Paper Piles & Digital Disorganization Can Cost You

Some people embrace clutter. They love their messy office. They know exactly what’s in each and every one of their 27 piles of paper littering the desk, floor, windowsill, and credenza. ‘Go ahead and test me. I know what’s there,’ they say confidently.

Their computer desktop is littered with dozens of unsorted files. Their inbox holds emails in the tens of thousands. Maybe more than 100,000.

But what if that person has the flu, or is working in another time zone for a week. If they weren’t able to get to a computer or phone for a few days, would a colleague be able to find what they need in that messy office?

What if you were out longer, such as a serious illness or injury for a few months. Would it be intuitive for your colleagues to know where to access files, either in your office or on your electronic directory? Could they find everything to take over the project?

Here’s the thing: you may know where everything is, but no one else will understand your system. All they see is a high pile of paper leaning dangerously to the left. Or blocking the heating vent.

If they are allowed access to your digital files, your piles likely won't make sense to them. If files are buried in a system only you can understand, that spells trouble for the company.

When you hear someone say they know where everything is, ask if they have room on the desk to read, make notes, or edit a document. Is there space for water, a coffee cup, to review a file? Are several projects in one tall leaning-tower-of-Pisa style stack? That is probably not serving them well and could be a safety hazard.

And it costs.

Not being able to have clients in your office, or looking unprofessional if you do, affects your professional reputation. It looks like you aren’t in control. People wonder if the way you approach work is the same -- unkept and ignored.

Above all, it costs the company or your business by not sharing information with colleagues or clients on a regular basis.

it’s impossible for anyone else to know your system. If you have one. And if you don’t, I encourage employees and small business owners to file, have a spot for current projects, and archive those long over and complete, rather than let them sit in your office gathering dust. You’ll all benefit.

5 Tips for Smart Filing

For a supposed digital society, paper clutter is still an epidemic. And for others, the disorganization has just shifted from physical to digital.

If you don’t know how to handle scattered digital files at work, or the mountain of unsorted paper or in your office or home, let’s talk about how to manage papers and files.

1. Cut down how much you have. It’s difficult for some people to expel items, especially if they have an emotional attachment (promotion confirmation, first condo purchase). Honour the feeling, know the memory is stored, and then try to let it go. Only keep what you may need for legal reasons or to refer to in future.

Next, edit out these typical items in your home office or business workspace:

  • Conference notes you’ve never looked at
  • That “someday pile” of documents you’ve been meaning to sort
  • Saving or collecting items you may need “sometime,” but never do
  • Annual daily planners for years passed
  • Completed projects unnecessary to keep
  • Articles or bookmarked sites you are never going to read

Do you really need to print out an email or document? If you prefer to read a physical copy rather than a computer screen, research actually supports that preference (see study by Virginia Clinton, University of North Dakota). It’s more efficient to read from paper. However, ensure you recycle, file, or shred once you are finished editing or reading the document.

Keep vital documents such as your Social Security number, birth certificate, insurance policy, Estate & Will, property deed, car title, passport, and any contract or legal agreement with an original signature in a fireproof metal cabinet, safe, or safety deposit box.

To determine what’s vital, decide if replacing it would expensive, time-consuming, or vulnerable to fire, flood, or identity theft.

2. Be realistic about whether you will actually file what’s left, and if so, decide what kind of system you’ll likely use. If it’s too complicated or stressful, go digital. If you decide to keep hard copies of files, let’s go through options so you can store, track, and retrieve what you need.

3. Once you’ve chosen a system, think about what size file (letter or legal), if you want plain or colour-coded folders, and whether they will hang or sit in sorters. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Put files into folders and label with date
  • Don’t delay, but label new files as soon as you open them
  • Be clear where outdated files go (why keeping it, storage, scan)
  • Share files with others (central company drive)
  • Ensure you set up files for business expenses, and to prepare for tax season

4. Go Digital. Set up an electronic filing that follows the company’s system, and if there’s none set up, establish your own. See if a “file naming convention” works for you.

  • Add dates (back to front for chronological retrieval): 20150201Agenda (YYYYMMDD = Feb. 1, 2015)
  • For Alphanumeric, use “0” so lists go in order automatically (MemberReport2014V02.doc)
  • Add versions to drafts so lists are in order, but add final to last version (MemberReport2014Final.doc)

5. Maintain the system you put into place.

  • Book time weekly to delete emails
  • Set time to read articles
  • Every Friday (or end of your work week) tidy at 4:30 pm
  • Schedule seasonal file clear out and tidy days

Nobody has time or energy to expend looking for files. If you set aside time to stay organized, your workspace will be a more inviting place to work and create.