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Filing for beginners

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Simple advice for anyone who struggles with paperwork

Wouldn't it be wonderful if one day scientists could isolate the specific gene that made some people tidy, organised and methodical? If they could synthesise some nutrient-enriched compound, which the chaotic, slobbish rest of us could simply swallow with our breakfast in the morning and would painlessly enable us to enjoy filing, deal ruthlessly with junk mail, and keep our homes and work spaces clutter-free and pristine? No more lost lecture notes! No more missed deadlines! No more hours wasted looking for that piece of paper you know is in here somewhere...

Sadly, it's unlikely to happen in our lifetime.

In the meantime, for everyone who wasn't fortunate enough to be born organised, here are some simple tips and advice on how to gain control of your paperwork and bring some order back to your life.

Getting a work-life balance

First, invest in an adequate number of files to deal with all the kinds of papers you will be receiving. This means sitting down for a few minutes before you go shopping for them and figuring out what documents you are or will be receiving and how you want to organize those so that you can find them again easily. As a very broad classification, for example, you might want to keep anything relating to your studies separate from your domestic paperwork. If this is your first time living independently away from home, it is probably also the first time you've had to cope with bills, bank accounts and other personal papers, and that in itself can be surprisingly daunting. Reduce the fear factor by having a place to put all those documents, where you know they'll be safe and accessible.

An expandable wallet file is a good and straight forward way of sorting and storing items like bank statements, receipts, wage slips, contracts, etc. It ensures that all the important papers you may want to refer back to are safely kept together, as well as preventing them cluttering up the rest of your space.

For your academic work, you may feel that you want to keep separate files for every course that you're studying or you might prefer a single, large format ring binder, divided into appropriate sections, to contain everything. Which approach you choose will depend on your personal preference, resources and the nature of the courses you are studying.

If you choose a file per subject system, you may still want to sub-divide each folder, either by topic, or by type of paper. Thus you may have an HRM file, divided into team management, employment legislation, performance and reward structures, etc. Or you might find it easier to organize that same file into sections headed: lecture notes, seminar papers, class handouts, essays, or whatever. If the tabs on your dividers are marked with the title for that section you will be able to go straight to any piece of paper you're wanting with minimum time or effort.

Filing your research project

If you are undertaking a research project as part of your studies, you may want to keep hard copies of the reference sources you use rather than relying entirely on a computerised database. A small file box with alphabetically indexed cards can be an invaluable tool for retrieving a reference or constructing a bibliography. Any copies of articles or notes on books that you may have made during your researches are probably most easily kept in a simple box file but do be sure to note on the front to which part of your project they refer and try to keep documents on the same theme together, either by clipping them together, fastening them with a rubber band, or by inserting everything on one topic into a card or plastic sleeve.

The most important thing to remember when making these arrangements is to choose a system that suits you and then stick to it! A sure way to confuse yourself utterly and end up in even more mess than before is to start with one kind of system and switch to another half way through the year. This is why, when you are setting up a filing system (because this is what you're doing), you need to make it as simple and intuitive to use as possible. An easy system that makes sense to you will last you far longer and get used much better than an elaborate professional-looking set-up that you abandon after three weeks because it's too much hassle to work.

Perhaps the most important file or folder you should have is one to contain all the documents you receive which relate to a deadline of some sort. This file needs to be sectioned by date; probably split into months, although weekly or fortnightly sub-divisions might work better if you anticipate having lots of deadlines close together. As you receive items with deadlines on them, place them into the appropriate section of the file. Once you have done whatever was necessary in order to meet that deadline, the paper can be removed from this "To Do" file and stored in the correct long-term folder. The beauty of this particular file is that you can see at a glance whether you have work outstanding, and because you can clearly see how soon it needs to be completed, you can plan your time sensibly in advance to get everything done by the due date (see getting organized).

This principle can be extended quite legitimately to include any bills or other time-sensitive documents you receive. Knowing what payments fall due at what times will help you budget better and keep a measure of control over your finances. If you wish to use this file as a basic book-keeping tool, the simplest way to do so is to slip a sheet of paper into each section of the file, with columns for income and expenditure. Starting from how much money you have left at the end of each month, you can keep a record of what you spend and earn in a way that will help you understand where your money's going and plan the best times to pay bills, etc.

Minimum suggested student filing system

  • 1 large lever arch or equivalent binder (for holding all academic work)
  • Multi-coloured A4 divider sheets (at least 1 for each subject being studied)
  • 1 expandable wallet folder (for personal and financial papers)
  • 1 A4 ring binder (to act as "To Do" file)
  • Set of A4 monthly dividers (to section "To Do" file)
  • Pack of plastic wallets, suitable for use in ring binders (to keep papers in those binders, which would otherwise be too small or un-perforated)
  • Foolscap plastic wallets (to carry papers safely to and from classes - you don't want to weigh yourself down carrying everything around with you! - at least 1).