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Reference filing system full before I start!

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  • Reference filing system full before I start!

    Hi,

    Can anyone advise me on setting up my filing system and then getting stuff into "in" ...

    I have a four drawer filing cabinet which is full of hanging folders ... and full of papers. So, having read the book, I know I need to convert all these to alpha-sorted, labelled manilla folders.

    How do I start? Isn't this a catch-22 - I can't start without a decent filing system (A-Z, labelled, manilla) but the filing system I have is in a mess and needs putting into "in", so I can't start with a filing system!

    Also, which bit is supposed to take two days? It will take me weeks to sort out every piece of paper in my cabinet

    And ... can anyone advise on how to order single topic folders that have too much paper for one manilla folder - is it always chronologically? Do you have to rip off the label and print a new one (with dates?) when a folder gets full?

    BTW : this is just at home, work is much, much simpler

    Thanks much for any replies!

    Andy Cragg

  • #2
    Just do it - step by step - using hanging folders.

    Is it really a complete mess?

    Isn't it possible to label at least one hanging folder using some meaningful label?

    If you can label at least one hanging folder - just do it (it will take less than 2 minutes). Put it in the drawer.

    And maybe there is one more such hanging folder that you can label. So... Just do it. And put it in the drawer before or after the first one (in A-Z order).

    Can you find another one? If so - label it now and put before, between or after the first and second one (in A-Z order).

    If you are tired and cannot do more - just stop. Tomorrow you will label next 3 folders.

    Comment


    • #3
      Thanks for the reply. It sounds good - but doesn't that short-circuit the processing (actionable/tickler/someday/maybe/ref/project/next action) for each folder?

      Cheers,

      Andy

      Comment


      • #4
        Go to your local office supply store and buy portable cardboard file boxes. They are pretty cheap, usually come in packs of three or four, and are generally useful once the great purge is done.

        Take the top drawer of your file cabinet and empty everything in it into one or more of these file boxes.

        Take the first piece of paper out of the first folder in the first file box.
        Is it actionable? -- If so, it's a project or next action. If not, it's either trash or reference material.
        If it's reference material, what keyword would you use to find it again? Write that on a blank folder and put it in the now empty top drawer.
        Repeat until done.

        Now, unless your files are a worse than average mess, you can probably expedite this a bit. You'll look at a file, see that it contains, say, old utility bills, and realize that the entire file is reference material (or trash). Or, you'll know that the top drawer is where everything that might be urgent is hiding, so cleaning out the other drawers can wait. But the key piece is to do *something* to start chipping away at the problem. Break it down into pieces small enough to be manageable.

        If a file has too much stuff for one folder, you can either order it chronologically or split it into subtopics, depending on the contents.

        Katherine

        Comment


        • #5
          Start fresh and make a project

          Originally posted by andycragg
          I have a four drawer filing cabinet which is full of hanging folders ... and full of papers. So, having read the book, I know I need to convert all these to alpha-sorted, labelled manilla folders.

          How do I start? Isn't this a catch-22 - I can't start without a decent filing system (A-Z, labelled, manilla) but the filing system I have is in a mess and needs putting into "in", so I can't start with a filing system!
          Start a new filing system for new things, and treat the review/conversion of your old system as a project. It may mean that you have to look in extra places for reference stuff until you get through the conversion project, but it will get you started with a clean, better-organized filing system.

          I think David Allen suggests this tactic on the "GTD Fast" CDs.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by andycragg
            I have a four drawer filing cabinet which is full of hanging folders ... and full of papers. So, having read the book, I know I need to convert all these to alpha-sorted, labelled manilla folders.

            Also, which bit is supposed to take two days? It will take me weeks to sort out every piece of paper in my cabinet
            This is how I did it, not the only way, maybe not the best way, but the way I thought I could get the most benefit with the least time spent organizing and filing. It works with my amount of stuff, how I use my stuff, and my personal style. I wanted to be an "optimizer," not a "maximizer" when it comes to filing.

