Organizing Your Office – Filing Systems

One of the problems we all have to confront in setting up and organizing our home office is filing systems. I hear the collective groan!

The problem with offices is not just clutter control. It is retention necessities.

It would be so much easier if we could just toss all the papers in the recycle bin or shredder but that is not practical (or legal).    There are so many documents that we need to keep because we work with them and still others to keep for legal purposes.

We also need to be ruthless about retention guidelines or we will be buried in paper!

Every business should have retention guidelines as part of standard business practices.  Your business may have other needs.. First step is to do an inventory and figure out what you can get rid of and when and how to meet your own needs and that of legal compliance.  The federal, state and local governments may have different statutes of limitations so be sure to check the guidelines of all of them before you set up your schedule.  Checking with your accountant and lawyer for their advice on retention is a good idea as well.

Let’s look at some key ways to organize the piles of paper.

In my personal paper world, I like (and try my best) to live by the idea: touch each paper only once.  This means keeping a shredder and recycling bin by the mail box so that 90% of the junk that comes in goes directly to recycle or shred. Other items that have to stay, go directly into a file or are put on the pile to deal with (pay or call, delegate or whatever).

For business, it’s never that simple, is it?  My desk typically has 20 things where calls have been made but are waiting for something: the stymied folders!

Then there are the 3 current projects in  varying levels of completion; something waiting for someone to pick up; a box tstack of fileso file; a basket for the intern;  something I just completed and did not have time to file yet!  There’s a lot going on and I’m not in the position to do just one thing at a time.  Much as I’d like, I can’t just handle each paper once!

For me, since projects are in transition, I want to be able to leave them in place.  If I put everything into a folder and put it away at the end of each day, it looks nice but it means I spend more time the next day trying to figure out where I was and to restart.  I need to manage my time to stop work at quitting time so as not to fall into that trap of working 24/7. When it’s quitting time, I leave things exactly where I want to begin in the morning, close the door and walk away!

When a project is completed, it’s important for me to get it moved and filed right away.  If you work this way too,  be sure to take some time at the end of the week to review what’s on the desk, prioritize and move what you can out so that you can start fresh after the weekend.

Setting up Filing Systems

The problem with filing “systems” is everyone has their own way of doing things, that seem perfectly reasonable but no one else can understand it!

filing-systemOften we can’t even understand our own!  How many times have you named a folder on your computer and despite the great name,  were unable to find the thing later?!

The problem is we are usually too specific in naming the files.   Then later, we remember that “it was something like …” but not the specifics and we can’t find the file.   Try naming things with much broader, category names.  This should find it easier to find later.




I read somewhere that the whole purpose of filing is retrieval!  I’d never thought of it that way.  I always thought of the purpose as storage.  But they are right.  There is no point in filing something if we never need to retrieve it or if we are unable to retrieve it.  Set up your system according to how you use the information and why you would need to find it again.

Keep in mind that not everything needs to be filed!  We are not setting up storage for every paper that crosses our desk.  Some folders are active working files but once the projects are completed the contents can be tossed.

Go through your papers and separate into very broad categories i.e. finance, research, clients, legal, inspiration etc. Then you can make more specific distinctions within each category so that finance could be broken down into payables, receivables, banking, investments etc. IF YOU NEED IT BROKEN DOWN!

The number of subcategories will be determined by how much stuff you have and how you are using it.   If  your business is small you can probably keep anything ‘finance’ in one folder; if you have a lot of financial paperwork or you need to work with it often, you may want to keep in separate folders.

The point is, you don’t want to make a file cabinet full of folders with one paper in each!

The broad-category-setup helps not only with finding things later but also with putting things away! If filing is a time consuming, difficult chore where you have to make a folder for everything, it will be put off.  If you have 4 folders, it is easy to open the drawer and put everything into a folder!

  • Here are some questions to consider as you go through your desk:
    • How do you use this paper? Do you need it often?
    • If you threw this out, could you find this information again easily?
    • Would you need the info again?
    • Is this still useful to me?
    • Could I get into trouble for keeping old, outdated papers? (i.e. legal requirements for personal information and identity theft issues)
    • Is there a legal reason to keep it?
    • Do I have to keep in physical form or can I scan it?
    • Can I keep it digital form?

Now, some folks get OCD with the whole thing and color code all the files and the labels and have a gazillion folders. In a huge office, that may be necessary.  In your home office however, it probably isn’t and would just be an excuse never to file, because who has time for all the fancy stuff?!

Start small, with a few broad categories and I think you will find it effective.  As your folders get too cumbersome, you can split into smaller categories as needed.

Digital Files

Make use of tools available and go digital whenever possible.  Scan paper for filing and shred the paper version if possible.       See the NeatDesk Scanner post.

Better yet, try not to create a paper version in the first place!  For instance Microsoft OneNote software has notebook-and-pencilsome helpful features.  If you use it to take notes at meetings instead of pen/paper, you can organize it into sections; you can flag sections to find easily later and even convert notes into task, appointments and contacts for Outlook.

