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Six Steps to an Organized Filing System

How to Set Up The Perfect Filing System FEATURED

Keeping your documents organized and easy to find is super important! I mean, some of these are legal documents. That’s not something you want to lose or misplace! If you don’t have a filing system, let’s get you one! Keep reading for the perfect filing system!

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Step One: Find A Filing Container That Works for You

Do you have a lot of filing or just a few papers? Does your filing need to follow you around? Do you want to customize your cabinet? These are some of the questions that you need to be asking when you’re picking a filing system. Here are some of the most common filing system containers, their pros and cons, and some examples for inspiration.

Filing Cabinet

Filing cabinets are the bulkiest option; however, they hold the most. If you have a lot of documents, then you probably need a filing cabinet. You can find standard-sized cabinets with three or four drawers at any office supply store, or you can check out a few that I recommend.

  • TMS Wilson 4-Drawer Filing Cabinet, Espresso
  • Lorell SOHO 18 3-Drawer Vertical File

Similarly, you can find smaller one and two drawer cabinets like these.

  • Storex Single Drawer Mini File Cabinet with Lock
  • Sauder Kendall Square File Stand, Select Cherry
  • Lorell 14341 18 Deep 2-Drawer File Cabinet, Black

Size and appearance are up to you.

The good thing about Filing Cabinets (next to them being larger in size) is customizability! You can buy these in various colors and styles or you can paint them, and add detailing! Check out these 15 Fabulous Filing Cabinet Makeovers compiled by The Melrose Family!

Filing Box

The next option is the filing box. The filing box is nice because it is more mobile. I feel like I am moving at least once a year, so I have gone for the filing box. I have one that keeps my documents, and a second that stores my spare office supplies.

The filing box option is a little less customizable than the filing cabinet. To make up for customizability, the box comes in a dozen different styles and sizes. Check out some of the adorable and practical options I have found below! I prefer the lidded option, but a desktop option is great if you do not have a lot of filing.

  • U Brands Hanging File Desk Organizer, Wire Metal, Copper
  • Snap-N-Store Letter Size File Box, Black and White Scroll Design
  • Pendaflex Decoflex Desktop File, Black

Expanding Filing

The expanding filing sounds kind of silly but is practical for small amounts of paperwork. This option isn’t as sturdy as the other options. But it is perfect for easy-to-grab, often-used documents.

The expanding file can be both mobile and fixed since there are a variety of styles. Some have handles and others snap shut for mobility. Still, others are meant to sit on a desk or shelf. Check out some of the accordion filing systems I have found below.

  • Smead Portable Expanding File Box
  • Smead Step Index Poly Organizer, Navy
  • Smead Poly Frequency Expanding File, Blue/Black

Desk Drawer Filing

This option only works for someone with a desk drawer that would fit some hanging files. The desk drawer is also not mobile and the size depends on your desk. Here are a couple cute little desks that have filing drawers.

  • Sauder Orchard Hills Computer Desk, Carolina Oak Finish
  • Sauder Computer Desk, Cinnamon Cherry Finish

You can also make desks using filing cabinets. Check out this tutorial done by HomeTalk.

Organizing Your Files

This is where the organizing gets real. You will learn how to label and organize everything that you need to get filed. Check out my filing workbook, created to compliment this article and includes a worksheet for every step

Step Two: Organize Your Documents

Organizing your files is the most important part of this whole process and it is the backbone of your entire system. But don’t let that scare you, organizing your files can be made simple with my FREE File Planning Workbook.

The first step here is to make a list of your main categories. These are broader categories that may or may not have subcategories (we’ll get to subcategories in a minute). Once you have made this list, keep a few notes that describe what exactly goes in this main category.

For example, in my main category, Finances, I keep anything related to my money, banking, and loans. Basically, if it involves my money, it’s in Finances.

Once you have your main categories designated then it’s time to figure out your sub-categories. Sub-categories are more specific categories that fall under your main categories. Sometimes you are able to figure out your subcategories by your description (like my Finances example). That isn’t always the case though.

Sometimes it is easiest to figure out your subcategories by looking at all the documents that you plan to put in your main categories. If you see a trend, then it is probably subcategory worthy!

There are cases where a subcategory isn’t necessary. For example, my Taxes file doesn’t need any subcategories because it is already so specific and archive-ready (archiving is Step Four, stay tuned!). Not having subcategories is perfectly okay!

Now that we have all our categories sorted we need to file it! That leads us to step three

Step Three: Decide How You’d Like to Keep Your Files Organized

You may be thinking, what do you mean decide how to keep my files organized, we already decided our categories didn’t we? Deciding how to keep them organized is another layer and there are a few ways to do this. The first way is to use different colors.

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Color Organization

When you use different colors for each main category, it is much easier to navigate your filing at a glance. At-a-glance navigation is so much quicker than staring at your files trying to find something.

Color Coordinated Labels

One way to organize by color is to label your categories in certain colors. This is nice if you already have colored pens or markers to use. If you don’t happen to have colored pens lying around but would like to color coordinate your labels, check out my favorite labeling pens!

Colored File Folders

Another way to organize by color is will colored file folders or hanging files. You are able to assign each of your categories a color based on colored hanging files. Doing this allows for extremely easy to scan files.

A Combination of the Two

You are also able to place only very sensitive file categories in a color such as red, and files that do not get archived (keep reading to learn about archiving files) in another color such as purple or blue. You can then leave the rest of your files in generic hanging files and use color coding on all your labels. This method allows for easy archiving.

Sorting

Deciding the order in which you file your categories really depends on what is most functional for you and your files. Here are three ways to sort your files.

Sort by Topic or Category

Sorting by topic or category is the easiest way to sort your files because you have already organized your files into categories. All the work here is done, just plop your files on in by the categories you’ve already picked alphabetically.

