3 Steps to Perfectly Organized Files

When you need to organize your files, each paper you touch can become a complicated decision. The solution: don’t triage!
Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #534

A listener writes in:

Dear Get It Done Guy,

My sweetheart has just moved in and all is wonderful...expect that his boxes and file drawers full of paper have also moved in. When he tries to sort through them his eyes glaze over. The papers go from boxes into piles. I get angry at the mess. How can we quickly reduce the paper in his life, while increasing the chance he might actually find some important financial document when he needed it? — Agonized in Arlington

Dear Agonized in Arlington,

I’m so sorry! The instant I hear the phrase “sorting through boxes,” my own eyes glaze over. Smoke begins to wisp up from my ears. And my quiet inner voice starts shrieking “No! For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, no!”

And spaghetti it is. Because when you’re sorting through boxes, you’re staring at a huge mess of unrelated, unknown stuff. Financial papers, technical manuals, cookbooks, old bills, important project notes scribbled on napkins, and meat sauce. Flying Spaghetti Monster meat sauce, specifically. 

A big part of what makes “sorting boxes” a sordid affair is that your brain has to totally switch modes every time you pick up a new piece of paper. What makes this agonizing isn’t the mess. It’s the need for your brain to switch gears with every single object you touch. Your brain goes crazy! And as you’ve seen, it then helpfully drives everyone around you crazy, too. So they’ll empathize with you, of course. 

Fortunately, your nervous system comes with a built-in solution. It’s called your reticular activating system. It’s the part of you that searches for things that match your expectations. When you buy a new peacock feather duster, for example, you suddenly notice that everyone seems to be carrying around a peacock feather duster. There actually aren’t more around, it’s just that for the first time, you’re noticing them. Your reticular activating system has become tuned to notice peacock feather dusters. 

And this, you can use. 

Triage is too much work

Most people sort out a box of papers by taking each paper in turn, examining it, thinking about what it is, mentally projecting dozens of alternate futures to calculate the exact probability that they’ll need that piece of paper in the future. Then they go watch Netflix to recuperate, because handling that one piece of paper took so much mental energy. 

Instead of switching mental gears for every piece of paper, just program your reticular activating system to recognize one category.

This is “triaging” every piece of paper. A lot of pieces of paper fit in a box, and it sounds like your shmoopie has a lot of boxes. That’s a whole, whole lot of triage.

It’s even worse because it sounds like Shmoopie may not even know if the paper will be needed in the future. So, caught like a deer in the headlights of ambiguity, Shmoopie just freezes. Paper in hand. A single, solitary tear traveling slowly down their cheek. Annie Lebowitz would shoot a Pulitzer-winning portrait right about now. We’re not Annie Lebowitz, so all we can do, with a firm upper lip, is hand Shmoopie the next piece of paper.

Filtering works better!

We may not be Annie Lebowitz, but we are masters of our reticular activating system! Instead of triaging, let’s filter. Choose a category of paper to filter for, and have Shmoopie zip through the box, pulling out every piece of paper that fits that category.

But first ... you say your shmoopie gets stalled trying to figure out whether any piece of paper must be kept. Make this decision once, before you begin.

Listen to Get-It-Done Guy episode 25, a joint episode with Legal Lad where we explore which important papers must be kept, and for how long. Then round it out with episode 167 of Money Girl, where she goes into more detail about financial records.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.