Filing systems for home

How to Win Back 5 Hours A Week in 5 Minutes!

One of the simplest and most overlooked aspects of being organized is getting your computer files organized. Every time you have to dig around for a document you can’t find or have to do unnecessary clicks to access a folder, you are not as productive as you could be. You are wasting precious time that you could use doing something that would help you move forward with your goals. Your time, once used, you can never take back and if you don’t do anything with your file organization methods, you will keep using up your time just digging. Your document list is just going to grow steadily so now is the time to do something about it.

You shouldn’t be sacrificing your time just searching and clicking for a document. You should be able to find that document in five seconds, not five minutes. I’ve been there too and there were even times when I really couldn’t find a file and when I wasn’t looking for it anymore, lo and behold–I found it.

Asian Efficiency has helped more than thirteen thousand people get organized. This includes todo lists, emails, and also file organization.

Let’s look at some good practices for keeping your files and documents neat, in folders and easily searchable and accessible.

The idea of organizing files and documents goes back to the good-old-days of filing cabinets and paper.

The advantage of the original paper-based cabinets was that you really had to think about where to put documents so that you could locate them easily when they were needed. With digital documents, since you can’t see or touch them, it becomes too easy to have files scattered all over your computer.

Since this is a digital mess and not a physical mess, often you don’t realize you have a problem — until you have a problem! You don’t feel the pain of a disorganized system until you can’t find a document you need.

Even though search is a powerful tool, and there is a training course in The Dojo taking you through searching for files, you still want to have a basic organizational structure so that you don’t have to rely solely on search.

Note: We’ll be talking about folders and directories on your hard disk in this article. The same general concepts will apply if you use a system like DevonThink, Evernote, or OneNote.

We’ll do our best to cover both macOS and Windows in this article. For the most part, the user directory structure is the same, and the strategies should apply to both Mac and Windows.

The Goals of Your Organizational System

There are three overarching goals for your file organization system:

  1. Easy to File– You don’t want your system to be a huge, hierarchical maze. You want it to be fast and easy to save files so your system does not cause friction.
  2. Easy to Find – You want your system to make it easy to find the file or folder you need, either by poking through folders or using search.
  3. Reusable – Where possible, you want to use re-usable templates and naming conventions, both of which support the previous two goals.

Some Simple Rules

Let’s start with some simple rules for managing your files and folders.

1. Don’t put files on the desktop

Your desktop is supposed to be clean and display that gorgeous high-resolution wallpaper you’ve got going on. It should contain your trash/recycle bin, and that’s about it.

On occasion, it can be handy to put a file or two on your desktop for temporary storage if you’re referring to it regularly and don’t need to file it just yet.

If you want to make sure to keep your desktop clear, check out our Hazel tutorial. There is a rule to automatically clean off your desktop. While Hazel is a Mac application, you can do the same thing with DropIt on Windows.

2. Limit folder creation

When you’re creating folders, think minimal. Most files and documents can fit somewhere in your hierarchy if you’ve done a good job of initially mapping it out.

In general, only create new folders (especially top-level folders in Documents) if you find yourself repeatedly coming back to save similar files in the same place, only to find that it doesn’t exist yet. You’ll know when it is time to create another level in the hierarchy rather than creating a vast extensive multi-layered tree before you need it.

You want your structure to be as simple as you can get away with. I have always liked this quote from David Sparks in Mac Power Users episode 99:

“You don’t want to spend any more time on the input side than necessary to find it on the output side.”

3. Name your files and folders strategically

One of our goals for organizing our files is “Easy to Find.” A key way to accomplish this is by putting some thought into how you name your folders and files.

It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. Friend-of-AE Brett Kelly likes to talk about the concept of naming your data by keeping in mind your “Future You”. Here’s what he means by that:

…try to imagine the circumstance in which you’ll need it and which words you’re likely to use when trying to find it.

Think about saving a phone bill. Do you think phone bill.pdf is a good name? Probably not. July phone bill.pdf is not any better.

So when you’re naming that phone bill, think about how you might look for it. Probably:

  • By date (I want the July 2017 phone bill)
  • By company (I want the XYZCorp phone bill)
  • By type of document (I want a phone bill)

So a good name would allow you to look at the files in a folder and right away see what each file is without opening it. It would give you things you can use to search.

So a good file name, in this case, could be 2017-07 XYZCorp Bill.pdf

The same concept applies to folders. It is not helpful to have a bunch of folders called Invoices inside other folders. It would be better to call the folder ABCCorp Invoices (even if it is inside a master ABCCorp folder) so that you can use that name to search on later. It makes it much faster and easier to get to with the keyboard.

Dropbox and File Sync

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of directory organization, I want to give a mention to Dropbox and other similar services.

Sync services (including those built into macOS and Windows 10) are amazing tools for having access to your documents between different devices and being able to be productive wherever you are. They’re also great for sharing documents with others.

We use Dropbox extensively, but many people use iCloud Drive or OneDrive, and Box and Google Drive are also popular.

The structures and strategies we talk about here can be used on your local file system, or can be synced to the cloud if you place the folder structure in the special folder for your service of choice.

Documents

Let’s take a look at your personal documents. Whether you use Windows or Mac, you will likely use the /username/Documents folder on your computer to hold your personal documents. (Of course, if you use Windows, the slash is a \ instead of a /.)

If you happen to do both work and personal tasks on your computer, you should create two folders to separate out your personal and business items.

If you’re using Dropbox, it could look like this:

  • /Dropbox/Business
  • /Dropbox/Personal

If you’re not using Dropbox, you can similarly do:

  • /Documents/Business
  • /Documents/Personal

Now how you divide up your personal documents is mostly a matter of how you mentally divide up your life. A very basic split could be Education, Employers, Family, Finance, Health, Home, Purchases, Travel, and Vehicle.

