How to Create Your Own Simple Filing System

No two people are alike, and no two filing systems need to be either.  Create your own unique filing system using the S.P.A.C.E.* method.

SORT:  Divide your papers into categories that make sense to you.  You are the one who is going to have to find them again later.  However, I do suggest you consider grouping related files into broad categories, rather than by individual vendor name.  Examples: Insurance, Utilities, Finances, Health, Home, Family, Projects.

PURGE:  Toss or recycle as many of your papers as you can.  If you are unsure about how long to keep certain types of records, consult your professional organizer, tax accountant, attorney, or financial planner for advice.  Keep in mind that 80% of filed papers are never referenced again.

ASSIGN A HOME:  Where will you be storing your files — in your home office?  In your basement?  On the kitchen counter?  How often will you be needing to use them?  Who else needs access to them?

CONTAINERIZE:  Now that you know how much paper you are keeping, and where you want to store it, you can buy a new file cabinet, desktop file box, or accordion file… or you can use the one you already have!

EQUALIZE — Schedule a few minutes each day to manage incoming paper.  Avoid mystery piles by using an Action File.  Purge your files of outdated papers at least once a year to make room for new ones.  By doing this you will keep papers from becoming an overwhelming pile of clutter, and you will always be able to find what you are looking for.

My personal filing preferences: 

  • Use interior folders whose tabs don’t stick up over the edge of a hanging file.
  • Group related folders into hanging box-bottom files if you have more than a few that category.  (2 or 3 skinny folders can fit in a regular hanging file.)
  • The number of resulting hanging files is far fewer than the number of individual folders, which reduces the need to alphabetize in order to find something.  So I don’t.
  • Use only one color for all the interior folders, and only one color for all the hanging files.
  • Replace the plastic file tab doohickeys (with the paper inserts) with Post-It Durable Filing Tabs.  I just write on mine with a black Sharpie.  Easy, bold, and readable.
  • Place file tabs in a straight line, on the edge closest to you when you open the drawer; not staggered.
  • A cross-reference filing index is helpful for those who simply can’t remember their chosen file names or categories, no matter how straightforward they are.

If you prefer lots of colored A-Z files, and staggered plastic tabs — and you can always find what you’re looking for — then knock yourself out!

You may already have the perfect filing system for YOU!

* The S.P.A.C.E. acronym was coined by Julie Morgenstern in her book Organizing From The Inside Out.  This description of how to apply it to a filing system is my own.

Copyright 2011 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Janet Barclay on May 13, 2024 at 8:24 am

    I have to agree about not staggering file tabs, mainly because it causes extra work if you decide to add a new category!

    • Hazel Thornton on May 16, 2024 at 9:47 pm


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