Pile, Don’t File!

Papers are one of the scourges of the modern office. Even mine tend to take over, if I am not very careful. So how do you get a handle of those never-ending piles of paper that accumulate on your desks, especially if filing is not one of your strengths? There ARE solutions, including some that don’t even include filing! So how do you go about it, if you can’t deal with filing, or are afraid that anything you file will be forgotten?


First, set aside a couple hours during which you are unlikely to be interrupted. Then group all your piles together – if not all in one pile, at least all in one area of the room. Now go through all your papers, and decide if they belong to:

– Papers you haven’t touched yet

– Papers that you need to do something about (such as an invitation with a RSVP, or an article you want to read, a letter you need to answer, etc.)

– Papers that you don’t need anymore, but need or want to keep because they have legal value or you know you will need to use them again.

– Papers that can be thrown away Don’t read the whole document, just enough to know what you need to do about it. If this is a problem, one solution I have used with a client is a beeper that is set to beep every 20 seconds or so. It’s a good reminder, and we very rarely need more than 20 seconds to know where a paper belongs.

Even if you never get beyond this point, you now know where to look for this invitation, or this paper you read 3 years ago that has the information you need. It may take you a little bit to find it, but at least you are will find it.


Now, in a second step, pile again! Once the sorting is done, go back to the papers you need to do something about, and go through the pile again, creating small piles that correspond to a category. They can be organized by project, type of action, date due, topic, or any other way that makes sense for you. At this point, the piles in front of you should be much smaller, and more numerous.


Now is time to file. You can either file your papers in a special file holder for your active work, or, if you can’t part with your piles, you can visually spread your piles on your desk, credenza, file cabinets, etc. The key is to ORGANIZE them, and to make sure that they don’t overlap. The latter is easy to solve: Put your piles in trays, baskets, boxes, magazine files, things that will hold them in place – and will instantly make your desk look neater, even if it’s full of piles.

Organizing your piles is a little trickier. Here are some examples of pile organization. Choose the one that appeals to you the most:

– The Labels: Label your piles with one of those folding name tags used to put the names of panelists at a conference, or, more simply, any type of construction paper folded in two, and label both sides. If you choose to play with construction paper, you can even color-code your piles, to make it faster to find what you are looking for.

– The Positioning: This is a system where all the papers related to calls to make are put right next to the phone; things to enter in the computer next to the computer, etc. You can also have all your projects lined up on your desk, the first one to work on that day on your left, the second one next to it, etc.

– The Lists: On top of your piles, keep a running list of their content. This way, you know exactly what is in the pile and only have to look at the lists to know where to look. Even better, the lower the document is on your list, the higher in the pile it is.

Now you have a filing – or rather finding – system!

At this point, the only unfinished pile left is the one containing the papers you want or need to keep, but don’t need to act on. The system that makes the most sense still is a filing cabinet, with classical hanging folders and manila folders. However, if you can’t see yourself ever opening those drawers, you can use Steps 2. and 3. above to do your long-term filing as well. The only downside is that you will need a large amount of horizontal space, such as shelving. You will also have to make sure that the items indicating what is in your piles (labels, lists) are vertical and in an easy-to-read place.

Happy road to a pile-filing system that works for you!

Copyright 2006 Karin Vibe Rheymer Stewart

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