There could then be a moderate amount of subfolders under these. For example, if you have kids and have documents related to your parents, you may want to split up Family:

  • /Documents/Family/Duncans (My parents)
  • /Documents/Family/Yeungs (My wife’s)
  • Kids

If your mind goes this way, you could also do a split by life areas, like:

  • /Documents/finances
  • /Documents/social
  • /Documents/play
  • /Documents/mind
  • /Documents/health

The general rule to follow is to pick a folder structure that matches how you mentally organize things. If you use a task management system, it’s probably not a bad idea to mimic the structure that you use in there too.

Business Documents

Similar to your personal documents, your business documents and how you organize them will largely depend on your occupation, industry, company and job position.

If you are in a large organization, you will likely be working from a shared drive, in which case the directory structure will usually be pretty set, so you don’t have to worry about it too much.

If you are a small team or organization and are building your structure, it can be helpful to get the people together who will be working with these documents and come up with the structure together. You’ll be more likely to have buy-in if the people who are most familiar with the documents have a say in how they’re structured.

If you decide to store some documents locally or if you’re not working from a shared drive, it largely comes down to what you do. For example, say you’re a business analyst doing project work. Your directory structure could look something like this:

  • /project name 1
  • /project name 1/wip
  • /project name 1/brainstorming
  • /project name 1/output
  • /project name 2
  • /project name 3
  • /archive

Each project would then have subfolders related to logical units of organization, like the type of work, stakeholders or who you’re reporting to. /archive is where you would move your completed projects when they’re done. In contrast, say you’re an online marketer working from your laptop on the beaches of Bali, you may have something more like this set up:

  • /finances
  • /legal
  • /marketing
  • /products
  • /projects
  • /planning
  • /systems
  • /technology

This is actually pretty similar to what we have set up at Asian Efficiency (sadly, I am not writing this from the beaches of Bali). How you organize your business-related directories comes down to how you decide to divide up your business or job into logical units. An easy way to do this is to grab a sheet of paper or a whiteboard and map out your company/enterprise in detail, based on what it is you do day-to-day. Then group related activities into logical groupings – think of it as an organization chart for your job/company, minus the positions.

Sample Folder Structure

To get started, here’s a sample folder structure. You could start with this and tailor it to your needs.

Sample Folder Structure

Folder Templates

Once you start analyzing how you work with files and folders, you may notice that you have certain folders and subfolders that you use over and over.

This is especially true for financial documents, client work, and project work.

It can be very helpful to pre-create a folder template with the structure you want to use. Then every time you come to a new financial period, onboard a new client, or start a new project, you can just copy over that folder template.

This has two benefits:

  1. It saves time. With a few mouse clicks or keystrokes, you have your whole folder tree created.
  2. It enforces consistency. You know your folders will be named the same way every time, which means it is more likely that you will save things in the right place, and it makes it much easier to quickly find things with search.

To create a folder template, just set up your sample folder structure. Then when you need it, you can copy it in Finder on macOS or File Explorer on Windows and paste it into your new client or project folder.

To be extra Asian Efficient, you can use a tool like Keyboard Maestro or Alfred and have your folder template created with a few keystrokes. No mousing needed.

Shortcuts, Favorites, and Launchers Are Your Friends

Do you have specific folders that you access all the time? Instead of always digging through your file structure to get to it, you can drag the folder to the Finder or File Explorer sidebar. This will create a shortcut directly to that folder, giving you 1-click access.

Pro-tip: This feature is great for those folders you permanently need access to, but it is also excellent when you are working on a project. Drag your project folder(s) to the sidebar while the project is going on and you want quick access to the folder, and then when you’re done, you can just remove it. Shortcuts can be temporary!

If you are a keyboard type (which we highly recommend), learn to use an app launcher like Alfred or LaunchBar on Mac or Listary on Windows. You can start typing the name of the folder you want, and with a few keystrokes jump right there. Once you get the hang of it, it will probably become your preferred way to go to a folder.

Automated Organizing

We touched on this earlier in the article, but once you have your folder structure set up, you can gain a huge productivity boost by setting up an automated organization tool like Hazel on Mac or DropIt on Windows.

If you have files that are recurring (for example bills or statements) and you can think of a way to build rules for them (for example “always named xyz” or “always contain the text abc”), you can use these tools to auto-file the documents for you. All you need to do is scan or download the document, and your tool will rename it and whisk it away to the appropriate folder.

Here is our Hazel tutorial (the same general concepts apply to DropIt), and here is a tutorial for going paperless using an automated organizer.

In Closing

We hope you’ve picked up some ideas from this article that will help you better organize your documents and files. As long as you follow the rules in the beginning and set up an effective hierarchy, file and directory organization is a breeze.

For more in-depth training on file organization and file search, make sure to check out our training courses inside The Dojo, our exclusive members-only community that is jam-packed with trainings, courses, masterclasses, podcasts, coaching calls, action plans, and productivity-focused individuals just like you.