            First, I did not convert hanging to manila. I thought it would be a waste of time to no advantage. I already had high-quality file cabinets designed to support hanging folders, plenty of great-quality hanging folders, and a bunch of stuff already filed in hanging folders. I have one legacy file box with manila folders, and I do not find them any easier to use than good (Pendaflex) hanging ones. (Any brand I've tried besides Pendaflex was frustrating, non-functional junk.)

            I do use internal manila folders inside some of the hanging ones for sub-categorization, which works very well.

            An advantage for manila for you might be freeing up a little space, but I would rather accomplish that by cleaning out some of the folders that need it most. Cleaning out the unnecessary helps you see the necessary. I purge or archive when I need more space.

            Second, for me, it was the stuff OUTSIDE my filing cabinet that needed to be processed. It was much more current and likely to require action. I focused on processing that stuff. There was plenty to keep me busy for awhile.

            So I did not put all my old filed papers into In. Use your judgment as to whether it's worth it to re-file a folder you have already filed. There are probably some files in there that are working pretty well; I would keep whatever is working already for retrieval. To free up space, I would look through the folders and pull some that are no longer relevant to retain, or some that I know are the worst mess, and sort through those. Unless you retrieve heavily, there are diminishing returns to increased organization of them.

            For retrieval, I have also indexed my files in an Excel spreadsheet with multiple keywords. I did not create a comprehensive index of all pre-existing files upfront, but add to it when I retrieve from pre-existing files and whenever I create a new file. Small, painless steps on an as-needed basis.

            But the more frequent the retrieval, the more organization pays off. So if you retrieve from all your files frequently, my somewhat laid-back style might not be best for you.

            I don't know about the A-Z. Before I found GTD, I was already using A-Z so my new files fit in. Are you using a different system? Changing can make it harder to find things for a long time to come.

            Originally posted by andycragg
            How do I start? Isn't this a catch-22 - I can't start without a decent filing system (A-Z, labelled, manilla) but the filing system I have is in a mess and needs putting into "in", so I can't start with a filing system!
            My process actually went like this. I started processing papers that were not already filed -- the piles of "amorphous stuff" rather than the files. These gathered piles constituted my "Inbox" at the time. Some of these papers needed to be filed in already-existing files. Others needed new files. Some, thankfully, got trashed. When my file drawers got too full, I then turned my attention to them. First I yanked some old files I no longer needed to keep. Then I yanked the fattest files and sorted and purged them. Purging is the key. When I had enough space, I went back and finished processing the In piles. <whew>

            But when I was done processing, I could then see a better way to file some of the stuff. <sigh> It was impossible to see beforehand, because I didn't know what all my stuff was. Now I had a choice: should I refile everything in a better way or leave it alone. I took the middle ground. I re-organized the files most obviously in need. For example, I had created 3 different folders for things that could easily be combined, so I combined them into one folder. None of the files I left alone have mattered since then. So the outcome was successful.

            Originally posted by andycragg
            And ... can anyone advise on how to order single topic folders that have too much paper for one manilla folder - is it always chronologically? Do you have to rip off the label and print a new one (with dates?) when a folder gets full?
            Whatever seems reasonable for the folder. Folders that were too full get purged, divided further by category, and/or a bigger folder (box-bottom or box-bottom pocket). Sometimes category division is appropriate (vehicles, for example), sometimes chonological division (financial statements). I did subdivide my bank account statements with internal folders chronologically. I went to the trouble with that one because I often need to retrieve from it.

            I also archive stuff because I followed the "when in doubt, keep it" rule. So a folder with past bank statements from a now-closed account goes into the archive box and up to the attic. If I ever need the space in the attic, I'll take a quick look and probably throw it out.

