File so You Can Find Anything--Instantly

Filing systems—paper or not—are notorious for things going in but never coming out.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #3

filingI just found out one of my favorite childhood books was recently re-released. It’s called From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

In it, the little girl, Claudia, has to find a file that proves whether or not Michelangelo was the sculptor of a beautiful statue of an angel in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’s given one hour and a room with files from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. The catch: she doesn’t know where the proof is filed. 

(My art geek friends loved the book because the kids hide out in the Met. I loved it for the filing cabinets. I was destined to be an organization geek. So sue me.)  Filing systems—paper or not—are notorious for things going in but never coming out. Just remember the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They bury the Ark of the Covenant for all time by filing it in a government warehouse.

Why Is Filing Important?

If you’re under 18, you may be wondering what the fuss is. Give it ten years. As you find stuff that’s too valuable, too legal, too fun, or too incriminating to throw away, you’ll want to keep it, and you'll probably want to keep the more sensitive stuff safe to prevent identity theft. One time-honored way is by using a filing cabinet. And yes, even if you’re under 25, you’ll find you want to keep some things that can’t be scanned into the digital world. Besides, your online file folders are probably as scattered as most of the paper ones.

Come Up With Better File Names

The first secret to good filing is to choose your file topics carefully. For example, let’s say you’re an evil super-genius and you're making plans to take over the world. You create a plan to build a doomsday device and hold the world hostage. You have another plan to corner the market in thread (no more fashionable clothes, ever). And, of course, you have your fallback plan where you create zombies to do your bidding. You might be tempted to file all of them in a folder labeled “Taking Over the World.” But that’s way too general.

And here's why: Imagine you’re walking through the grocery store and on the back, top shelf of the baking aisle, you see a canister of “Extra-Strength Zombie-to-Life.” Given the convenience, you decide to go the zombie route. So, you come home, and start implementing your dastardly plan. But every time you pull out your file, you have to leaf through your notes on doomsday bombs and thread markets, all mixed up in your zombie files. Oy vay! What a mess. The problem is your folder topic is too general. You really need specific folders--one for each plan. So, a better labeling scheme would be three folders titled, “Doomsday Device,” “Thread Market Takeover,” and “Zombie Creation.” Then, when you grabbed a folder, you would get only the information on the project at hand.

Organize Your File Folders

Don’t take this subdividing thing too far! If you divide your “Doomsday Device” folder into “Watch Dr. Strangelove for ideas,” “Doomsday Device Thoughts,” and “Doomsday Device Materials Lists,” you’ve now spread your material through so many folders you’ll need to pull them all out at once to get anything done. Be as general as you can with your folders so each folder has everything you need on a topic, without being so general that you also include a lot of irrelevant stuff.

Proper Filing Means Easy Retrieval

There’s an even deeper principle hiding here: you really want to file stuff according to how you’ll want to retrieve it. So when you go to put something into a file, ask yourself, “When am I likely to need this?” ,and then ask, “What am I likely to be thinking at that moment?” Put the file there.


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.