If you want more articles and tips like these, let us know where we can send them to:

3 Tried-and-True Ways to Get Your Small Business Organized This Year

  • Clean up your desktop: There are a couple of ways to set up your desktop, and it all depends on your work style and how you use your computer. You can get rid of everything from your desktop except for your trash bin (remember that the app icons on your desktop are just shortcuts—all of your actual apps usually live in your Applications folder). Or you can add a few shortcuts to your most frequently used apps and files.
  • Set up a digital filing system: To make everything easier to navigate, you need to create a filing system that makes complete sense to you. That way, you can quickly find the documents you need, when you nee them.
  • Update software: If your computer is set to automatically install application and operating system updates, then you’re set. If it’s a manual process for you, you should check for updates at least bi-monthly since many include security patches. Then, once a year, review the current versions of software you are using and decide if it’s time to upgrade.
  • Scan for viruses and performance issues: Regardless of what type of computer you have, all of them can get viruses or malware (yes, even Macs!). If you have a Windows-based computer, it’s smart to run regular maintenance on it to keep it virus-free and running smoothly.
  • Verify the integrity of your data backup: You are backing up your data, right? If not, skip everything else for the time being and do this one first. You can either use a cloud-based data-backup service like Carbonite, Backblaze or CrashPlan or you can use an external hard drive that you plug into your computer. With either option, configure the service or drive to conduct continuous automatic backups so you don’t have to do anything manually. Then, once or twice a year, go into your backup service or drive and poke around to make sure everything is there and accessible should you need to pull copies to your local computer.
  • Wrangle your inbox: Many small-business owners have a love-hate relationship with their email inbox. They love it because it’s a highly productive and efficient communication tool, yet they hate it because it can quickly get out of control and cause unnecessary stress. There are things you can do to keep your inbox in line, such as using automation, streamlining what you receive on a daily basis, and limiting how often you check email during your day.

If the very notion of paperwork brings you out in a cold sweat, then chances are you’re more of a ‘shove it in a drawer and forget about it’ type of person than a ‘deal with it promptly and file’ individual.

Don’t worry – most of us fall into the paperwork-fearing group – but as well know, failing to deal with that flow of mail or store it efficiently will only lead to stress in the future.

That’s why we asked Vicky Silverthorn, a professional organiser, to share her fool-proof paperwork sorting system with us. Here’s how to get organised and never be overwhelmed by paperwork EVER again…

You will need

1 multi-drawer filing cabinet (Bisley makes good ones)

1 letter tray that sits on top

Labels

What to do

Step 1: Gather together every scrap of paperwork from the house, from documents you’ve already stashed away to new letters that have just plopped onto the doormat.

Step 2: Clear a large space – perhaps a dining table, or space on the floor where you can lay out piles of paper without them being disturbed.

Step 3: Start to sort all the pieces of paperwork you have into categories on the floor. Don’t get waylaid by the content or sorting them into date order at this point; for now you are just categorising everything into neat piles (e.g. ‘medical’, ‘bills’, ‘receipts’ and so on).

Step 4: Now it’s time to work through each pile methodically. Get rid of anything that can be recycled or shredded, and pull out any items that need to be ‘actioned’. By the end you should (hopefully) have a much smaller pile.

MORE: 6 THINGS YOU NEED TO SHRED RIGHT NOW

Step 5: Put anything that needs to be actioned into the letter tray, which will sit on top of the filing cabinet. Whenever you have a free half hour in the future, you can come to this tray and start working through it.

Step 6: Sort the remaining papers into date order, and place them into one of the drawers in the filing cabinet. Clearly label the contents of that drawer on the front of the filing cabinet.

You now have a very clear system for paperwork as it enters your house. It either gets filed straight away into the correct drawer, or goes into the ‘action’ tray to be dealt with.

Once a drawer starts to get full, go to the bottom of the drawer (where the oldest documents are) and review whether you still need them.

MORE: 5 GOLDEN RULES FOR DECLUTTERING YOUR WARDROBE

If there are any documents you believe you really need to hold onto (a quick Google should help with this) then you could consider having an archive box for old paperwork, which you can keep in a loft or cupboard.

Top tips

– Be realistic about how long this will take you. If you have a big stack of paperwork built up, it could take a number of sessions over several days to sort everything. It’s much better that you take your time and have breaks than to simply panic and give up because you attempt to do too much at once.

– Ideally, set aside an undisturbed area to sort your paperwork, so you can take a break when you need to and come back to it without everything having been moved. A dining room table is great, for example.

– Don’t over-complicate the system by adding in confusing colour coding or subcategories. It’ll all get too much to remember.

– Remember if you want to assign a drawer for passports, spare keys and so on then it is worth investing in lockable drawers for security purposes.

– If you have the space, then wait until you’ve sorted all the paperwork before buying the drawers. That way you know exactly what size filing cabinet to buy (you can buy more than one if necessary!)

(Images: Getty)

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How to Set Up an Effective Filing System

How’s your filing system? Frustrating? Do you find that it’s too hard to remember where things go? Do you ever have trouble finding a specific document again once you’ve stashed it away? You may even have three or four files that contain the same information but are labeled differently – what a mess!

Fixing The Problem

What causes the downfall of a filing system? Chances are it wasn’t much of a “system” to begin with. More likely, it was just a random assortment of individual files that really had no connection to each other.

To create a truly effective filing system, you need to start with a plan. Simply slapping a label on a folder won’t cut it. Don’t worry though; we’re going to set up a filing system that can accommodate any type of paper – home or office. For supplies all you really need are several colors of 2/5 cut tab colored folders, and some box bottom hanging folders

Creating File Categories

Look at your current filing system (or that pile of paper that you’ve been meaning to file for months) and start sorting your documents into broad categories. “Finances” might be one; “house stuff” could be another. At this point, we’re not focusing on the detail of your filing system. Quite frankly it doesn’t matter if it’s a credit card bill or a bank statement right now. We’ll worry about those distinctions later on.

Subcategorizing

Pick one of your “major category” piles and let’s sort through it again. This time, think about breaking your paper into smaller subcategories. For example, your “finances” pile could be divided into:

  • savings account
  • checking account
  • student loan
  • credit card account

Be specific; don’t just say that they are “bank statements”. Determine which account they belong to and break each out into a separate pile. We don’t want any files “bunking” with other files – everyone gets his or her own separate folder.

