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Effective Filing Best Practice

The best practice of effective filing deals with all the paperwork, documents and other items that are not directly related to any of your active projects.

If they are directly related to your active projects, its usually better to store them in the associated project file instead.

Remember that the goal of filing is to store your items so that they can be easily retrieved for use at a future date.

There are two common problems that the practice of effective filing solves.

Saving Too Much Stuff

The first problem that effective filing solves is the tendency to save too many documents, notes, memos, clippings, paperwork, and other items in your files.

Experts estimate that between 60 and 80 percent of items that are filed are never looked at again. All this extra stuff that is filed away just takes up space and makes it more difficult to keep your files organized.

The first step in solving this problem is to use project files to keep track of any items that you are actively using. Items that you store in your project files will eventually get reprocessed as the project is completed; these items may or may not become reference files, but at least you will consciously decide whether they should be kept or thrown away.

By using project files, you will have solved the common problem of filing an item away because you think you may needed it for an active project and never using or seeing it again.

If you are actively using project files, the main type of items that should make it into your reference files are the ones that are not part of your active projects but you may still need sometime in the future.

The critical question to ask yourself is this: does the value of having this item available in case I need it later outweigh the cost of filing, storing, managing, and organizing it?

Just remember that the time and effort needed to maintain a complex filing system with lots of items could easily outweigh the cost of having to replace a few items that you tossed.

Ineffective Organization

The second common problem associated with filing is that many people have trouble finding items they have saved because of poor organization.

You can lose a great deal of time trying to find that elusive piece of paper that you may have saved somewhere in your office.

The main reason people have trouble finding something they saved is that they forget where they put it or how they filed it.

The solution is to not have to rely on your memory to find what you are looking for; instead, you should rely on a consistent filing system, possibly with the help of an automated indexing tool.

File Indexing

Irrespective of whether you choose an alphabetical or category-based organization for your files, the best system for quickly finding any of your reference files is to use a file indexing application.

These applications eliminate the need for you to remember anything related to your reference files. You don't have to remember whether you saved an item or not, where you put it, or even what category you used; instead you can simply search for your item in the database (using title and/or keywords) and quickly identify its location, category, and folder.

Such a system only works if you use it consistently and keep it up to date. If you start filing, moving, or removing items without adjusting the index, it can quickly become outdated and useless to help you find your files.

Keys to Success

The following are the keys to success for effective filing:

  • Be selective about what items you save. Remember that up to 80% of items that are filed are never looked at again. Use the filing questions to help you decide whether to keep an item or throw it out.
  • Use project files to store items directly related to your projects. You can temporarily keep items not directly related to your projects in your project file, as long as no one else needs to have access to them. If they do, you are better off using a note in your project file to point you to the item in its rightful home.
  • Separate regularly used files from infrequently used files. You should be able to find frequently used items such as checklists, cheat sheets, diagrams, etc. quickly. Keep them within reach of your desk chair. If you use an item at least once every three months, it is a good candidate for the frequently used file list.
  • Decide on a systematic way of organizing your files. The key to being able to quickly find any filed item is to stop relying on your memory and rely on a system instead.
  • Use an indexing application like Achieve to manage your filing system.
  • Periodically purge your files to remove unnecessary and obsolete items. Purge your active project files once a month, your frequently used files once a quarter, and your other reference files at least once a year.

You can find out much more about effective filing strategies, including advice on how to implement the system described in this article, in our time management ebook.

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