How to De-Clutter (and Organize) Files and Filing Cabinets - Furniture

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Files and Filing Cabinets (see also Brochures, Desk Mail, Office Supplies, Papers)

Organizing any filing system can be an awesome task, one most people put off as long as possible. Eventually, productivity grinds to a halt; the filing system conspires to sabotage nearly every working day. This holds true whether you are dealing with filing cabinets at your office or the household accounts and family records.

You’ll know it’s time for drastic action when:

• You have no idea what happens to a document or piece of paper when you are finished with it;

• A piece of paper that you filed yesterday isn’t there today, and you have no idea where it's ;

• No one really understands the filing system;

• Papers in the files are older than you are;

•Someone spends some time nearly every day looking for mis- filed or lost papers and documents.

Next consider this:

• Eighty percent of everything that's filed is never going to be looked at again;

• Probably half of currently filed materials could be destroyed or moved to low-cost storage;

.Nearly all of the records that are sent to storage are never looked at again;

•There is no such thing as a functional, yet inexpensive filing cabinet (good ones are always expensive);

•The typical four-drawer letter-sized filing cabinet requires seven to eight square feet of floor space (allowing for room to open the drawers), which costs dearly;

•Add the cost of labor for maintaining the files (whether that labor comes from someone else or from yourself), along with the cost of supplies, and suddenly, filing a piece of paper adds up to a mighty expensive proposition!

Now that you’ve considered all of the above, consider this: just like death and taxes, paper is an unavoidable fact of life.

If you, like so many others, are caught in a paper trap, it might be time to take charge and regain control of the paper in your life.

When you are ready to create or organize your home files, you’ll need these basics:

  • Filing cabinet(s)
  • Hanging file folders (such as Pendaflex)
  • Manila folders
  • Labels for the tabs on the folders

When you buy filing cabinets, make sure that they are sturdy and have full-suspension, deep drawers. Full-suspension cabinet drawers open smoothly to the full extension, making it easy for you to see and deal with anything in the drawer. Bargain basement cabinets often have drawers that, if opened all the way, tip the cabinet dangerously and still don’t provide a full view of every thing in the drawer (items at the back of the drawer don't pull out into full view).

Hanging files are vital, whether you have one filing drawer or twenty, because they eliminate misfiling folders. The hanging file is never removed from the drawer. Instead, you pull out the manila folder (with the same label as that on the hanging file), and when you are ready to re-file the manila folder, simply locate the hanging file with the corresponding label and drop the folder into it. You’ll never misfile that folder behind another one again.

You’ll want your cabinet to have rails to hold the hanging file folders, so if you already have a cabinet that doesn’t have those, go to the stationery store and pick up an install-it-yourself metal rack to place inside the drawers. Unless absolutely necessary, don’t get legal-sized cabinets. Everything about them is more expensive, especially the supplies, which you’ll be buying well into the future. Legal cabinets are only worth the expense if the majority of your papers are legal sized. If you only have a few legal documents, they could be folded to fit into a less expensive, letter- sized cabinet.

Purging Current Files

To begin organizing your files, first purge any existing files. Go through each file individually:

• Keep financial records, but move records that are more than two years old into storage file boxes.

• Throw out all records that are outdated due to cost, such as travel and vacation or product price information.

• If you have an inordinate amount of memorabilia in the files (such as children’s mimeographed schoolwork), select the best papers and throw the rest away.

• Get rid of expired policies and records pertaining to things you no longer own.

•Consider getting rid of at least 50 percent of all of the special pieces of paper that you had filed — like all of those interesting articles, amusing political cartoons, and outdated address lists.

•Get rid of all of the papers relating to previously completed charity work that has nothing to do with what’s going on now.

•Weed out the correspondence files by keeping only what is active (such as letters dealing with disputes or ongoing issues like the upcoming family reunion). If you must save correspondence longer than two years, send those papers to storage.

•Never keep office supplies in the filing cabinet. Supplies belong in a supply cabinet or closet, not in the records and information storage area.

Setting Up New Files

As you purge your old files, you’ll set up new ones. Use the KISS Rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid), and resist the urge to go hog-wild and establish dozens of categories. That just makes for more work and confusion later, so try to keep the number of categories down to an absolute minimum. Some examples of potential categories are:






• SPECIAL (Hobby or Special Interest)

Samples of possible files within those categories are:

      • Auto:
        • Gasoline Bills
        • Payments
        • Repairs
        • Registration
        • Insurance.
        • Auto (or under Auto)
        • Health
        • House
        • Life
      • Receipts:
        • Credit Cards
        • Department Stores
        • Office Supplies
      • Articles
      • Birth Certificate (copy)
      • Career Information
      • Children’s Records
      • Correspondence
      • Medical Information (not bills)
      • Pet Records
      • Warranties and Instructions
  • BUSINESS (this is particularly useful if you have a small home-based business and need to keep these records separate from other household and /or hobby records):
      • Correspondence
      • Employee Records
      • Expenses (business-related only)
      • General Information
      • Vendors (subtitled by name or product category)
  • CLIENTS (filed alphabetically by name)

Set up a filing system based on your particular needs and inter-tern, you can break it down even further (i.e., under Articles, you might want to list different types of articles). But however you decide to categorize, make up a hanging file and a manila file folder for each file. Make sure that the tab on the hanging file matches the wording on the manila file folder tab.