Color Coding

Each major category of paperwork should be assigned a different color (your choice) – and then we’re going to put each of its subcategories into an individual hanging file folder. In the example above, “finances” might be green, and each of your accounts gets a separate green file folder. It seems like a small thing, but color-coding your system will save you a huge amount of time in filing and retrieving papers.

Being able to look in your file drawer and see distinct bodies of information broken out by color just makes SENSE to your brain. When you know that your financial section is green, your house section is blue and your car papers are in red, you don’t even have to think because your hand just naturally goes to the right part of your file drawer.

Label Making

Now that everyone has their own colored folder, we need to label each file. When creating your labels, move from general to specific. Don’t tell me you are filing paperwork for your “Visa credit card” – call it “credit card: Visa”. When you arrange your folders alphabetically, all of the “credit card” files (no matter how many you have) – will be together in your “finances” section.

Our goal is to keep related files in close proximity to each other. Do this again and again for every grouping of files until you have labeled every file in each major category. I personally use the Viewables® labels because they are neat, easy to read and I can print them from my computer.

Filling Your Drawer

All you have to do now is put the files within each major category in alphabetical order, and then put the major categories themselves into the drawer in alphabetical order.

Place the colored folders in hanging box bottom folders to keep them upright in the drawer. The 2/5 cut tabs show above the hanging files, and the tabs are in a straight line for easy reading.

Whenever you need to find a document or put something in a folder, just look first for the correct major category (easily identified by both the labels and the color). With the right filing system it’s easy to put your hands on the correct file without a lot of searching.

by Ramona Creel

Watch or Listen about How to Set Up an Effective Filing System on the “Keeping You Organized” Podcast.

This all started with a phone call from my accountant. It was on the landline so I couldn’t tell who was calling until it was too late. Blah blah, tax forms. He sounded a bit irritated. What? Blah blah, need the forms, blah blah, on my desk, blah blah, as soon as possible. I tend to get intimidated by people in authority who wear suits and have access to my financial situation so I squeakily acquiesced and pledged to find those forms, sign them and post them.

But I wasn’t that worried about finding them. You see, I knew where the tax forms would be. If, as my accountant said, they were sent five weeks earlier, I’d be able to locate the correct place in my files and all would be well.

My default filing system is not the orthodox A to Z but a more idiosyncratic and organic arrangement using the Crap method (Crap stands for chronological, random ascending pile). They are tepuis made of paper. I instinctively know how long it takes for the pile to build up, so I also know where the tax files should be. It’s a combination of geology and archiving. I am an archeologist of my own stuff. I only had to look at the bottom of my most recent pile, check the date of that unattended piece of paper, then move on to the next pile and so on until I could work out where the tax form was. Usually this would take me a couple of minutes – and I’d still have time to check Twitter, go for a coffee, read the paper and do some more creative work.

But the tax forms weren’t there. And there was something wrong with my piles, too. Although I’ve been running this system all my life I’ve noticed recently that there might be some flaws in my approach. For instance, when somebody else wants to find something, it’s an impossible task.

Like many sole trader freelances, I work from home and the home/work balance can create a few problems. My wife (who loves order) sometimes goes crazy when she comes into the study looking for car documents, library books, theatre tickets, letters from school, or birth certificates (mine is, obviously, at the bottom of my first pile).

“What happens to your piles when the piles are too big for the desk?” she asks, quite reasonably. I quickly sift through the piles then fib to her and say I’ve filed them all away. What I tend to do is shove them all into a box, then put it in the attic or in the massive built-in store cupboards in the study. Are creative types justified in wanting to keep scores of folders of “material” for posterity and some future archivist or is it just egomaniacal?

Although I’m pretty disorganised, I do love reading about organisational systems. A few years ago I read David Allen’s seminal productivity-in-the-workplace text Getting Things Done as well as various “Dejunk Your Life” and “Shape Up, Mr Useless!” type tomes. The trouble is, I’ve spent so much time reading about being organised that I’ve never had time to actually put it into practice.

But I’ve recently been trying again with the idea of instigating an A to Z filing system, and so bought a beautiful 1930s wooden filing cabinet (I like to think it was once used by Hemingway. Or maybe Ramsay MacDonald) from a secondhand furniture shop down the road. The kind man who runs the shop arranged to have foolscap-sized file runners installed. Eventually, of course, the cabinet will be full of bits of musical equipment, board games and socks. But for now let’s pretend it’s a filing cabinet.

I bought loads of new files from the stationer’s shop, a place I love to visit because I adore stationery and delight in perusing and buying items such as shredders, CD copiers, rubber stamps, calligraphy pens and blank CD labels (I never use most of the stuff). My cabinet has four drawers, so I split it into “writing”, “artwork”, “business stuff” and a “misc drawer”.

But I obviously got bored because the cabinet is only half full of new files and only half of those have been labelled. And the rest of my papers are still in piles in various places. In other words I’m in the worst of all possible filing worlds – running two systems badly. And I still couldn’t find the tax form.

I’ll admit to a certain amount of frustration, but I have always seen my organisational methods as an extension of myself – my crap filing system might reflect my worldview/philosophy/religion (or lack of it). Or, as one friend put it, “a physical manifestation of how your brain works”. I have always mistrusted systems, whether they be religious or political.

Perhaps I feel that categorising a piece of paper is denying that paper its fundamental rights. With so many people now working from home, how many thousands of hours must be lost in a year from bits of paper getting mislaid, hours that, better used, might help to kickstart our faltering economy?

