4 Steps to Better Filing

I’ve inherited the hoarding gene. I hoard an unmanageable number of pieces of paper containing “useful” bits of information that I claim will one day be useful.

I’ve just come down to Sydney to visit my Dad in hospital, and after we took him home, I was graphically reminded where I inherited my hoarding. Hundreds of VCR tapes containing recorded television shows line the walls. Piles of books and magazines fill the spare room. Tons of unopened dog show prizes adorn his home. If hoarding was a sport, Dad would be in the Olympics!

This article originally appeared on FreelanceSwitch, and is no longer available online. A version of the original article has been saved on the Internet Archive.

In my recent article How to Tweak Your Home Office to be Productive Full-time I talked about my need to declutter my desk by filing away my paperwork. In response, Matt Baier, a professional organizer, left a detailed and helpful response. I found his comment so helpful that I visited his website and blog.

In a blog post, Matt sums up my situation as if he’s known me all his life:

You want to just chuck it all out, but you don’t want to run the risk of throwing out something you might really need, so you keep it all just in case. You’ll go through it all one day, but that day never comes. It’s getting closer to April 15 and you haven’t filed your tax return. You have to sort through those darn papers first , but you know it will take time, which you don’t have. You need some paper relief, fast!

Like most of the advice on his site, Matt’s answer is simple, understandable, and do-able. His advice is based on a statistic from the Small Business Association:

80% of papers that are filed are never referenced again.

This fact leads to a different filing strategy. Instead of filing by topic, or customer, or alphabetically, first file by how often you actually use that information. Matt’s advice was to sort all of my papers as quickly as possible into four boxes marked “Running”, “Sitting”, “Sleeping” and “Dead”.

These labels refer to the stages of usefulness of the information, and Matt promises that “understanding what belongs in each of these stages may free up a full 75% of your file cabinet and clear those piles on your desk for good.” He has my attention!

1. Running Files

Running files are files that I need to access regularly—at least at the moment. They are files I need to act on. Matt describes Running files this way:

Got ongoing projects that you’re not ready to put away yet? Then don’t. I currently have 9 ongoing projects and 27 client files OUT, yet 75% of my desk space is clear when I start work in the morning.

For me, these are bills that need to be paid, client files that I need access to for the next few days, and notes of ideas for current projects. I need to organize an appropriate tray or sorter on my desk to store them in so they don’t start to spread—as Matt says, “a place that makes sense” and I’m likely to keep using in the future.

Once I do this, all of the information that I regularly need access to is right where I need it—and nothing else!

2. Sitting Files

Sitting files are important documents I need access to from time to time. They are files I need to be able to find easily. Matt describes them like this:

Sitting files are what belong in an easily accessible filing cabinet. These include former Running Files, current files, and older (but currently relevant) records you may need to access.

For me, these are the rest of my current client’s files, identification papers, paperwork and receipts for my next income tax return, and reference files with information I need to be able to do my job. They don’t need to be on my desk, but they do need to be close—either in a two-drawer filing cabinet close by, or in a desk drawer.

I don’t have a filing cabinet at the moment—I gave it away when I moved interstate years ago. I’ll have to add one to my shopping list, or those dreaded piles of paper on and around my desk will start to grow again.

3. Sleeping Files

Sleeping files are files that I no longer need to access (or I’m at least very unlikely to access), but I’m not ready to throw out yet either. They are files I might need for future reference, or records I’m legally obliged to keep. This is how Matt describes Sleeping files:

Perhaps the most important filing stages to distinguish between are the Sitting stage, when you have to be able to lay your hand upon a file instantly, and the Sleeping stage, when you are hanging on to a file just in case.

These belong in plastic boxes or archive boxes rather than a filing cabinet, and Matt claims to have reduced his client’s filing space by 75% by understanding this. The sleeping files don’t need to be near my desk, or even in the same room. They could be stored in a garage, basement, or storage locker.

My sleeping files are made up of financial paperwork I need to hold on to for five or seven years, old client files I no longer need to access but don’t want to throw away, paperwork and ideas for previous projects, and my kids’ school reports from previous years.

I’ve put many of these (I haven’t finished filing yet!) in stackable plastic storage boxes, but still haven’t decided on the best location to store them. Once I do, I’ll have regained a huge amount of space around my desk.

4. Dead Files

Dead files are files I don’t need any more. I shouldn’t have them, and I don’t know why I do. Matt says:

This stage may seem obvious, but it is important to remember that after a few years, the Sleeping Files lose their value completely. You may pull a file out of your file cabinet and ask yourself “Am I ever going to need this again.” If you have serious misgivings about tossing it, then don’t. Store it with the Sleeping Files for a few years and see if you ever miss it. With this holding time, you make the decision to toss substantially easier. Otherwise, toss as much as you can. Just as dead leaves can drain the life from a plant, so too can dead files deprive your more important documents of circulation. So give your files a regular pruning!

I’m embarrassed by how many dead files I have held on to. Part of my problem is that I haven’t separated my files into the Running, Sitting and Sleeping categories, so it hasn’t been easy to recognize Dead files. And sorting out my paperwork has always been such a big job that I’ve avoided it.

This system that Matt is recommending will be a huge help. Generally files will move from Running to Sitting to Sleeping to Dead, and if I file all of my Sleeping files from a single year in one place, issuing a death warrant will be even easier.


I’ve just visited Dad again to help him organize some things around the house. We started boxing video tapes and archived them in the garage. A few hundred tapes hardly made a dent, but it’s a start!

What surprised me was that Dad knew what was in each pile, and was very anxious to keep the tapes in order. What looked like a mess to my eyes was actually a carefully sorted arrangement in Dad’s. That reminds me a lot of my desk.

If you’re a bit like me, let’s help each other to avoid the pitfall of leaving things in a mess because we know where everything is. Having a cluttered desk makes it harder for others to help, makes it harder for us to work, and makes it harder to find the things we really need. After all, 80% of that clutter probably won’t even be used!

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