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Divide and conquer, one folder at a time

file folders

Scope of the problem
One thing that stops a lot of people from even starting on a file organizing project is that they feel the project is too big, too overwhelming, or too time consuming. Ms. Paperphile has this problem. The problem is she can’t see the trees for the forest. She has difficulty focusing on one area at a time and ignoring the rest of it. Since she doesn't concentrate on one thing, everything gets partly done but nothing gets completed.

Typical examples
Ms. Paperphile looks into a file drawer and sees 50 folders and knows she hasn’t looked into more than half of them in years. It’s going to take hours just to look at all that stuff, she thinks. She picks out one that catches her eye and rifles through the contents. “Oh, this is ancient! But this one I need. And this is important, but it shouldn’t be in here. And what is THIS garbage?” The specter of creating piles all over the desk just to sort one folder is too much to bear. So she stands up, shaking her head. “I don’t have an entire weekend for this project and I never will! It just can’t be done.” And she feels she’s failed before she’s even started.

What it costs
But if she never goes through the files, here are some problems she runs into:

  • she doesn’t have room to put anything else in
  • she doesn’t know what she has because it’s so disorganized
  • she thinks she doesn’t have something because she unwittingly has two similarly labeled files and has only looked in one
  • the information that was relevant and important when she filed it is now outdated and useless

The root of the problem
The problem comes from indiscriminately filing every piece of paper, 80% of which are never looked at again. File cabinets are notorious graveyards. When Ms. Paperphile is confronted with papers she doesn’t know what to do with, she files them as a way of putting off decision making. At least it will still be there if I need it, she reasons.

Solution: Where to start
Determine the scope of your project. How many file drawers do you have? Will you organize all of them? Are there other places you keep files, such as boxes in the closet or garage? Although Ms. Paperphile’s tendency is to see all that has to be done at once and be overwhelmed by it, clarifying exactly how many drawers need organizing usually has the opposite effect. It demonstrates that the job is finite and therefore can be accomplished.

Now you have a goal, purging and organizing X number of file drawers. Whether you set a time limit for the whole project is up to you. Some people work well with deadlines while others become enervated by them. Next, divide your organizing task into smaller tasks. Chunk the job first into individual drawers, then into hanging folders, then into manila folders, then into individual documents. Your plan of action is to go through individual documents one by one until the job is finished, as described in the next sections.

Take into consideration
Before you start, equip yourself with Post-It notes, a pen, room on a table or floor to make piles, a file box for archive files that can be stored elsewhere, a shredder if you have one and a recycling bin. Allow yourself some time; enough to make a recognizable dent in the project, but not so much time that you burn out. A time limit will also help you avoid feeling that your task is infinite. You’ll have to judge your own stamina, but anything from 1 - 4 hours at a time is recommended.

Try to arrange to be free of interruptions from family and phone calls. Schedule the session into your date book to give it the importance it deserves. Psychological tips: pretend you’re a detective and need to look through everything to find clues. Pretend you're organizing someone else; this will give you more objectivity. Or pretend you’re writing a book on organizing! Act as if you already know how and you’ll elicit skills you didn't know you had.

You start with a folder
Begin with the first folder you come to at the front of the drawer. Focus your attention on that one folder. To avoid distraction, take it out and close the drawer. Open it, lean back in your chair and examine the first document in the folder.

  • What is it?
  • Why have I kept it?
  • Is that reason still valid?
  • Is there another reason to keep it?
  • If I do keep it, is this folder the best place for it?
  • Under what circumstances would I look for it again?

These last two questions will help you name a new folder, if necessary. For example, if you find a mailer from an organization you belong to in a file named for the organization, but you realize you’ve kept the mailer because it has a recipe you want, you would refile it with your other recipes.

Repeat the questions for each piece of paper in the folder. At the end you’ll have some documents that belong in other folders (mark them with Post-It notes), a bunch in the recycling bin and a slimmer collection that stays in the folder. Now, do it again with the next folder. Yes, it’s time consuming, but this method will get you through the whole cabinet with a minimum of distraction and indecisiveness. It’s the old put one foot in front of the other method.

Divide and conquer means focus on one thing at a time. You’ve defined the scope of your project and broken it down into steps so now your task is to take each step in order. Focus only on that, not the project as a whole, not how far you are getting and how fast. Resist the temptation to read all the folder titles in the drawer and be distracted by all the associations they bring up. Take each folder out of the drawer and close it to help you focus. This will also help you disengage from feeling overwhelmed.

Case study
Ms. Paperphile was depressed about the state of her file cabinets. There was a mountain of paper on the dining table that needed to be filed, but the cabinets were full. She would open a drawer and flip randomly through the files: banking, business records, estate, investments. Each folder was bulging and each topic clearly called up other associations for her. All these problems taken together seemed truly insurmountable.

But we persisted with the one folder, one document at a time procedure. Anxiety and fear come from the unknown. With each document she identified, she shone more light on the unknown and anxiety and fear disappeared. And we didn't rush. Rushing can have the effect of making the job take longer because overwhelm sets in faster.

After an hour and a half we finished one drawer. The drawer was now about two thirds full. Hint: Don’t fill drawers more than 3/4 full to allow room to add more and room to look into folders while they're in the drawer. A quarter of the contents had been thrown out and another chunk put in a storage box for archiving. Some folders were renamed, and many were condensed when we discovered similar contents in other folders. Ms. Paperphile scooted the remaining files back and forth in the drawer, amazed at how much room we had created and how easily she could see at a glance what was there.

Divide and Conquer!
Remember to define what you want to accomplish, then divide the project into smaller jobs. Subdivide those too, if it’s a big job. Set aside time free from distraction to work on each task, but limit your time to avoid burnout, and take breaks occasionally. Get your equipment together and dig in, one thing at a time. Do what you need to stay focused and avoid overwhelm, such as pulling only one file at a time out of the drawer to look at.

There's no getting around the fact that going through all your file cabinets is a big project. But think of it as an investment. Once the clutter is cleared out you will be able to find things when you need them, you’ll know what you have since you’ve inventoried it all, and stray papers won’t get in the way of your work or your life.

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