Other freelances cope differently. Jewellery designer Rebecca Skeels runs her own company with a dual filing system, but rather than random piles like mine, she reckons hers have some kind of order.

“On my desk are piles, one in a box lid for taking to the next session, another a pile of stuff in sleeves for various meetings and issues, and another of interesting stuff that needs to get read when I have time, but probably won’t. Normally I file as soon as I’ve stopped using something, either in a folder or in the bin.”

Writer Charlie Connelly (author of Our Man in Hibernia and Attention All Shipping) thought he was an orthodox A to Z filer, “then I noticed the piles of stuff all around me on my desk. When there’s a ukulele next to a box of chocolate fingers, it’s probably not A to Z. I’m only deluding myself. My desk is like a holding pen for filing: I think, right, I’m going to keep that close at hand so I can file it straightaway, in a minute, eventually, until things become impossibly cramped. It’s a system I think I’ll call desktop kettling.”

To find my missing tax form I need to finish my file system conversion, but at the present rate it will take years. Moving my piles is painful and I procrastinate a lot – so when one of the kids is ill at home, I’ll choose to sit with him and watch a Harry Potter DVD rather than attack my piles/files. Now and then I’ll pop back upstairs and stare at the piles. I need help from a filing guru and so get in touch with Lee Chalmers, who is a life coach and works with trying to make people more productive. I asked her if a “piles” system is inherently bad.

“A to Z filing is not necessarily better, it all depends on the individual,” says Chalmers. “Piles are fine if using them doesn’t take up too much internal memory, you know, asking yourself: ‘What pile is that again?’ A to Z filing takes even that thought away – you know where it is, it’s in a file.

“For me, this means that once I’ve filed something, I don’t need to think about it again, until I need it. When I do, I can find it easily. Piles occur for me as ‘stuff to do’ and when they are around I am never really relaxed. So I am at my most creative when the space around me is organised and the ‘stuff’ is handled and out of sight.”

“Does it suit your identity to be ‘disorganised’ and have piles? What do the piles say about you as a creative? What would it mean about you if you had tidy filing? Boring, maybe…”

Ouch. Though she might have a point. She adds: “If you depend on piles then the number of projects you can take on is limited by your surface space for piling. If you have a good system, it can expand to accommodate loads of projects. As I coach more senior people, their need to be organised is directly proportionate to their ability to play a big game.”

The filing guru’s guru David Allen adds his thoughts: “I’m not sure if it’s ‘normal’ to read about systems and not implement them. Maybe you should just enjoy the hobby of reading about systems, and don’t put pressure on yourself to do anything other than that. There are worse ways to spend your time.”

Some of that filing guru pixie dust must have rubbed off on me because not long afterwards I finally find my tax form. It was buried in the filing cabinet in an unlabelled file, behind another file called “Kids’ artwork” (lots of paintings of spaceships, princess and clouds). My accountant will love me again.

Brimming with confidence – OK, with a few faint drops of confidence – I go back to the slow process of moving to my new A to Z system. It’s like the change to decimalisation or from imperial to metric. It’s going to take a while to get used to. And even more bits of paper have appeared since I started writing this article.

An expert’s tips

US-based business consultant Alyson Stansfield runs courses and workshops for artists and creative types.

1. Get a label maker. Labels will help you organise your files and make them attractive to look at.

2. Don’t spend time colour-coding folders or labels. This will drive you mad later when you run out of purple folders and need one to store something in. Just go with plain manila folders and file everything in alphabetical order.

3. If you can find it on the internet, throw it away. You don’t need to keep it.

4. Just do it! And make it a point to file – rather than stack – regularly.

Tim Bradford’s tips

1. Buy a really nice filing cabinet.

2. But not one that possibly used to belong to Ramsay MacDonald.

3. Read lots of books about productivity.

Money Crashers

Each year, the ordeal of gathering the necessary information to complete and file your tax return seems increasingly difficult, doesn’t it? This problem may be alleviated by implementing an efficient home filing system.

But completing your annual taxes isn’t the only reason to have a good filing system in place. It’s crucial to retain receipts to show how much you paid for property and investments, as well as to prove when the purchases were made. It’s nearly impossible to get a loan without disclosing records of your income and spending.

Keeping track of paperwork is a necessity, and it can cause problems for those who are unprepared and disorganized. However, creating a home filing system that makes sense can be quite simple.

Setting Up a Filing System

If you haven’t yet converted to a paperless system of storing documents, you can still easily manage a system to keep track of all your records.

1. Purchase Necessary Supplies

Visit your favorite office supply store and make the following purchases:

  • One letter-sized pocket file that expands to three and a half inches (approximately $3)
  • Several file folders (less than $1 each)
  • Labels for your file folders (approximately $3 for a pack of 250 labels)

2. Create Labels

Label the expanding folder for the year. Then, create a label for each file folder as follows:

  • Personal expenses, such as clothing, books, groceries, and entertainment
  • Medical/dental
  • Utility bills
  • Large purchases and home improvements
  • Bank statements
  • Investments
  • Credit card statements and receipts
  • Pay stubs
  • Tax records

3. Organize Your Documents and Files

Once you have your folders labeled, start organizing your filing system. As the year progresses, you can add more folders to hold receipts for new categories that you need to keep track of, such as expenses for education, pets, or travel.

Place your file folders inside the expanding folder, and keep your filing system securely tucked in a drawer or filing cabinet. Whenever you make a purchase or a bill payment, make it a habit to immediately place your receipt in the appropriate folder.

To help stay on top of bill payments, create a folder labeled “Bills to Pay.” Keep this folder in a highly visible location so that you are reminded to go through it regularly to pay your outstanding bills. After paying each bill, place the record into the appropriate folder in your filing system.

