Sensational Living®

May 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Last month I hinted at a dreaded activity: Filing! Keeping up with Filing, which is just a subset of Organization, is the scourge of many an office and home. The most common excuse is that we don’t have the time to put a filing system in place … my answer to that is that you’ll have MORE time AFTER you put the system in place to spend doing your job or just having fun. Life is too short to not squeeze in as much fun as possible, so let’s start filing!

When beginning to develop a filing system, one must follow the general organizational guidelines outlined in April’s Sensational Living® column. First you need to do some brainstorming to identify the particular topics that characterize your interests and/or needs. Then, Divide and Conquer … File, Act or Toss! This is a terrific time to get rid of clutter.

Take a pile of paper (or a bowlful, or whatever “quaint” system you are currently using). Start sorting them into those categories that you have determined will be useful to YOU. Every one is “wired” differently, so everyone’s system will be unique. As I said above, I suggest taking some time to brainstorm what is important in your life, and what is of interest. Make a list. That list may include: “Bills to pay,” “Bills paid” (perhaps divided by what they are? Perhaps separate files for electricity, gas, rent), “Warranties,” “Veterinary records,” “Coupons,” “Tax receipts,” “Insurance records,” “Leases,” “Computer records,” “Automobile records,” etc. Even though I do a lot of cooking, I enjoy eating out, so I maintain files of interesting restaurants to potentially visit; I regularly have breakfast with my friend Marianne, so I have a separate file for cool breakfast/brunch venues.

You don’t need colored file folders … they have been recommended to keep organized, along with colored pens, but I have found trying to remember the color codes just adds more stress to my life … I have enough stuff on my mind that I’m good just getting things into files! I just keep related files grouped together, and it serves the exact same purpose as color coding (as long as you can read the labels, that is!).

Remember, filing systems are not static. They must be flexible, and adaptable. What is useful today may not be useful in five years. Here’s an example: when I was very young, I saved many articles dealing with houseplants, and they went into a file labeled “Houseplants.” As time went by, the file grew and grew until it was really too much work to find something in the file, so I had to SUBDIVIDE it! I had articles on potting, propagation, diseases, and lots of plant species/genera/families, so I created files for these categories. Still later, as my company developed and I began diversifying my offerings for indoor gardening, I had to create separate files for each family of plants, and sometimes for each genus. You probably won’t need this sort of subdivision for houseplants, but perhaps for your own interests. My own system has evolved and changed over 35 years, but it has always worked!

You’ll notice that I used the word, “article” when describing many of the items that I file. Where do those articles come from? From a variety of sources, but mostly from newspapers and magazines. This hint will save you great time and effort: DO NOT save intact magazines or newspapers. I do what I call “scavenging” or “processing” magazines and newspapers. This is in contrast to people who save piles and piles of such ephemera for future reference … unless the contents of these publications are organized in some fashion, they will NEVER serve as reference. When you read a newspaper, and you find that something is interesting, save only that page, or half page (if the piece of paper becomes too small, it can be lost). When you read a magazine, and an article is interesting, rip it out and staple the pages together. I’ll admit, sometimes interesting but unrelated articles occur back-to-back in magazines, so I have to photocopy one side so that I can file the articles separately, but this is a small price to pay for having easy access to articles of interest (I’ve even written to magazine editors, explaining my system, and asking them to position their advertisements between articles, with some degree of success). Once you commit to not saving intact magazines, and you find an issue does not contain anything worth saving, you can donate the intact magazine to a library or charity-based thrift shop (please do not donate magazines that you have ripped articles out of … recycle them … I have purchased too many magazines at thrift stores only to find that an article I want has been removed!).

As I wrote last month, I maintain tens (or hundreds) of thousands of articles in thousands of files dealing with travel (domestic and international), cooking, entertaining, health, art, décor, design, gardening, landscaping, pet care, business management, home management, budgeting, streamlining, simplification, and more. These are my “research” or “reference” files. However, I also maintain what I term “active” files, which need to be accessed on a regular basis (such as the “Bills to pay” and “Veterinary records” mentioned above). Then, there are also “project” files, which include my own notes and manuscript pages for articles I am writing, my books, or for consultation or lecture topics; I group related files together so that I can efficiently refer to all resources related to a particular endeavor and not miss any important information, so that my clients do not miss any important information.

