Organizing Your Filesystem IRL

Sorting Papers

Rule of thumb—discard everything

— Marie Kondo

While working from home, one thing that helps me focus on work is avoiding clutter on my desk. Papers are particularly problematic as they're so thin that they can stack up over time without a noticeable difference until it suddenly seems that there's a teetering tower of precariously balanced "things to do".

Receipts, bills, instruction books, warranties, and all sorts of other desk detritus all have a tendency to outstay their welcome.

Worse, if you're working from home you may find yourself absentmindedly attempting to tidy up rather than focusing on the current task at hand.

If you struggle with keeping your workspace clutter-free, I use a system that requires minimal effort and materials.

How we got here

Much of the reason papers start to pile up is that they need to be dealt with. I've previously outlined the "Four D" method for managing email. The same method applies to papers.

Papers that can be done often are. You pay the bill; you return the call; you complete the task.

Papers that can be delegated often are. You mail the paper to someone else; you put it on your spouse's desk; you make it someone else's task.

Papers that can be dropped often are. You throw it in the recycle bin; you shred it; you get rid of the paper altogether.

The main issue comes from papers that need to be deferred. If you buy something with a return policy, you don't want to get rid of the receipt until after the return policy has expired. If you've paid a bill, you might want to keep it for your records for a while.

It's deferred papers that stick around the longest because you can't deal with them now and organizing is too much of a pain to do consistently. Not only do we defer dealing with the paper, it's very easy to defer organizing the paper as well.

This system for organization addresses the deferred organization issue by intentionally minimizing the amount of effort needed to organize papers.

What you need

To follow this system you'll need the following things:

  • A small filing cabinet or file storage box - while filing cabinets might not be super cheap you might already own one or can find one at a garage sale for cheap, a plastic file storage box runs around $10
  • 8 or 12 hanging file folders with labelable tabs - you can often find bulk packs of these for $10
  • a paper shredder or other disposal method - optional but at ~$50 they're not too expensive either

What you do

Separate your hanging folders into four equal groups of 2-3 folders.

Label each folder in the first group "January-March" or "Q1" and place the tabs all the way to the left.

Label each folder in the second group "April-June" or "Q2" and place the tabs to the left of center.

Label each folder in the third group "July-September" or "Q3" and place the tabs to the right of center.

Label each folder in the fourth group "October-December" or "Q4" and place the tabs all the way to the right.

Hang the folders in your cabinet (or box) with Q1 in the back followed by Q2, Q3, and Q4 in the front. Repeat the cycle until you run out of folders.

Grab the rearmost folder and place it in front until the frontmost folder is your current quarter. For example, if it's currently Q2, your folders should be arranged back-to-front as:

  • Q3 (back)
  • Q4
  • Q1
  • Q2
  • Q3
  • Q4
  • Q1
  • Q2 (front)

You can now dump papers into their respective quarters. If you've got receipts from the last week, just dump them in a pile into the forward most folder. For older papers, you can drop them into their respective quarter. For example, Christmas cards from last year can go in the most recent Q4 folder.

You now have a queue of the last 2-3 years of papers.

You don't need to manually organize papers by date, or anything else. The more you use this system, the more you will find yourself incidentally organizing papers by date because the most recent papers you add will be added to the front of the folders.

When you get to the end of your current quarter, take the folder from the back of the cabinet, shred everything in it, and place the folder in the front of the cabinet. Most return policies and warranties expire in that time, so you can safely get rid of the old receipts without having to look at each and every one to make sure that it's not too recent.

If you do have to find older records, each folder will only contain papers from a three month spread, making it much easier to find an old receipt or document than when they were all piled on your desk.

Long-term records

Use other specific folders for records that need to be kept longer than 2-3 years (e.x. tax forms). With so few folders for this system, most cabinets will have lots of extra space in the back if you need to dedicate a folder for each year's tax returns, or other miscellanea.

Decluttering the rest of the house

You can add all sorts of papers to this system. It works great with greeting cards, instruction manuals, and random takeout menus. Anything where you're not sure you'll need it now is a lot easier to get rid of when you see it two years after the fact knowing you haven't touched it since.

Give it a try

If you find yourself surrounded by distracting papers and a mess that drives you mad, I hope this method will help you to regain control of your workspace.