You should also create a folder labeled “Needs Attention.” For instance, if you need to make an inquiry regarding a suspicious charge on your credit card, or if you need to contact a vendor that didn’t give you credit for having paid your most recent bill, you should keep a record or reminder in this folder.

Daily Filing Method

By implementing this system, you can reduce the time you spend searching through scattered papers by having your files arranged in organized, appropriately labeled files. Create a daily routine to keep your files consistently and properly maintained:

  1. Collect the mail and go through it at your desk or kitchen table.
  2. Open each piece of mail and set aside junk mail and envelopes to be recycled.
  3. Place bills in your “Bills to Pay” folder.
  4. Place receipts in their proper folder. For example, medical services summaries should be put in your “Medical/Dental” folder.
  5. Anything that needs immediate attention should go into your “Needs Attention” folder so that you can take care of it quickly.

What to Keep and for How Long

In most cases, you should keep records for at least three years, as the IRS typically searches three years into your history during a tax audit. However, the IRS may choose to search an additional three years into your history, so for that reason it’s advisable to save records for six years.

Here are some records you should keep for six years:

  • Receipts for any deductions that you listed on your tax return
  • Brokerage statements for transactions reported on your tax return
  • Records relating to the sale of a home or other property reported on your tax return
  • Records of income and expenses reported for your small business on your tax return

Every piece of paper that supports information reported on your tax return should be saved for the six years following the date you filed.

However, there are some records you will want to keep forever:

  • Tax returns
  • Contracts
  • Property deeds and closing statements
  • Records of your contributions to your retirement plans
  • Life insurance policies
  • Estate planning documents, such as a power of attorney or trust agreements

Paperwork to Discard

After you’ve completed your tax return for the year, there is some paperwork that can be discarded. Unless it relates to your tax return, you should be able to get rid of following items:

  • Bank deposit slips and ATM receipts
  • Paycheck stubs
  • Utility cable bill receipts

Final Word

There’s no time like the present to start organizing your paperwork. The sooner you set up an organized filing system, the sooner you can reap the rewards of a de-cluttered home or office. You may also find it much easier to access any paperwork or record anytime you need it.

Do you use a home filing system? What strategies have worked well for you?

(photo credit: Bigstock)

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Can I get a hand raise of how many of us are not particularly fond of paperwork? My hand is raised high and after being married 30 years and being the primary keeper of our filing and bill paying I have been through so many different filing systems I can’t even begin to count them.

Let me tell you, I have found the one that works best for our home and my pattern of dealing with paperwork in a somewhat organized manner. I’m not buying another book on home filing again!

We all need some sort of organization when it comes to keeping our paperwork in order in our homes. It makes tax time easier, helps when you need to find a receipt and it makes is quick to sort through the mail on a daily basis.

Disclaimer: This system will not work well if you are a perfectionist when it comes to filing. It is pretty relaxed and doesn’t take much time.

My home has three areas that I keep papers in (sounds complicated but it’s not – you can break yours down into two by combing the office and kitchen): My office desk, kitchen desk and our main filing cabinet.

We run a home business and I also keep the books for our church but I am just dealing today with a home filing system

(At the end of the post I linked to some supplies through my Amazon affiliate link. The purpose of the links is more to show you the items that I use so you have a visual of the system and how easy it is and how common the supplies are. Nothing fancy here!)

Office Filing Area:

1. I keep an inbox for all opened incoming mail that needs to be dealt with. This is also the drop area for family to leave me items that need to be taken care of; we are talking bills, invitations, letters, tax information etc.

2. I have a desktop file box with the following folders labeled:

Deposits
Bills to Pay
Calendar Items
Personal to File
Business to File
Church to File
Blog Items to File
Address Items
Tax Information

3. It gets pretty easy from here. As I pick up an item from the inbox it gets filed into the appropriate folder. If it is a bill to pay it goes in the bill pay folder. After the bill is paid it goes into the folder for whether it was a personal, business or church item (these folders can be eliminated if you are good at immediately filing or taking care of an item – I am not. Hence the holding folders). I usually pay bills and make deposits once a week.

A calendar item would be an invitation received. It gets responded to, marked on the calendar and goes into the holding folder in case I need more information as the date approaches. After the event it gets tossed and many times the invitation can just get tossed after it’s on the calendar.

Address items are return labels (I tear the return address off an envelope received for an address that I don’t have) or updates when someone moves that I need to put in my address book. I go through it once a month and toss them as they get updated or entered.

Tax information is another holding folder because I am not a quick filer so it may be one you do not need.

4. If you are a quick filer you can eliminate a lot of these folders and steps. I tend to pay bills and make deposits weekly and do my big filing monthly.

Main Filing Area:
1. This is the simple system I keep as I found the simpler it is the more likely I am to keep it in order. We have a large filing cabinets because we have a home business so I keep a small portion of them for our personal files. I use hanging file folders folders with file folders for sub categories where needed within them. Here are my folder labels for the main area with brief descriptions to follow:

-Long Term Home Improvements – Sub folder Mortgage Information
-Insurance Policies – Sub folders for Car, Home, Life, Disability & Umbrella
-Tax Information
-Vehicle Information
-2014 Personal

Long Term Home Improvements – These will come in handy for tax purposes when you sell your home. Keep receipts of any improvements that you have made to your home. These will help when you sell to reduce the cost of your capital gains. I also keep here a folder with information on our home’s mortgage (for tax purposes) – Visit here for more information.

Insurance Policies – Each policy is in it’s own folder within the main insurance folder.
Tax Information for the current year – This is information that we will need at year end for taxes for the current year. All filed tax returns and documents are kept in a safe in our basement.

