Time Management: The Most Effective File Structures (Tip #11)

Like many of us, you probably struggle with piles of paper on your desk or you have a file structure that is easy to put things into, but is fairly unreliable for finding things again?

If you need help in this area, then this suggested system for setting up file structures should prove useful.  This is one of those areas that provides no easy fix — it is going to take time and discipline.

But this isn’t about setting up a whole elaborate filing system and then conforming all of your old information into it.  Absolutely don’t spend time filing what has passed!  Document how the old material is filed and box it up.  Create a new file structure and use it going forward.

The key here is getting the file structure logic right.  Less is more which is actually much more difficult.  You need to think about what you work with the most on your job — for example, clients, projects, products, buyers, or sites.

Typically there are 1 or 2 things you work with the most – these should be the anchors of your file structure.  Don’t get caught up mixing up what you work with most and your function.  Let the most logical answer reign:  what do I work with the most?

Then add just 2 or 3 more areas that complete how information is used in your job, for example, Reference, Administration.  The key is, if the structure is sound, then this file structure’s top level should not grow over time.  Everything that arises should have its place within it.

The second thing you want to design in is an effective way to date information.  This allows you to prevent new information being filed along old dated information with no easy way to separate and archive it.

Once you have your file structure logic set up, find the easiest way to start using it, meaning you don’t need a label maker and an elaborate numbering scheme, you can simply use manila folder and a pencil, for example:  Account, Product and Date is all I put on my folders.  The date allows me to move the project out if enough time lapses.

Below is a sample structure for your reference. Get started on creating a new, simple, logically sound file structure for you and/or your team. Get everyone’s input – or better yet, task them with drafting it up.

Then set it up to be used in all locations: Calendar, To-Do Lists, Paper Files, Electronic Files, Internet Favourites.

My last point here is someone, sadly, will have to assume the role of “folder police” otherwise people will not conform to the structure.  Make it as easy as you can for people to use but then follow up with consequences when people resist using it.  The whole structure suffers if people don’t reliably apply the standard filing logic and someone is willing to hold them accountable to do so.

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant