10 Tips for Creating a More Organised Filing System

Open notebook with hand drawn sketches on one page, and a heading reading "10 tips for creating a more organised filing system" on the other page.

Rogue files are saved all over the place, you spend ages trying to find documents that you know you created or saved previously but they’re no where to be found, and you have numerous documents that you have no idea what they even are. Sound familiar? If so, then perhaps your filing system needs an overhaul. 

File management is actually a pretty common thing that business owners struggle with. I’ve certainly seen my share of out of control filing systems in my time! I get it, file organisation is not high on the priority list for most people, so it doesn’t take long before things start getting out of control. 

But don’t worry, it is possible to restore structure and order to your chaotic filing system and save yourself from despair every time you open your computer.

I’ve had a number of clients wanting me to help sort out their electronic filing systems lately, so I thought I’d put together some tips for others looking to give their filing system an overhaul. 

Depending on the size of your filing system (and how long it has been neglected for), this is likely to be a time consuming task. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts here, but don’t let that put you off. I assure you, the effort is worth it as it will actually save you time (and your sanity) in the long run. 

And once you have tidied everything up and you have a good system in place, you’ll find that it’s much easier to maintain. The following tips will help to make the process as pain free as possible. 

It’s also something that you can devote a bit of time to each day/ week and slowly chip away at, it doesn’t have to be done all in one sitting. In fact, I’d actually recommend that you break it down into smaller more manageable chunks to reduce the overwhelm factor, especially if you are dealing with a lot of files. 

1. Identify the Issues

The first step in fixing something is knowing what’s “broken”. From there you can make a plan on how to fix it.

Take a good look at what is, and what isn’t working well with your current filing system. It’s important to review all aspects of your filing (good & bad) so you know what areas to focus on improving. Look at your specific frustrations and pain points when it comes to storing and retrieving your documents. (TIP: write down your pain points so that you can refer back to them as you go). 

Look at how you can make things work better for you. What do you need to change?

  • It might be improving your file names or building a better folder structure to keep things organised. 
  • Maybe you always forget where you put things, so you might need to look at implementing some kind of ‘filing guide’ or index type document to help you remember where things are. 
  • Perhaps you need to streamline your process so you don’t end up with duplicate copies of the same thing saved in different places. 
  • Or it might be simply taking the time to correctly name and save documents into the right spot at the time you create them, rather than dumping it in a ‘miscellaneous’ folder to be dealt with later (which we all know never happens!). 

If you have other team members, get their input also. It’s important to have a system in place that works for everyone who uses it. Once you’ve identified all your pain points, you can set about implementing improvements to resolve your filing woes.

2. Make a Plan - Map it Out

Before you even think about touching your computer, grab some paper and a pen or a whiteboard and start planning out what your ideal filing structure would look like.

Map out an overview of the folders you want and what subfolders you need under each section. How many levels of folders/ subfolders do you need to have? Consider how you want things to be set up and what information is helpful for you to have grouped together in the one place. 

Think about how you will locate/ use your documents after they have been saved. Does your current structure make it easy to access your files in the way you need to use them?

Make sure you refer back to your previously identified issues & pain points so you can ensure you are addressing those problems as you go. 

This is also the perfect time to look at how you want your files/ folders to be named. Come up with a standard naming structure that will work for you. For more detailed tips on naming files, check out my blog post; 3 Common Mistakes With Electronic Filing (And How to Avoid Them) 

It’s much easier to plan it all out “on paper” first, as you can change it and move things around until you are happy with it, without worrying about losing any files in the process. This will also give you a clear plan to follow when you are ready to implement your new system, rather than just randomly moving things around on your computer.

3. Keep it Simple

The old K.I.S.S. principle. Yep, it applies here too. The easier your filing system is to use, the more chance that you will continue using it (meaning it’s more likely to stay organised in the long run too). 

A good filing system should be logical and the structure should make it easy for you to save & find what you need. It needs to support how you operate & how you search for things. 

If you have employees or other people accessing your files, they should be able to easily find what they need also. 