Vehicle Information – Vehicle’s title and repair information is kept here.

Main Folder with the Year Marked – I label it for the year and put all paid bills, receipts and anything else I would file in here. I used to keep a folder for each month of the year and file it this way but I found it was just as easy to keep it all in one big hanging file folder.

If I need to find a receipt or bill stub (very rare) I may have a few minutes of sorting through but not much. I also find I don’t lose papers or have issues remembering where I filed them since there aren’t a lot of options.

My filing has been cut back dramatically with online bill pay through my bank. I get my bank and credit card statements online and save them on our family network drive.

Some Other Important Documents:
1. One other area I haven’t mentioned are appliance manuals and those are kept near or in the same room as the appliance. Most manuals are now available online so this is an optional item to keep on hand.

2. Other important documents like marriage license, birth certificates etc. are kept in a safe in the basement.

3. In our vehicles we keep our registration and car insurance information in the glove box.

4. I have a special folder my family is aware of (in case of death) with log-in information for our financial and any other important accounts we access online or offline. It also has contact information for our accountant and attorney. (As I’m writing this I realize I need to do some updates to it).

Kitchen Filing Area: (More personal home items)

(My kitchen desk – you can see my folders on the left)

1. I keep a desktop file box with the following folders. These will be personal to your family’s needs and activities.

Church Directory
Blank Menu Planning Forms
Labels & Postage – I keep our return address labels and stamps handy
Articles to Read – from magazines or printed out from online
Coupons
Compassion – Letters from our Compassion child
Planner Sheets – I print weekly sheets out from The Confident Mom Planner

Putting it All Together:
I want you to follow with me a couple of items from start to finish within my filing system. Most of my filing into the main filing area is done once a month. This makes my filing so quick and easy and I am able to find anything in a matter of minutes (sometimes seconds).

Electric Bill
1. Pay bill online.
2. Put the bill stub in the personal folder in the office.
3. At the end of the month take all items out of the personal folder to file in office and sort into the proper place in the main filing area. The paid electric bill would just go in the main folder.

Car Insurance Policy Changes
1. Insurance change enters inbox.
2. Opened and placed in the personal file folder in the office.
3. At month end policy change is put into the car insurance sub-folder in the insurance folder in the main filing area.

Wedding Invitation
1. Enters the inbox.
2. Opened and responded to and marked on the calendar.
3. I keep the invitation in the calendar folder in case I need more information when the date arrives.

Grocery store or restaurant coupons
1. Those that may be of interest go directly into the coupon file on my kitchen desk and if not used are discarded after expiring.

File Storage at Year End:

1. At the end of the year I take those folders from the main filing area (2014 Personal) only pertaining to the year itself and put them in a bankers box for long term storage (we keep them for seven years and then shred). The tax forms for the year go in our safe. I do hold on to our tax forms for seven years and then we shred the old documents not needed. The Long Term File never gets moved and the insurance folder gets a quick clean out to see what can get filed with that current year.

The Stuff: (Please note these are affiliate links but are offered more to show you what the products look like that I use. You can buy them at your local office supply store.)
Desktop File Box:

Kitchen File Box:

Example of an inbox:

Hanging File Folders for Desktop File and Main Filing System:

File Folders: (I like to get fun ones for my desktop files)

File Folder Labels (I hand write on them – it takes me too long to do them on the computer)

Bankers boxes for year end storage:

Home Safe:

My Disclaimer: I am not a professional accountant or financial consultant so please consult your own accountant before you determine how to set up a filing system for your own home. I just know what works for our family and hope it will give those of you who have a not system a simple place to start. I have not even tackled here homeschool files or blogger records. At some point in the future I would like to work on a post on how I keep track of my blogging records. I do keep files for our home business and church but those each have separate files for each category but it is still pretty basic.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ This post is part of the Homemaking 101 SeriesVisit all the posts in the series here. Subscribe to Thankful Homemaker and not miss a post. Follow the Homemaking 101 Board on Pinterest.

Week #20 Organized Home ChallengeHow To Organize Files In Your Home

In this week’s challenge we’ll tackle how to organize files in your home so you can find the paper and documents you need, when you need them, without having to spend all your time filing.

This challenge is really a culmination of several week’s worth of work you’ve already done, if you’ve been following along with the past several challenges.

That is because creating a home filing system all at once can be a bit daunting, so I broke down the process over a couple of week period.

First, we organized how we dealt with and processed much of the incoming paper into our homes, with our home mail organizer center. Next, we dealt with organizing the paperwork that goes out most frequently in our homes, organizing and paying bills. Then, lastly, we worked on organizing one type of document that was needed each year, tax documents.

Are you new here? The Organize Files Challenge is part of the 52 Weeks To An Organized Home Challenge. (Click the link to learn how to join us for free for future and past challenges if you aren’t already a regular reader).

Now, we’ll put all those previous actions in their place, and finish off a large majority of the paper organization, by creating a home filing system that saves additional documents you may need to reference over the years for your home to function smoothly.

Here are the steps to take:

Step 1: Choose A Place And Storage Solution To Store Your Home’s Files

The first step in the Organize Files Challenge may seem like an obvious one, but it is very important, since it is to choose a place and storage solution to store your home’s files.

I made the mistake for several years of my adult life not really having a place to file and keep papers in my home. That resulted in lots of lost paperwork, and scrambles to find important documents when we needed them.

File cart

Every home, no matter how small in size or number of family members needs a place to hold and file paperwork. This can be a file drawer or cabinet, a rolling filing basket, or a cardboard bankers box.

