An effective filing system will allow you to find any document you need in 20 seconds or less!  If you read that statement and think that’s impossible, this article has been written for YOU!  The Streamlined Office uses 4 basic steps to organize any office, business or personal.

Step One: Know Your Retention Criteria

Before you begin any organizing project, you need to sit down and think carefully about WHAT you are going to keep, WHY you are going to keep it and for HOW LONG.  Having decided, in advance, what the answer to these questions will allow you to complete the next steps with ease.  Ignore step one and you will find yourself mired down with indecision and quickly abandoning the whole project.

In an office environment, the answer to these questions usually hinges around what information you need for tax or legal purposes.  Every situation is different and your tax or legal professionals should be able to provide guidance based on your specific needs.  The Streamlined Office also provides this FREE Record Retention Schedule to get you started.  Once you have answers to these questions, you are ready to begin Step Two.

Step Two:  Sort and Purge

In this step, we are going to begin by sorting through your piles and placing things in major categories.  This is not the time to get mired down in details or to start putting things away.  It is a GROSS sorting.  Begin with the piles that are sitting on your desk, floor and in stacks around the house.  Decide whether the items fall into one of the following categories and create a pile for each.

  • Trash
  • Recycling
  • Belongs somewhere else (not paper but dishes that belong in the kitchen, for example)
  • Donation (typically extra office supplies or other items that are in your office but don’t belong there)
  • Need to be kept based on your previously established retention guidelines
    • Create a pile for gross categories such as insurance, banking, investments, utility bills, coupons, reading material
    • DO NOT get mired down in the detail of dividing these into smaller categories in Step Two

When you have finished sorting through your piles of paper you may remove the trash and recycling.  Put the donations into your vehicle immediately and plan to drop them off within the next 2 days.  Put things that don’t belong in your office back in their respective “homes” (dishes in the kitchen sink etc.).

Now you are left with piles of paper that you intend to keep and you are ready for Step Three.  Note:  If you have decades of paper to sort through, complete this process in small increments and work on the most recent piles first.  Touch each piece of paper only ONCE during the sorting process.  DO NOT delay decisions.

Step Three:  Files and Folders

This step should be a breeze because you are left with documents that you know you need to keep.  Creating a folder structure is a very personal and individual experience.  The piles you created during your sorting process should give you a good idea of what your file structure should be.  What did you call the piles as you created them?  Use this naming convention to create file labels.  A big mistake that people make is that they name folders according to what a book or article tells them they should be named.  The only rule to file naming is that it should be something you will think of when you go to look for this information 2 years from now.  Keep in mind that your file names can be based on subjects, projects, numerical or a combination of all 3!

There are more strategies to folder and file naming than can be discussed in one article.  Contact The Streamlined Office for help if you are struggling with this or any step.  Also, consider using colored folders to help create better organization.  Next month’s blog will explain how!

Step Four:  Maintenance

Every system requires maintenance, particularly the office and paper.  The file plan needs to be maintained if it is to remain effective.  Put time aside to:

  • weed and transfer old files into the new structure
  • create new folders as needed
  • check for duplication (same file named differently or information filed in more than one place
  • make sure unnecessary and out of date folders and documents are weeded out of your new system on a regular basis and according to your record retention guidelines

The Streamlined Office specializes in helping you get your business or home office organized.  Contact us today at 480-221-0588 for more information or to schedule a FREE consultation.