TIP: Make sure you don’t have multiple copies of the same documents saved in different folders (excluding archive folders). This can make things very confusing, especially if one version is updated but the other isn’t, as you won’t know which document is the correct one to use. 

4. Be Consistent!

As previously mentioned, I’ve done another blog post looking at common filing mistakes. Lack of consistency was one of the topics I spoke about, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but check out my other blog if you want to know more around this.    

The key message is no matter how you set up your filing system, always be consistent! Particularly when it comes to naming your folders & documents.

This includes the use of capitals, spaces, date and number formats, dashes and anything else you use in your file names. 

Having consistent name structures in place will;

  • Help keep everything in the correct order
  • Keep it looking neat and tidy
  • Make it easier to find things again when you need them

5. Name things in a meaningful way

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had a look at someone’s filing system and even they don’t know what half the documents in there relate to! (HINT: “Document 1” is never a helpful file name! 🤦‍♀️)

Opening documents to see what they are is inefficient, and a total waste of your time. You should be able to tell exactly what a document is from the name alone, particularly if you have a good folder system in place to organise everything.

The most important information (or how you want things to be sorted by) should be at the start of your file name. Remember, when you go looking for this document again in the future, that’s the first thing you will look at. 

Use names that make sense to you (and anyone else using your filing system). Avoid obscure abbreviations or references that you will forget what they mean in 6 months time. 

 

6. Keep File names short

This ties in with the K.I.S.S. principle I mentioned before. Having really long file names can be a bit of a pain as depending on the view you are using, you often only see part of the name anyway. 

Shorter file names improve readability and assist with keeping things looking tidy. They also fit better when used in things like document footers, for example.  

It’s a bit of a balancing act. You want to try to keep your file names as short as possible, while still including all the information you need to be able to easily identify the document (without having to open it!). 

7. Use the Correct Number & Date Formats

Most people don’t realise there is a ‘correct’ way to use numbers and dates in their file names. But, if you want to keep things in chronological or numerical order, it’s actually very important to use the correct number/ date formats. 

Once again, I’ve already covered this topic in more detail in another blog post. So, I’m just going to list the correct formats to use here, and if you want to know more, you can read my other post by clicking here (yes, this is the same blog I have already mentioned in some of the other tips).

For dates:  Put the Year first, then the Month, and lastly the Day e.g. YY-MM-DD or YYYY-MM-DD (or 2022-06-24). If you write out the month (i.e. January or Jan), remember it will be sorted alphabetically, so it may not appear in month order as you want it to. If you want to keep the months in order then use the month number in front of it (i.e. 01.Jan, 02.Feb, 03.March etc…)

For numbers: Don’t use single digits. Make sure you always have a “0” at the front of your single digits – e.g. use 01, 02, 03 rather than just 1, 2, 3 etc… (yes, this “0” is actually very important for keeping things in the correct numerical order, so don’t skip it!). 

8. Use Document Version Numbers

Many documents (like policies for example) need to be regularly reviewed and updated. Often these previous versions need to be kept (for auditing purposes and the likes), rather than just saving the changes over the top. 

This is where using document version numbers comes in handy (eg. using “v01” at the end of the file name). This helps you quickly identify which version or revision is the most current. If you have named everything consistently as I previously advised, then all the same documents will be grouped together. Then with the version number at the end it’s super easy to find the right document that you need. 

Similarly, you can use things like “draft” or “final” at the end of your documents to help you identify the ones you need. This can be very helpful if you end up with multiple versions of the same document along the way. 

Alternatively, consider having an archive folder within that specific location (e.g. an archive folder within your policy folder) to store previous copies of your documents. Then as documents are updated, you simply move the old copy to the archive. That way only the most current documents are visible in the main folder, which will help to eliminate any confusion over which documents to use. 

9. no 'miscellaneous' folders allowed!

Never have a “miscellaneous” or “general” folder set up in your filing system! This is just asking for trouble.

It’s like creating a black hole for things to never be seen again! And down the track, you will find yourself constantly (wasting time) opening this folder wondering what the heck is even saved in there.

