Filing Up a S.T.O.R.M.
Last time, we looked at how to process your action items. Now let’s see how you can use the S.T.O.R.M. system (Sort. Toss. Organize. Review. Maintain.) to deal with all those papers you want to store.
Filing often has such a bad reputation. One reader from Florida wrote in: “Is there any way to make noxious tasks (like filing!) less noxious?” Well, like any other organizing task, it’s important to start with a goal in mind.
What is the main purpose of filing? So you can find papers easily when you need them. If you don’t need them now, and will never need them again, don’t file them. Throw them away.
Many people are overwhelmed when trying to figure out what to keep and then how to file, store, or archive all their paper. A first step is to SORT papers into three categories: Active Files, Inactive Files, and Memorabilia.
Active files are papers you will be using, or may need to refer to, in the near future (say, one year): legal, medical, and financial records; warranties and instructions for equipment and appliances you currently own; notes for each committee, charity, or project with which you are involved, and perhaps an “idea incubator” for articles, quotes, clippings, thoughts written on sticky notes, cartoons, etc. Active files should be kept in “prime real estate” – that is, front and center, in your home office, or close to where you will be processing mail and paying bills.
In your Active files, keep copies of your important permanent papers: automobile title, marriage certificate, mortgage documents, adoption records or birth certificate, military records, and legal and medical directives. The originals should be stored in a bank vault or fire-proof safe.
Most households need just one file drawer, or the equivalent, for active files.
Inactive Files are papers relating to your past that do not have particular sentimental value, which you plan to keep for some time but not permanently: supporting documents for tax returns for the past six years, or however long your tax advisor recommends; or records from a recently-sold business or car. Inactive files can be stored in the attic, in an unused room, or offsite.
Memorabilia are papers that have some sentimental or emotional importance to you: special greeting cards, love letters, a child’s first crayon drawing, your old report cards, or travel souvenirs.
While everyone has some papers or photographs that are special and worth keeping, holding onto a surfeit of memorabilia (and only you – not your spouse, your children, or your professional organizer – can decide what’s enough and what’s “too much”) can keep you tied to your past and less able to move forward in your life. This is particularly true when the “memorabilia” are negative in nature: files from a divorce, an old auto accident, or a layoff at work. How might it feel to let go of all past papers that remind you of unhappy times or events?
Important memorabilia should be protected: kept in a temperature-controlled room (not the attic or unfinished basement) in archival-quality boxes (not plastic or cardboard, which are subject to bugs, mice, mold, and other destructive elements). Proper storage of your memorabilia can require a significant financial investment, so be discriminating when deciding what to keep.
Once you have sorted your papers, TOSS what you don’t need. If you can replace a paper with minimal effort, consider shredding or recycling it. If you are stuck, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I let go of this piece of paper?” If you can live with the answer, toss it.
Next, you are ready to ORGANIZE your papers.
Your filing system doesn’t need to be complicated. A shoe box is a filing system. So are baggies. So is an open crate.
Create a file system for your own ease of use. Do you need to see everything right in front of you or you’ll forget you have it? Then you might need an open crate filing system, or acrylic file holders mounted to the wall. Do you prefer to have your paperwork tucked away neatly in a file cabinet with color-coded, labeled folders?
Determining your style is the first step in designing a useful file system.
Do you wish to file by topic (legal, medical, financial), alphabetically, or by the month? How detailed do you want to be? The folder categories you create need to make sense to you, the end user. Will you name the file “Car,” “Automobile,” or “Camry”? Will you put all your insurance papers into one folder, or separate them by the type of insurance?
No matter which system you design for yourself, I encourage you to think of filing as a way to ease, rather than impede, your life. Filing is really an art form and can be very creative – and that’s why there is NO one organizing book that works for everyone.
Yes, filing can be tedious, but more time-consuming is struggling to find the title to your car because it just died and you need a new one right away and you can’t trade it in without the title.
Filing can be tedious, but more painful is not being able to lease that perfect storefront for your new business because you can’t pull together all the financial documents the landlord requires, and by the time you do finally find them, the space has been claimed.
Filing can be tedious, but more distressing is being unable to find your birth certificate when you realize your driver’s license is about to expire and you need proof of citizenship.
You get the point.
Whichever system you create or adopt, be sure to label your folders. Don’t stuff the folders, and don’t over-stuff the file drawer either. File front-to-back or back-to-front, but be consistent.
Now REVIEW your creation, and be prepared to spend about five minutes a day (or the weekly equivalent) to MAINTAIN it: putting papers into your new system, as well as weeding out those no longer needed.
A test of a good system is this: can you easily retrieve what you’ve filed? If so, you’ve done an excellent job. If not, work on revising it or ask for help. Your system is likely to grow and evolve as your life evolves. It’s a work in progress; so are you!
Your comments and organizing questions are always welcome. You can reach me here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.