A lot of people really like Evernote.  Whichever works for you and you find easy to use and effective is key.  The more notes you take on your computer, the less paper on your desk!

 Filing and Organizing Email

Ah, email.  Email represents a ton of paper that we don’t have on our desk anymore!  Yeah!  But have you ever spent hours looking for an email that you just knew was there?   Separate your  email into folders and get into the habit of doing that every day.

Again, we are thinking in terms of retrieval and use.  Go through the same questions as if setting up a physical filing system and set up folders for email that you will need to use or retrieve again.

  • Is the email asking you to do something?  Can you do it right now and get it over with?
  • Can you send it to someone else who can take care of it?
  • If it is dealt with can you can get rid of it?
  • If not, if you have dealt with it, but you need to keep it move to appropriate folder.
  • Try to keep your inbox clear except for items you to work on.
  • When considering getting rid of your entire inbox and starting over, consider Federal court rulings on electronic discovery.    Employers are required to retain information for use in possible litigation.   Since discrimination, harassment and hostile work environment litigation often includes email and messages as evidence, be sure you are following proper retainment protocol before you delete email.
  • Consider moving it all to a broad category folder and out of your inbox making your inbox manageable.


With your retention schedule and plan in place, you know exactly what files you must keep paper versions of and those are stashed in the file cabinet.  You also know what information can be scanned and stored electronically so that the paper version can go!  Now the fun part.  Shred it!

shredded paperWell … wait.  There’s one more question to ask.  Do you need to shred this paper or can it be recycled?

Paper goes through a recycling life.  Shredded paper will have to be downgraded to toilet paper or tissue where the full paper could have another couple lives as usable paper.  So if there is no personal or confidential information, it’s probably best to recycle.

Also, many recycling companies will not take shredded paper so how are you going to get rid of the shredded paper? (one good idea is to use it as packing filler to replace bubble wrap!)

With all the files organized,  the recycling set aside, the next step will be to clear that shred basket!  I keep a fairly small basket and clear it at the end of the week or when it gets full, whichever comes first.  Don’t set a trap for yourself with a giant box so that when it’s full, you can’t move it and it will take all day to shred.

Get rid of confidential papers and protect your identity with a good shredder!

AmazonBasics 12-Sheet Cross-Cut Paper, CD/DVD, and Credit-Card Shredder

  • protect your identity
  • avoid the hassle of i.d. theft
  • shred multi-page documents
  • (up to 12 sheets at a time)
  • cross-cut shredding
  • destroy ATM receipts, credit-cards,
  • even CDs, DVDs and BluRays

Fellowes 79Ci 100% Jam Proof Heavy Duty Paper and Credit Card Shredder, 16 Sheet Cross Cut

  • 100% Jam Proof System eliminates paper jams and powers through tough jobs
  • SilentShred offers ultra-quiet shredder performance 
  • Shreds credit cards, paper clips, staples, CD/DVDs, and junk mail
  • SafeSense Technology stops shredder when hands touch the paper opening
  • Shreds 16 sheets per pass into 5/32″ x 1-1/2″ cross-cut particles (Security Level P-4)

And last, don’t forget the oil!  Keep your shredders going by making sure you oil your shredder.  Rule of thumb is, oil every time you change the bag.  How often you oil would depend on use.  If you only shred a couple times per week for short times, maybe once a week would be ok; if you shred for hours and hours at a time, maybe ever 20 minutes would be appropriate.  But you should oil to maintain the shredder.

Fellowes Powershred Performance Shredder Oil, 16 oz. Extended Nozzle Bottle Shredder (3525010)

12-Sheet Shredder

Heavy Duty Shredder

Shredder Oil

File Cabinets galore from Heavy Duty to Cutesy to Cardboard, Small, Large or Huge!

Two Drawer

Four Drawer

Combo Cabinet

Now that you have a retention guideline and schedule in place, you won’t have to worry about each paper.  You will be able to make the right move easily without thinking.  You know if you can scan and keep digitally, then shred the physical paper, or if you need to keep a paper version.  It will help keep you office running smoothly and that, we all know will make you more productive and THAT we all know will mean more balance, more quality time to yourself!


Just to be clear, I, Patt Timlin am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking Work At Home Products Guide to (, or,,, or which means that if you choose to purchase any of these products as a result of your visit here, I will be paid some commission.

Patt Timlin – Marketer, Blogger, Entrepreneur at Patt Timlin Online.

Patt Timlin is a marketing expert set on sharing her expertise with other online marketers to help them achieve the dream of working online. She is secretly pleased with the surge in content marketing as revenge of the English majors! Entrepreneur, blogger, guide, helper – Patt loves the online world and loves to share it!

Patt is the author of: Patt Blogs

Patt Timlin’s Spot4 Blog

Work At Home Product Guide and Patt Timlin Online.

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