Find (or create) a proper place for these ‘miscellaneous’ documents to go – they must relate to something or you wouldn’t have created them to begin with!

Or, if they are not relevant or no longer required, then delete them. Scary thought I know! If you can’t bring yourself to delete it, then at least archive those documents you no longer need so they are out of your main folders. 

10. Set up Your Archive Properly

Some things legally need to be kept for a certain length of time, even if they aren’t ‘current’ documents that you use. You can’t delete these documents, so moving these types of things into an archive folder is a great solution. It allows you to still keep all your documents ‘on hand’ when needed, but it reduces the clutter and confusion in your main folders as they only contain your ‘current’ documents.

So how do you archive things properly? 

Well, for starters, don’t just have a single archive folder that you dump everything in to. Just like your main folder set up, your archive should be easy to navigate and it should be easy for you to find your documents if you ever need to refer to them again down the track. 

 There are a couple of main ways to set up an archive (but you can you use whatever system works for you really, just make sure it’s easy to find what you need); 

  1. Set up an archive space that is a duplicate of your main folder structure. This will keep everything in the same place, so you can find things easily, but it might be a bit of a pain for some people to manage as you generally have to replicate most of your main filing system set up.
  2. Use smaller archive spaces within your main folders. E.g. for old policy documents, have a “policy archive” folder sitting inside your main policy folder, then simply move your old documents into this archive folder as needed. 

I’ve found that the second option often works better for many people. It’s easier and more convenient for people to move old documents into an archive folder when it’s in the same general location that they are already working in. It saves them having to navigate through the whole filing structure to find the correct location in the archive space to move things to. 

You most likely won’t need an archive set up for every single folder either. You can just set it up where it’s needed/ where it makes sense for you to have an archive folder. 

Also consider if you need to archive things based on the year they relate to as you may need to have a ‘year’ folder level set up within your archive folders. For example, if you need to keep things for 3 years, having a year level within your archive folders makes it easy to identify the age of the items. Or you might even decide to just set up year folders in your main folder to begin with. Then everything is already saved into the relevant year, meaning you might not need an ‘archive’ folder at all. 

Steps for Success

Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to set up your filing system. It’s just a matter of having a system in place that works for you (and your team). 

I know this is already quite a long post, but overhauling your filing system is no small feat, and it can feel like quite an overwhelming task. So, I want to leave you with some final thoughts on how to tackle this task successfully. 

  •  Block out some dedicated time for this task. It’s one of those ‘important but not urgent’ tasks that will always be put on the backburner (and likely never happen) if you don’t make it a priority. So schedule some time in your calendar specifically to deal with your filing (and eliminate any distractions during this time) – you will be amazed how much you can get done in even an hour if you are focused solely on that one task. Do this over a few weeks, and you will have it under control in no time!
  • Identify your pain points before you do anything else, and then make a plan to resolve them. Knowing what isn’t working with your current system is a key step in developing a system that does work well. Remember to get input from your team members as well (if applicable). 
  • As I already mentioned, plan your new folder structure out on paper/ whiteboard first. This will then give you a blueprint to follow/ refer back to. This will help you approach it in a systematic and organised way so nothing is missed.
  • Before you start moving things around, this is the perfect time for a clean out! Delete or archive things you no longer need, then you know you are only dealing with current or relevant documents in your new system.
  • It’s probably easier to set up all your new folders first, and then slowly work through one folder at a time moving everything from your old system into the correct location in your new system. Rename your documents (if required) as you go so that everything is already set up properly from the start in your new system. 
  • Regularly maintain your filing system so you don’t undo all of your hard work! You should aim to have a big tidy up/ review/ archive at least once or even twice a year to ensure things are still working well and it stays organised. But if you keep on top of it as you go, this won’t be a big job anyway.

Finally, reward yourself for a job well done! This can be an overwhelming and time consuming task to tackle (which is why most people put it off), so if you do get through it then make sure you acknowledge your achievement. 

For more handy tips and advice, be sure to follow me on Facebook!