You’ll notice that I have entirely bypassed other types of paper organizational systems in favor of files. I have bypassed notebooks, because they require punching holes in articles, which often removes text; sometimes, if pieces of paper are too small, these pieces must be glued to a larger sheet that in turn is placed into a notebook. I have also bypassed the related concept of “scrapbook,” because this is actually just notebook storage taken to the nth degree! Perhaps I am biased (no, I am clearly biased), but my philosophy is that “organization” and “filing” should NOT be projects themselves. I know people who consider “filing” an end in and of itself! It isn’t! It is a means of freeing yourself, liberating yourself from the bonds of excessive clutter and disorganization. You have a life to LIVE, not a life to file away!

Let’s talk about the file folders themselves. You can buy new file folders in almost any variety store, and certainly in every office supply store. You can buy plain manila folders, or colored folders (since I don’t color code my files, and I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them because only their little tops are sticking up out of their storage units, I don’t buy the WAY more expensive colored folders, but if you want to throw away your money, be my guest). Re-use used folders from your office. The vast majority of my files are in folders that I dug out of the trash cans at my former place of employment. I continue to be incredulous at the amount of waste in today’s corporate world (and we wonder why major companies are having financial problems! It’s pretty obvious); people would use a file folder once, and then throw it away! Not only is this financially irresponsible (you can be certain that the accounts I managed did not experience this kind of waste), but it is also environmentally irresponsible (not only because of exploiting additional human resources, but also in filling up land fills unnecessarily … and don’t believe your building’s management company when they say the trash is sorted for recycling … I discovered an outright lie with my building’s management!). In fact, “re-using” is the best possible use of resources, requiring much less energy than recycling … you’ll be glad you did it!

Before moving further, let me take a side trip to discuss coupons. I know many people who just say, “I can’t be bothered,” or “Most coupons are for products I don’t use.” Well, you really can save hundreds of dollars a year using coupons, but I’m not here to force anyone to save their hard earned money … if you can’t be bothered, so be it (and I’ll be happy to provide the name and number of my therapist, Judi). I’ll agree with the second complaint: most coupons are for products that I also don’t use. However, some of them are for products I DO use, and that has saved me greatly. Originally, I organized my coupons by expiration date, and either clipped them together, or put each month’s coupons into an envelope within the “coupon” file folder, and every month I would make an effort to use those coupons; this system was neat, efficient and very practical, and when coupons expired, I could just throw them away. As it turns out, some of my local supermarkets started ignoring expiration dates, so now I don’t feel the pressure to use them immediately. Because expiration dates are mostly irrelevant these days, I have now started grouping my coupons by product type (cat food, vinegar, pasta, etc.). This new approach is also convenient because sometimes I will have coupons for products that the markets put on sale, and their computers allow me to take the coupon savings on top of the sale savings! I find such joy in the little things in life.

OK. Now that you have all of your piles in files, what do you do with the files themselves? There are many options. My mother kept her active files in a metal box that she could haul out of its storage area and spread out on the kitchen table while she paid bills; I keep my active “financial” files in one drawer of my desk, my active research files in upright holders or held between two bookends on a work table behind my desk, and active resource files in a stacked unit on one corner of my desk.

In your office, vertical files are probably a given, and this is an efficient direction; it’s also costly, and not particularly esthetic, so I have another suggestion. Most of my resource files, because they are so voluminous, are kept in data-storage boxes. If your company doesn’t just discard them for easy pickings, you can buy then for a dollar or two apiece from office supply stores; their advantage is that they are the same size, so that they can be stacked, and they are quite sturdy. As I mentioned in March’s Sensational Living® column, I will sometimes stack them in a corner of a room or in some other unused space, and conceal them with colorful saris and fabric. Not only does this enhance the overall esthetics of a room, but you don’t have to use valuable closet space … although I do store some of my materials in the closet as well, especially if they are low priority and may not require frequent access. These fabric-draped boxes can provide a surface for additional lamps, or decorative art, or even family photos. If you have the space, and you’ve created zones in your home as described last month, consider grouping your files on a particular topic near the other materials of a particular zone.

Then, there are the project files. Some projects are small, so I use a variety of vertical storage units on my worktable. Some projects are huge, so I will use one, two or three data storage boxes for a particular project. Some projects grow, so I must be alert to the possibility of needing to transfer them from their vertical storage units to their own data storage box, or to combining two or more growing projects into a single box. Remember to always label the outside of each box to identify its contents.

Now that you see the overall theory of filing, with some guidelines in implementation, you are ready to undertake those filing activities in your own home and/or office! Right? If not, you know where to find me! I can tailor these ideas to your personal, unique situation! It’s never too late to take control of your life.