colored hanging files
2 drawer file cabinet
File cabinet (Office Dimensions)

Organizing files

Organizing files takes time initially but is well worth the benefits. As your San Diego Professional Organizer I know that being able to find what you need quickly will minimize stress and boost your productivity. Paper files or digital? You can utilize some or all of these tips for either!

Organizing files | Organizing Tips

Labels – Keep it simple. Weigh the benefits of handwritten versus using a label maker depending on time, effort and personal preference.

pile of papers
ca. 2003 — Businessman Carrying Pile of Files — Image by © Darama/CORBIS

Contents – Decide what you need to keep in files and purge regularly.

  • Tax documents – Information kept for tax purposes can be found on: Tax records checklist (
  • Reference items – documents that you refer to for current information, professional use, or personal interest. No immediate action necessary.
  • Action items – Items that require an action and have a deadline can be categorized in these files. Examples: bills, meeting registration confirmations, airline tickets, and greeting cards.

Access – The files that you use often (daily) need to be near you or within easy reach. You can use the desk file drawer instead of a separate cabinet, or a hanging file box. The “right” access will optimize your efficiency and productivity.

Storage, retrieval – Store files that you need on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in the top drawer. This will minimize your need to bend down and make it easier to see the file labels. Store files that you keep for 3-7 years in a weather proof container or cabinet. Heavy bins or boxes  are better stored on a low or arm’s length shelf for easy retrieval. This will enable you to purge on an annual basis. Read more:  How long should I keep records?

Shared use  – If files are used by more than 1 person it is important to agree on the storage and labeling systems that you put in place. This will enable all users to find and store important documents.

Systems – The systems that you set up need to align with how the user(s) thinks and learns. Ask, ” how will I think to look for it?” It isn’t a matter of right or wrong but what works for you. Here is a common example of ways to file information about a car. The file could be labeled:

  • Vehicle
  • Car
  • Auto
  • Toyota
  • Camry
  • Dad’s car

Alphabetical – Keep it simple, 1-2 words per label.

hanging file tab
Clear plastic hanging file tab (Pendaflex)

Hanging files – It is often easier to see the tabs on hanging files if they are inserted on the front of the hanging file. It is also easier to search for the file tab if they are all aligned to 1 side rather than haphazardly placed. Ideally, use clear tabs for best visibility. Within each hanging file you may have 1 or more file folders. Read on…

Straight file folder

File folders – Single cut, 5 cut, 3 cut, straight cut? I mentioned that it is useful to align hanging file folder tabs to 1 side. The same is true with file folders, for instance, my hanging file tabs are all aligned to the right, and the file folders are labeled to the left. Your eye becomes trained to only look in 1 direction. This is easily done with a straight or single cut file folder.

Categories; sub categories – Broad categories such as using the example of the car, you may have the following system:

  • Hanging file tab labeled “car”
  • File folders for each of the following sub-categories: DMV registration, title, purchase or lease documents, driver’s license, smog inspection. Maintenance/repairs/service. AAA or road protection.

Color coding – if you are a visual learner you may benefit from color coding your labels and/or files. The only down side of this system is when you run out of the color you need. Use caution in the number of colors you use.

Aesthetics – some individuals are more likely to file documents when they have colorful or patterned file folders. If this resonates with you, go for it! Given the higher cost of “fancy” folders you may want to use them for only certain categories. Another option is to color code the hanging files and insert manila file folders.

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