The Paper Chase

Originally published in The New York Enterprise Report | Download PDF of Article

The real downside of poor organization for a small business is simply the terrible waste of time – and money.  Time spent looking for the information or file you need means less time spent on more important things like meeting customer needs or generating billable hours. And if you don’t think that your crammed-to-capacity filing drawer isn’t costing you, consider that in 1997 the Wall Street Journal estimated that executives waste six weeks per year looking for misplace information from messy desks and files. Better organization means that you can apply your skills to the most productive and financially rewarding tasks.

The problem stems from the way most people approach their filing: they focus on filing, not on finding.  As a result, the documents that they work with most often at any given time – the high value documents – are buried in an undifferentiated mass with all the other, low-value documents.

The key to resolving this problem is to separate your paper files into three distinct categories:

Working files. The file drawer in your desk contains your “working” files.  This drawer should only contain the files that you use on a daily basis –drafts of a speech you’re preparing, a meeting agenda, or a preliminary budget.  When these projects are completed, you’ll move them into the “reference” file cabinet.

Reference files. Reference files will mirror your working files – you’ll use the same categories/hanging folders that you have in your working file drawer.  However, these files are kept in a separate filing cabinet away from your desk. In addition to obvious reference items like research reports, you might place the annual budget, HR forms, marketing plans, etc. in this file.  The key is that these files contain items you don’t need to look at everyday, but might look at intermittently, say weekly or monthly.  When you do need these files to complete a project – say, preparing a new speech – then you move the files into the working file drawer.

Archive files. These files should be kept in another drawer in the file cabinet, in a central storage location in the office, or even at an off-site location.  They’re accessible to you when you need them, but they’re out of your way for the 99% of the time that you don’t.  As with the reference files, when you do need these files for a project, it’s a simple task to move them into the working file drawer.

Finally, your inbox and outbox: both should be dealt with in a similar manner. the inbox, whether for paper or for email, contains only those items you haven’t yet read.  Once you read something in the inbox, deal with it immediately—forward to the appropriate person, file in the appropriate folder, or -trash it. Like the inbox, the outbox is not a long-term storage device.  Items placed in the outbox should be distributed or filed by the end of the day.

The 80/20 rule in life applies to your files, too: you do 80% of your daily work with only 20% of your files. Set up this system, use it daily, and you’ll save you and your company time and money.

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