Sort by Relevance*

This is the sorting method I use, I find it most handy when reaching for my documents. When you sort by relevance there are three sorting categories to keep in mind. First, you want to keep your most frequently used categories at the front. This means you refer to them more often than your other categories.

Second, your almost-never-used files go at the back. If you don’t need them very often, you don’t need them blocking the files you do use a lot. These categories might include Memory Items, Misc., and Instruct. Manuals.

And last is everything else gets placed in the middle.

Sort Chronologically

Chronological means that the categories are sorted by most recent at the front and least recent at the back in the order in which they occurred. Timelines are a great example of something chronological. Chronologically is most handy in archived files because these files are kept by year. If your filing categories allow for chronological sorting, then go for it!

Step Four: The Rules of Labeling

One of the most important ways of organizing your files is with labels. There are different labeling products to choose from, here are some of my favorites.

  • Avery Removable White File Folder Labels
  • Avery Self-Adhesive Printable Hanging File Tabs
  • Avery Print or Write File Folder Labels

When you are writing or typing up your labels, be very specific. The label is only so big and you want your labels to be readable, and being specific makes it easier.

Write one or two-word labels for maximum benefit. Using one or two words allows the label to be kept on one line. This also allows the label to be bigger and more readable. You want your labels to be seen without getting close or squinting, so the bigger you can write them, the better.

Like I mentioned, keep your label on one line. Doing this allows for greater readability. Sticking to the 1-to-2 word rule makes keeping your label on one line really easy.

Sometimes the words being used on your label are too long and you need to use two lines. FALSE. If the word is too long, shorten it. For example, Instruction Manuals is pretty long even though it’s only two words. You can keep this label on one line easily by shortening it to Instruct. Manual. This shortens it just enough to fit on one line!

You might also shorten your label by taking out small words like the, of, etc. or replace small words with symbols (i.e. and becomes ‘&’, inquiries become ‘?’—get creative).

Label in all capital letters. This, again, just makes the label easier to read at a glance because the letters are all the same height.

My last labeling rule is to use good handwriting or type it. The reality of it is, that if you don’t have good handwriting, then your labels won’t be easy to read at a glance. So, if your penmanship isn’t great, try typing out your labels instead to keep them readable. To make typed labels easier, try these label sheets. They fit into your printer like a normal piece of paper and come with a website that provides the Microsoft Word template.

However, if you have good handwriting, then there is no reason you can’t write your labels out.

Step Five: Archives

The archives are everything in your main categories for the previous years. You don’t want all your finances from 2012 mixed in with your finances for 2017, that will just cause chaos. With archived files, you can be assured that each year’s information is all in the same place, allowing you to go back a year or two if needed, but also allowing you to find this year’s information more easily.

How to Archive

Archiving is super easy. At the end of each year create a subcategory for that year (under the main category: Archives). For example, this subcategory might be 2016. Then you create second level subcategories using the previously determined categories. Are you following me? Perhaps the graphic in my FREE File Planning Workbook can help you to follow along, I’m a visual learner too.

You can choose to keep your subcategories by allowing them to become third level subcategories, or you can choose to remove them all together. This is up to you. I keep my original subcategories, as is depicted on page 10 of the Workbook.

Categories That Don’t Need to Be Archived

I keep a file labeled Information. This file is comprised of mostly handouts and printouts with information that I found helpful or wanted to keep handy. These documents do not need to be archived because they are relevant every year and if they become irrelevant, I probably need to go and find an updated version to replace it.

Another category that might not need to be archived is Instruction Manuals. These are manuals that come with all your appliances, toys, and electronics. These are nice to keep around (assuming you still have that product) in case you need to figure out a setting or learn how the product works. But these, again, are not relevant to only one year. The Manuals are only relevant as long as you have the product, and if you don’t have the product, then trash the manual.

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Step Six: The ‘To-Be Filed’ Bin

A To-Be-Filed Bin is a place or container that you keep on your desk or on your filing system. The purpose of the bin is to keep handy documents that you are still using, but that need to be filed when you are done without damaging or losing them. Keeping this bin within reach of your desk or filing system is important to prevent damaged or lost documents. Check out some bins below.

  • mDesign Wall Mount/Over the Door Fabric Office Supplies Storage Organizer for Notebooks, Planners, File Folders Gray/Cream
  • Fellowes Workstation Letter Size Desk Tray Organizer, Wire, Black

Read more about desk organization here.

The Filing Essentials Shopping List

Filing Container of your Choice (cabinet, box, expanding, desk)

Files (colored or regular)

Labels

Colored Pens or Colored Folders

Six Steps to Organized Filing

36 Comments

  1. This is so helpful! I am working on getting all our important papers in order. I need to get a file cabinet.

  2. Oh my goodness, I need you to come and sort out my documents! I literally have bags and bags of paperwork, all unsorted…it is a nightmare!

    1. Honestly, that sounds like fun to me 😛 That does sound very stressful though, ought to take a day to yourself to go through it all! Feel free to contact me if you’re stuck!

  3. I need to find me a great organizer. I have been struggling to keep all my stuff together. Between tax paperwork, invoices, contracts, etc., it gets overwhelming.

  4. I hate having to file items and I’m sure I’m not alone. I think I need to go out and find a new holder though and clear some space.

  5. these are some great tips!! there will be a day when all of my personal documents and files are neatly organized…hopefully soon thanks to this post!! thanks for sharing

  6. Lord this helped a lot!! I strive to stay organized but most of the time I am a hot mess xD

    1. They are really expensive! I suggest maybe garage sale shopping? I’ve seen some at garage sales. Otherwise, the boxes are wayyy cheaper

  7. It’s really important to me to have everything organized especially the important family documents. I think these are lovely suggestions!

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