It should ideally be at least two file drawers in size, or an equivalent based on the storage solution you choose. That may seem large to you (or small, depending on how much paper you have), but giving your paper enough space is important. You can choose a file cabinet that looks like one you’d find in an office, or they have file cabinets for your home which look more like nice pieces of furniture.

Make room for as much filing space as you need, because if you don’t have enough filing space you’ll delay filing things, because shoving one more thing into the space just really isn’t possible.

You can choose to have your files located wherever you want in your home, but ideally it will be close to your mail center, and to where you pay your bills and otherwise do your paperwork, such as in your home office or kitchen.

You don’t have to get a fire resistant filing cabinet, but you may want to consider it if you’ve got paperwork that cannot easily be replaced. (Or, you could choose to store such documents in a safe deposit box.)

Here are some of these smaller boxes that are available:

Step 2: Get Rid Of Paper Clutter In Your Current Filing System If You Have One

If you’ve already got some type of filing system set up, even if it’s not caught up and to your current liking, you will also need to deal with the contents of this current filing system during this challenge.

As always, before we begin to organize we get rid of excess clutter, so step 2 of the challenge is to declutter your current filing system, getting rid of any documents that are no longer worth saving, but instead are just paper clutter now.

You can read my article on how to get rid of file clutter here for more details.

Step 3: Create Your Home Filing System And Organize Files

The next step in this challenge is to create your home filing system and organize the files within it.

You should use a combination of hanging files and manila folders. I’ve provided more general filing tips, plus discuss the filing supplies you’ll need in this article.

The files you choose for your filing system will be somewhat unique to your individual circumstances, but here is my article listing suggested file categories for your home filing system that can help you out.

One file everyone should have though is a vital records file, which contains some of the most important and hard to replace documents in it. The link provides more information to my article about how to create this file, and ways to safely store the documents contained within it, including some information about fire-resistant filing boxes and safe deposit boxes.

Once you’ve create all your file folders go ahead and create a file index. The article linked gives you more information, but basically this is a table of contents for your filing system, which will help you not accidentally later make duplicate files with a slightly different name, or scratch your head wondering what you named a file.

Next, go ahead and organize files for each of the categories, adding things as you go.

If you’ve been working on your filing system from the very beginning of keeping your home, what I’ve just told you to do doesn’t sound too overwhelming. However, if you’ve got papers all over your home and never had a home filing system before, what I just said about how to organize files will seem like an almost impossible task.

Trust me, I’ve been there. The first thing to do is set up the system, and begin using it today. Over the next couple of weeks sit down with a shredder and go through your papers, putting them into the correct files or shredding them if you no longer need them.

It will take a while, but a little at a time while listening to the radio or watching a movie on your computer will get the job done and then you’ll just have to deal with papers as they come in, not huge stacks ever again!

Step 4: Purge Some Of Your Files Annually To Keep Paper Clutter From Taking Over

The last step in the Organize File Challenge is to have a good look at your files annually, and decide what can get tossed, so you don’t start getting too much paper accumulated over time.

Honestly, much of the paperwork that is unique to this challenge, like investment documents or medical records, and vital documents, all need to be kept long term so you won’t actually be purging them often, if at all.

However, there are less of these documents typically than the kind you can throw away in reasonable intervals, like your utility bills and grocery receipts, for example. I’ve given instructions for a “retention schedule” for those types of documents, and when to trash them in this article here.

As long as you purge these types of documents regularly (and by that, I mean annually), you won’t find yourself running out of filing space too quickly.

Here’s my article with more information about this annual mission to declutter files from your filing system with more details.

Remember some of those documents that you purge should be shredded, not just tossed in the recycling bin or trash can. Here’s my list of what documents need to be shredded so you don’t accidentally disclose personal identifying information during this annual purge.

Tell Me How The Organize Files Challenge Is Going For You

I would love to know how this week’s Organize Files Challenge is going. You can tell me your progress or give me more ideas for how you’ve organized your home filing system in the comments.

I also love before and after pictures of your file drawers or boxes, and would love to see some of yours. Submit your pictures (up to four per submission) and get featured in the Creative Storage Solutions Hall of Fame. You’ve worked hard to get organized, so now here’s your chance to show off!

Plus, if you’ve gotten rid of lots of papers over the course of the last few challenges, make sure you share your successes in the getting rid of paper clutter hall of fame.

Sneak Peek For Next Week’s Challenge

We’re working on our homes slowly, one area at a time, so don’t get too distracted from the Organize Files Challenge this week. However, I want you to know that we’re getting close to being done with most of our paper clutter and organization, with just a couple of areas to go.

Next week we’re going to work on some areas that provide a large bulk of paper clutter in our homes, when we work on organizing magazines, newspapers and catalogs.

Make Sure You’re Set To Make The Most Of These Organizing Challenges

If you’d like to join a small community of others who are all commmitted to these organizing challenges and decluttering missions, and want more interaction with me, as well as weekly group coaching sessions for the upcoming week’s challenge, I’d urge you to join the private and exclusive Declutter 365 Premium Facebook group (you can learn more about it at the link).

In addition, have you gotten your Declutter 365 Products yet, to make sure you can get even more assistance with decluttering and organizing your home this year? There are both free products (like the Declutter 365 calendar), as well as add-ons, such as daily text messages and a Premium Facebook group.

Some links on this page are affiliate links, meaning that if you purchase a product through them I receive a small commission which helps me provide this information to you for free, plus support my family. My integrity and your satisfaction are very important to me so I only recommend products I would purchase myself, and that I believe would benefit you. To learn more please see my disclosure statement.

Share Your Comments, Tips & Ideas

I would love to hear from you, sharing your thoughts, questions, or ideas about this topic, so leave me a comment below. I try to always respond back!

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