Many people procrastinate on filing. In fact, most of them (us) dread it. Here's my theory: this is because most filing systems suck. They are painfully over-complex and inefficient.
Now folks like David Allen have suggested ways to make this less awful – use a simple A-Z order, only when needed should you make folders for a specific thing (filed behind the folder for that letter), and, most importantly, keep way fewer things. You can also make the filing process less unpleasant by using pretty folders and nicer filing cabinets and fancy labels and… ah, screw it. Filing is dull and uninspiring.
Here's how I do it.
1. Arrange to receive things you do not need to keep in digital form rather than on paper. Bank statements are a great example of this kind of thing which you can later access online in the rare case you need it.
2. Keep only papers you have high confidence you'll need again or that the government requires you to keep or that it stresses you out to think about discarding or shredding at this moment.
3. Make as few folders as possible for your comfort. Yes, A-Z, but also make folders for the stuff you know you'll have a bunch of (e.g. "Next Year's Tax Prep") or will need in a hurry or when stressed (e.g. "Homeowner's/Renter's Insurance," "Health Insurance," "Automotive Repair").
4. Make a folder called "Manuals" and throw the booklets for new stuff you acquire in there. Warranty info and purchase receipts for major things can also go here until they expire. I like to put the newest thing at the front of the folder and to weed it out once every year or so to purge manuals for stuff I got rid of and forgot to send the manual along with the item.
5. Put everything else you think you have to keep in one stack.
Seriously, just stack it up.
Make it very handy for adding to the stack and very unoffensive to your eye. My stack has sat on an upper shelf just above eye level when I had a seated desk and now resides behind two more constantly used desk items below eye level at my treadmill desk. (If I happen to spot a nice 9"x12" open-topped box, I might incorporate it, but so far it hasn't been necessary).
My discovery was that I spend far less time flipping quickly down through the reverse chronological stack to find one of the few things I actually wind up needing to refer back to than I ever did filing, so why file?
When the pile gets unappealingly high (or reaches 1 foot high, whichever comes first), whip through it quickly and pull out obviously stale stuff that can now be discarded or shredded or for which you have since created a file folder because you turned out to need those papers all together very often.
Here's the really sneaky part: since you know you'll be adding to it again soon you are not actually required to completely file or discard everything in the stack. If you feel anxious about what to do with it, just leave it there on the bottom and deal with it next time when it's less emotionally loaded or uncertain.
Is it perfectly orderly? No. Do I know just where to look for something when I turn out to need it? Yes.
Less time filing = more time for working on things that really matter to me!
12 thoughts on “A shocking proposition: Stupid Simple Filing”
I like this method a lot. I have a similar setup – one box for incoming paperwork, and when it’s tax-time I sort through it to see what to file and what to throw out. The filing cabinet could do with a bit of weeding now, but I’ve been doing this for 4 years and it’s still not urgent to clear it out yet.
Turns out the world doesn’t end if you don’t file. Who woulda thunk it? 🙂
I have binders with really, really broad topics: Home, Banking, Work, Taxes, Travel, etc. (I find having around ten themed binders is less fussy than 26 alphabetical files.) Incoming items get hole-punched and put in the top of the appropriate binder. When I need to find a specific document, I pull down the right binder and just flip through until I find it. Very simple, and nothing is loose or falling about.
I find Bindertek to be a good source of very pleasing two-hole binders, which are way more practical than the three-hole binders you may be used to.
Oo, good alternative, Elizabeth! Thanks!
What an amazing idea. It turns out that I have been doing this, inadvertantly and with great self-blame, for the past 40 years. Since there are MANY piles, and my apartment is still awash in paper, it does seem to need some refinement. But a chronological pile really is the way my mind works.
On a slightly different topic, 13 months ago I accidently started fasting from the news No NPR, no TV news (actually I rarely have time to watch any TV at all,) and no newspapers. I had previously thought that the world needed me to keep track of what was going on, but have certainly found that is not so. One incredible bonus from this is that I no longer have torn-out-this-could-be-useful newspaper articles scattered around the premisis.
Stupid Simple Filing: “One neat pile of limited height or else it’s gone or filed” is my rule for this. Too big a stack (over a foot, say) and you can’t find the things you turn out to need quickly enough. More than one stack and you don’t get the benefit of knowing exactly where to look.
Yes, I too stopped with the TV news and newspapers some time back, but still look intermittently at the local paper, news.BBC.co.uk, and (usually with the urge to wash my hands afterward) at CNN. Between that, Twitter, and family email, I hear about most major events and news of interest to me.
Some tips on what to keep and for how long:
Credit card statements – check for correctness, then keep only current one or shred (better yet, get this electronically).
Insurance policies – only current one.
Investment statements – (e.g. mutual funds) keep annual reports if you aren’t tracking performance electronically.
Medical bills – keep for three years, then make sure health history is logged and shred the bill.
Mortgage info – keep as long as you own the property.
Real estate sale records – keep.
Social security statements – keep annual reports only.
Tax records – keep for 7 years then shred.
I am *so* doing this to my desk on Monday.
Yay! Yes, there’s no reason to waste time with uninspiring complexity.
It’s no longer necessary to keep most documents for seven years. IRS publication 552 (available at the irs.gov website) lists the following guidelines for individuals (small businesses have their own requirements):
(1) Owe additional tax and (2), (3), and (4) do not apply to you – three years after the filing year
(2) Do not report income that you should and it is more than 25% of the gross income shown on your return – six years
(3) File a fraudulent return – No limit
(4) Do not file a return – No limit
(5) File a claim for credit or refund after you filed your return – The later of three years or two years after tax was paid
(6) File a claim for a loss from worthless securities – seven years
Property records should be kept until expiration of period of limitations after property is sold. Also, your insurance company or creditors may require you to keep certain records longer than the IRS limits.
Excellent supplemental info on which documents the IRS requires you to keep and for how long, Cynthia!
My new plan is instead of creating a spot for manuals of the things I buy, I am searching online for the PDF and saving it to my computer. Most companies offer their owner’s manuals like this now. With the exception of a few things, I now instantly toss the manual along with the box and packaging.