Partly as a reaction to reading Dave Allen’s organization book Getting Things Done, I’ve carved three days out of my schedule between this week and next to take care of innumerable little tasks; organize papers, projects, and records; make progress on a couple of small projects; and so on. Today was my first day, and much of it went into getting paper-based information organized. While I’ve had filing systems working in the past, in recent years my system has been “put it in a pile where I can dig through and find it if I really need to.” I had been envisioning filing papers as a Big Job that needed to be done all at once and then repeated regularly, and for me, organizing papers was wasn’t enough of a priority to put in that time at this stage.
Allen’s book has given me a newer and more pleasant perspective on the issue. He points out that papers that haven’t been dealt with, and in fact all things that haven’t been dealt with, tend to be an irritant until they’re taken care of. In other words, one of the immediate rewards of getting my files in order would be more peace of mind. He also outlines a system for keeping files always up to date, with no need to make a big filing push at any time. It was largely this system for paper files that I used to inform my recent post on keeping on top of e-mail all the time.
While it may sound bizarre, filing papers today was actually fun, because Allen’s system helped me get into flow with the filing: in other words, I was continuously involved and challenged in the task, I knew exactly what I needed to do, and I could see how well I was doing as I went.
I won’t and can’t reproduce all of Allen’s system here, although I highly recommend his book if you’re interested in getting more control over the many obligations, objects, papers, tasks, priorities, and other elements that pass through your life.
I had actually started filing using Allen’s system a week or two before I began going through large stacks of to-be-filed papers, just to handle some new papers that were coming in. In other words, I’m already treating filing like a habit instead of something to be done every once in a while in chunks. It’s important to handle these kinds of obligations that way to be able to keep up to date once things are off to a good start. Trying to do filing in a “big push” is likely to mean keeping a “to file” pile after that, which will require another “big push” in future. By contrast, Allen’s system depends on setting eyes on a piece of paper once and then trying to decide where it needs to finally go or what it needs to finally do.
I purchased (inexpensively, through eBay) a simple label maker to make the labels for my file folders. While a label maker may sound like it’s approximately as useful as a banana hammock, the difference in clarity and professional appearance of the printed labels on folders compared to the old hand-labeled folders is striking. I can much more easily find a file using these labels. I use a label maker instead of the computer to make the labels because Allen’s system depends on being able to make up a new file instantly with very little fuss, even if it’s just one folder for one piece of paper, and putting labels through a printer is usually too much of a hassle for repeated little jobs like that.
With a stack of fresh folders, the label maker, and a good system, I was able to sit and plow through piles of paper fairly efficiently, and most importantly to be able to decide then and there exactly what to do with each piece of paper–whether that meant capturing a task from it in my task management system, filing it in an existing folder, making a new folder and filing it there, recycling it, etc. Seeing chaos reduced to order step by step like this is powerfully motivating–and well worth trying if you can make the time to get started.