Leave the hanging folder in the drawer to permanently mark the proper placement of the file. Don’t overstuff the folders. Too many papers start to choke up the file and obscure the information on the tab. To accommodate more papers in the file, crease along the lines scored at the bottom of the manila and hanging folder. This will provide a deeper bottom and allow for more papers in the file than would otherwise be possible. If you have done that and still have too many papers, simply hang another hanging folder behind the first file and add another file folder for that file, breaking it down chronologically, if you like. For example:

Correspondence Jan-June 2009

Correspondence July-Dec 2009

When you insert the plastic identification tags onto the hanging files, attach them to the front of the hanging folder, not the back. When your fingers touch that tab, the hanging file automatically opens up just a bit, giving you immediate access to the manila folder inside. If the tab is on the back side, your hand moves to the next file, which is not the one you want. And, although some studies show that it’s more efficient to place all of the plastic tabs on one side—say the right side of the hanging file—I happen to be a proponent of staggered tabs. By staggering the plastic tabs on the hanging files—starting with the first position on the left, then inserting the next tab at the second position, and so on, until the whole drawer is staggered—you can open the drawer, and , without any digging, see at a glance the file you are searching for.

Set Limits

Set limits on your filing system. Begin with the actual cabinets. Never forget the cost of filing cabinets, the cost of the supplies that go into them, the time it takes to maintain the files, and the cost of square footage to house those paper-laden monsters. If you can set up your next system in one, or two, or three cabinets, do so, but vow not to exceed that number. You can do this by going through your files once or twice each year and weeding out papers that were filed unnecessarily or that have passed the two -- realize that you don’t need any of the papers in that file. Toss the papers and reuse the file by applying a new label—thus saving supply expense. To limit the copying habit which can get totally out of hand (“put a copy of this in the Smith file and one in the Cooper file”) try making “see also” notations on the front or inside cover of the file.

Limit yourself to one basic filing system, with the possible exception of project files. For people whose work generates large amounts of paper on a daily basis, project files can be helpful. These can be set up just as the permanent system is set up —with hanging folders and manila folders—and set into either the desk file drawer or into a rolling basket system that accommodates files. The basket can be used next to the desk on a daily basis, and when the project is over, the manila folders can be pulled out of the hanging folders and stored in trans-file storage boxes. The hanging folders can be reused (you can buy extra blank tab inserts at the stationery store), and you can reorganize the cart or desk drawer with the appropriate folders for other project files.

Keeping the System Organized

Nobody likes to file — it’s right up there with ironing and mowing the lawn in terms of satisfaction—but it needs to be done regularly in order to keep the system sensible and functioning. If you do it yourself, you can speed the process up a bit with the help of an alphabetical sorter (available at stationery stores). Try tackling the filing for ten minutes each day rather than waiting until it piles up to two hours’ worth of tedium. And, as you put the papers in the folder, place the most recent paper in the front of the file, so that when you pull the file out the next time, the papers will be pretty much in chronological order.

If someone else does your filing, the challenge is to get them to file the papers in the same file that you might file them. This way, when that person is not available, you can theoretically walk over to the file and easily pull out exactly what you need. Since the person doing your filing is probably not a mind reader, it could be helpful if you would let him or her know what the piece of paper means to you in terms of filing category or topic. To do this, simply mark the paper with pencil, a highlighter pen, or a Post-it note. The person who files simply follows your instructions, and voila! The paper goes where it’s supposed to, just waiting for the day when you need to call it back out of the files. Here’s an example:

(Letter from) John Smith, Acme Corporation

  • If you think of this person as Mr. Smith, highlight or mark Smith.
  • If you think of this person as the connection to Acme Corporation, mark Acme.
  • If this paper is not important enough for its own file, attach a Post and note (e.g.) Customers, Miscellaneous.

In the end, your filing system should work for you—not the other way around. Filing papers into the system — and , just as important, retrieving them—should be an uncomplicated function that you or those who work for you can perform without suffering a nervous breakdown.