            Comment


            • #7
              Wow, I think that's enough to keep me going for a while! Thanks for your swift replies

              Much,

              Andy

              Comment


              • #8
                You can convert your filing system in stages over time. Don't empty 4 file drawers into your inbox. That will be a mess. First you need some space, ideally an empty drawer. You can get this by doing some purging of your files. If you have 4 full file drawers at home, my guess is that you are keeping a lot of useless stuff. It is human nature to fill whatever storage space we have available, even if we don't need the stuff that we store (I don't know your situation, so this is an assumption on my part). If you really need all of that stuff, then buy a file storage box at an office supply store, the big cardboard type used for archival storage. Now empty your top drawer into that. Your empty top drawer is now the start of your new filing system. Each new folder created or processed goes into the top drawer in alpha order. You will gradually pull folders out of the other drawers to purge, organize, process and properly label them. Then they go into the top drawer in alpha order. By the time you spill out of the top drawer, you will have opened up enough space in the lower drawers that they can be consolidated into the lower 2 and you have an empty drawer to expand into. This will continue until eventually the whole cabinet is organized. Process the storage box last.

                You do not have to process the entire cabinet at once to get rolling with GTD. Once you have your most-used files set up in your new filing system, you will have a functional filing system to build on over time. If you set aside some time each week to make progress on the other files, all will be well soon enough.

                Some tips:
                - You don't need to tear labels off of manilla folders since you can simply place a new label over the old one. If this is impractical, I would use a fresh folder. If you shop around, you can get them for 4 cents each in boxes fo 100 (WalMart). They are so cheap, it is not worth reusing old folders if they are to the point where the tabs are tattered. Tattered tabs make retrieval more difficult.
                - Dividing a large file into multiple smaller ones should be pretty easy. Exactly how depends on the contents, but if there is no obvious way to divide, you can always keep the material in exactly the same order as it would be in one large file, but divide it in two and use labels like "xxx-Part 1" and "xxx-Part 2." I personally find that once a folder gets more than about one half inch thick, it is hard to find anything in there anyway and subdividing it with more specific labeling is helpful. Instead of having one file with all my car service receipts in it, I would make a separate folder for each car, and maybe even a separate folder for repair receipts vs. routine maintenance. And definitely separate folders for the title, loan documents and insurance information, for example. Filing like that keeps your files pretty small and manageable and aids rapid retrieval.
                - Also, per DA, try to keep your file drawers less than 75% full so they are easy to work with. Purge as often as necessary to maintain some space (at least yearly). If your file drawers get too full, consider separating out some of the files. Either arcive some things into your attic or set up a separate file system in a different container if you have a large group of files all related to one topic/hobby/interest. I personally have a whole bunch of owner's manuals that I want to keep track of, so I have a separate file container for those. I may also start a separate file container for income tax information retained over the years. These can be tucked into a closet and free up a lot of space in your file cabinet.

                Good Luck!

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by andycragg
                  Hi,

                  I have a four drawer filing cabinet which is full of hanging folders ... and full of papers. So, having read the book, I know I need to convert all these to alpha-sorted, labelled manilla folders.
                  The word that leapt out to me is "need." You don't really say why you need to convert your files. Convenience, functionality, an utterly disorganized filing system, or an opportunity to weed files? Is your filing system working, but you want it to work it better? Is it utterly disorganized, but has value? Hopelessly out of date? Mostly trash? It seems to me that the problems you perceive with your current system are key to how you change your system.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by mcogilvie
                    ... an utterly disorganized filing system, ... want it to work it better? ... utterly disorganized, ... Hopelessly out of date? Mostly trash? ...
                    You've seen it?

                    Some great ideas here, thanks all. Am doing it this weekend ... wish me luck

                    Cheers,

                    Andy

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      One last piece of advice.

                      Set a timer, work for 15 or 30 minutes. Take a 5 or 10 minute break. Set the timer again. You won't crash and burn as fast. It WILL get done!

                      The putting new labels right on top of the old ones is a good one too. You can also buy box bottomed manila folders or expanding folders for those overstuffed ones.

                      If you want yet another method, get three boxes. Label one: "I need this folder THIS week." Label the next box: "I need this folder THIS month."
                      Label the third box: "Project:Clean Files". Take handfuls of files out of your cabinet. Sort them into the boxes.

                      Now you've got some breathing space. Work on the files that you need to handle this week first. You get the idea. You'll be seeing that immediate gratification because your nicest, most organized files are the ones you'll be looking at over and over the next few days.

                      Who knows how much you will see that you can take out of the file cabinet and move to a more archival location. (not to mention things you don't need at all!)

                      Good luck!
                      Elena

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