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Frequently Asked Questions about Organizing Paper and Electronic Documents
Papers and documents. Our lives are full of paper trails and records including email exchanges with friends, digital photos from vacations, medical reports, legal documents, and receipts. Figuring out what to do with all that electronic and hard copy stuff is one of our biggest organizing challenges. The goal of having a system in place is to increase productivity and find what you need, when you need it – especially in the event of an emergency or an audit. I’m often asked questions about organizing paperwork and documents, so here is a roundup of questions and answers to help you create a filing system that works for you:

How many ways are there to file my paperwork?

There are many ways to organize files. Some of the best systems are actually a combination of a few of the systems below:

  • Alphabetical: This method is probably the most familiar because it’s very easy to understand. Things are filed in alphabetical order: Insurance-Health, Insurance-Home, Insurance-Life, Insurance-Umbrella Policy. All filed under I for Insurance and then each type of insurance is put in alpha order.
  • Categorical: For a small business owner, their filing system may have five categories: Administrative, Clients/Customers/Guests, Finance, Personnel, and Marketing.
  • Geographical: Because of e-commerce, it’s not uncommon for business owners to create a geographical filing system indexing by time zone, country, continent or state.
  • Numerical: Any type of business that generates numbered documents like invoices, checks or purchase orders probably uses a numerical type of filing system.
  • Chronological: By month and year. I prefer to use the “freshest up front” rule meaning that the most recent documents are dropped in the front of the folder or binder.
  • Subject: I’ve worked with many clients where topics are too broad which means that filing by name, number or location isn’t the best fit. Instead, a subject filing system within an alphabetic system is best. A PhD candidate doing research for her dissertation might create a master file, “Types of Data” and within that file have four sub-files labeled: Observational, Experimental, Simulation, Derived or Compiled.

Somewhat related to filing – file folders

If creating a paper filing system (not an electronic one) you’ll need to make a few decisions about file folders:

  • Tab Size: 1/5, 1/3rd or ½ tabs
  • Tab order: single-line or staggered
  • Colors: If using a color-coded hanging file system, I suggest not using more than four colors which means no more than four categories. For home use I suggest the following: Fun, Family, Factual, and Business (if appropriate).
  • If using interior folders AND colored hanging files, use one neutral color for the interior folder.

See “Decluttering Your Home: Tips, Techniques & Trade Secrets” pages 92 – 96 for more filing tips as well as pages 118 – 121 for digital organizing tips.

What do I need to keep and for how long?

Many people keep a lot of paper they don’t need out of fear that they “might need it someday.” But if you cannot name a specific situation that calls for your document, you probably don’t need it. Still, some records must be kept, such as birth and death certificates, divorce decrees, some medical records, and your passport. To determine how long to keep specific documents, search for “Paper Retention Guidelines” on Google or your favorite search engine. You can also get a copy of “Do I Have To Keep This Piece of Paper,” by my colleague, Julie Bestry. In addition, organizing pioneer, Barbara Hemphill, also has some useful questions you can ask yourself about whether to keep a document or toss it. Read those questions in our interview with her.

Once I decide to keep it, where do I put it so I can actually find it later?

If that question sounds familiar, you’re not alone! Get started with How to Create a Filing System. This post breaks down the basics of filing from creating the actual files to naming them in a way that works for you.

Are there ready-made filing systems?

Some people struggle to organize electronic and paper documents because standard filing systems don’t fit with the way their brain works. That’s one reason I like the JOYS Filing System. The system’s creator, Cathy Anderson, has some fantastic thoughts on how right-brained people can file. Her creations are well thought out and detailed.

Where should I keep my vital documents?

While most of our papers can be filed in a drawer, some vital documents should be stored in a safe place in case of fire or theft. You might keep birth certificates and passports, for example, in a fireproof box or in a safe deposit box at your local bank.

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