As I’ve said, you should limit yourself to one basic filing system. In spite of this fairly absolute principle, some people either want or feel they need additional filing methods to accommodate their papers. These methods include:

- Accordion Files — Don’t use these if you value your sanity. It starts out fine, and goes downhill from there, as papers get mangled and mushed in the accordion folder. They get lost at the bottom of any one section of the accordion, and die without any help from you whatsoever, Occasionally an accordion folder can be called into temporary use as a transporter—to move lots of files from one location to another — but it should never be used as a filing system unto itself.

- Tickler Files —Tickler, or suspense, files have an up side and a down side. Generally, the divided categories in a tickler file include one through thirty-one (for the days of the month) and the months (January through December). When a piece of paper needs follow-up attention on a certain date (in the future) it's filed in the file folder for that date. If the follow-up is in a future month, it's filed in that month. Then, when that date rolls around, those papers requiring follow-up are checked and processed accordingly. On the first of each month, that month’s file is checked, and its papers distributed among the one through thirty-one files for follow-up on specific dates of the current month.

With the hanging file and manila folder system, there is no reason that a tickler file couldn’t help with successful follow-up for papers requiring dated attention. It is especially good for deadline-oriented projects and invoices that need to be paid by a certain date. A problem arises, however, when people start automatically storing papers in the tickler system without thinking about the volume of the paperwork that's accumulated in any one day’s file. Hence, it’s possible to pull the file on any given day and find, to your horror, that there is enough critical follow-up work in that day’s folder alone to keep three people busy for two days straight. So, a tickler filing system can be a useful working tool, but only when used with extreme caution.

- Pending Files — These are the black holes of any filing system and are usually established so that action is taken, depending on when you get around to it. Unlike a specific tickler file, there is generally no date on a pending piece of paper. This is a general TO DO item, and therefore, should be placed in your TO DO basket to be done.

- Indexing and Color Coding—If you use the KISS Rule, why do you need an index? An index is just one more piece of work— you have to check it in order to locate a file, and you have to update it when files are added. I won’t install them for clients because I’ve seen too many people who had them and still couldn’t figure out their filing system or work efficiently with the system that the index represented.

Color coding is another trap. Color coding always seems like a nifty idea, but it almost never is. Once again, it’s just more work. Before you decide what category a piece of paper gets filed under, you have to remember what color that category is in the first place. Then, you have to make sure you always have the right color- coded supplies on hand, or the paper can’t be filed properly. It’s a pain, and doesn’t add anything except more work to the system. If you want to put your financial records in red folders and every thing else in a neutral color, that’s fairly logical. But when you have categories that include green for career, yellow for family and friends, red for financial, blue for resources, and so forth, you’re setting yourself and your filing system up for certain self-destruction.

Furniture (see also Antiques, Des/c Heirlooms)

Navigating through a room choked with furniture clutter can be daunting. There’s your great grandma’s Victorian settee, which is too uncomfortable to sit on, so it’s piled with clutter. There’s your desk from college — completely inappropriate as a work station for you now, so it also serves to store more clutter. Two more lamps than are needed to light the room, antique itty-bitty tables, and ornate cabinets occupy every inch of wall space, gathering dust on a daily basis. Mismatched bedroom sets, sofas, too many chairs, and folding card and game tables only add to the problem of furniture that takes up space and serves mainly to hold more clutter.

If furniture is cluttering up your space, you can give it away or sell it. If you are storing heirlooms in the basement or garage, shame on you. They’ll get warped or water damaged, and then they won’t be heirlooms, they’ll be junk. This furniture should be used, given away, or sold. As you evaluate the furniture that you have, check for function. Credenzas, buffets, trunks, bookshelves, and end tables with drawers and cabinet space can do double duty—serving as furniture and storage space at the same time. Put a piece of glass over a wicker or antique trunk and you have a table that can also store any number of things, from blankets to games. If you’re planning to replace or buy furniture, look for function. For the same amount of money, you can get a night stand next to the bed that has a drawer and a shelf rather than a night stand that has no storage capacity whatsoever. Old cabinets can be painted or stripped to provide storage for linens, records, sweaters, stationery supplies, and dishes. Don’t let the stated purpose of any piece of furniture limit you. A buffet in the dining room doesn’t have to hold china— it can store children’s games or office supplies for your home-based business. A bookcase can hold baskets or bins with toys or craft supplies in them, and you can turn your bed into a piece of furniture that increases storage capabilities by adding under-bed storage drawers. Even a coffee table can be functional. A table with a bottom shelf-like piece can hold magazines, knickknacks, newspapers, and the TV Guide, doubling the space of the table and eliminating clutter on the top of the table by providing space for storage underneath. The key word for all furniture is functional. If it’s in the house (rather than the garage, basement, or attic), and it looks good and stores something at the same time, you’ve made your furniture aid and abet your organizational efforts—which should be a daily lifesaver in the fight to control clutter.
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