. Having a miscellaneous file is like having a junk drawer. It can be handy to a certain point, but eventually it is just a mess.

Review

  • Gather everything you need before you start.
  • Get rid of anything you don’t need to keep.
  • Create a simple system that works for you. You won’t use a system you hate.
  • Cut back on hard copy creation – save electronic copies, send emails, avoid faxing.
  • File what you need, get rid of what you don’t – immediately.