How to Create a Self-Maintaining Filing System

Let your files determine when and what you do with them, so when it’s time to simplify, you have everything you need to do it quickly and completely.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #384

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Backlogged files just kind of creep up on you. Not literally, of course. I mean, they don’t grow little backlog legs, sneak into the kitchen, and grab little backlog knives, and then prepare to attack you when you’re not looking. That doesn’t happen ever! But they do just sit there and quietly multiply when you’re not looking.

Europa has discovered that single-handedly running the economy of the entire Eastern Bloc generates a lot of paperwork. Once the paperwork has served its purpose, it gets filed. At this point, Europa’s filing cabinets fill her office and are spilling over into the hallway. When she wants to get the latest inventory report for the plant store, she has to wade through dozens of files on the world Iridium market, her secret ownership of the world’s entire production of Incandescent Light Bulbs, and several other “I” topics before she can get to Inventory. 

She’s at the point of pulling her hair out, and who can blame her? At this point, she has ever single file from the last twenty years saved up somewhere in her maze of filing cabinets.

Identify Expiration Dates

If you want to keep your filing sane—and this applies to paper files or electronic files—you need to realize that papers pile up, just like furniture and other possessions. When you’re young, you’re in the mode of accumulating stuff. If you’re furnishing your first apartment, you think, “Gee, I need a new couch!” So you get one. This happens year after year, and one day, you wake up and realize you own nineteen couches. 

Papers accumulate, too, and you need to get rid of them.

When you file papers, think about when that item will no longer be relevant. What’s the expiration date? Grab a sticky note and stick the expiration date on the thing you’re filing. Even if you don’t know the exact date something will become irrelevant, you can certainly choose a date by which they’re certainly useless or expired. 

Europa recently fired a minion. The minion sent a letter promising to seek revenge by sabotaging her hidden Swiss Alps (no, I don’t mean Swiss bank account, I mean Swiss Alps. Apparently she secretly bought them in 1998 when Switzerland was having some issues). 

Since she let this minion go because they had no follow-through, she’s confident that the letter is irrelevant after a year. She writes today’s date, one year in the future, on the letter when she files it.

Identify Disposition: Trash, Scan, Delegate

It addition to the expiration date, also write the disposition on the thing you’re archiving. Since right now, you know what it is, it’s a much better time to decide what to do with it than when you’re pondering it six years from now, trying to remember why it matters.

Paper accumulates, and you need to get rid of it!

If it’s a Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes entry that you’re saving for nostalgic purposes, the disposition might be “Trash.”

But if it’s a sensitive legal document that contains enough information to reveal your plans, the disposition would be “Shred,” “Liquify,” or “Obliterate.” Europa is particularly fond of the “Obliterate” option.

For paper legal documents, the disposition might be, “Scan to DVD and throw away the paper.” Then the DVD, itself, would have an expiration date at which time you would toss it, and that item would be gone from your life forever. 

Think through the disposition now so when the date comes, you can just take care of it, lickety split.


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.