3 Common Mistakes With Electronic Filing (And How to Avoid Them)

files on laptop with a large magnifying glass hovering over files. Text reads stop wasting your precious time searching for your documents!

Filing – urgh!! Am I right?! 

I know it’s not the most thrilling topic, but it is super important for your business, so stick with me here. 

Back in the day when everything was paper-based (and even still today), filing is one of those jobs that people are certain to put off or avoid doing for as long as possible! During my traineeship days, no matter which department or role I was assisting with, it was always guaranteed there would be a huge mountain of paper waiting for me to file when I first got there. Thankfully these days most things have moved to electronic records, which are a little easier to manage than dealing with a 6 month (or longer!) backlog of unfiled paper!

For most small business owners, setting up a proper filing system when they start up their business isn’t high on their priority list. It’s just not something people give much thought to. That is until things go wrong.

Generally, as people add more and more to their electronic filing systems, things start to go off the rails and it becomes harder to keep track of everything. Things will probably be going along ok for a while, but then suddenly that very important document you need right now is nowhere to be found!

Today we are going to look at 3 common mistakes people make with their electronic filing systems and how you can avoid them. I’ll share some tips to get your files more organised and show you how having a good filing system in place can save you time and boost your productivity!  

Why Is It Important To Have A Good Filing System In Place?

  • Helps you find things easily, which in turn saves you time
  • Makes you more efficient
  • No more lost documents!
  • Keeps everything well organised and structured
  • Makes it easy for other people in your business to find things they need also

What Makes A Good Filing System?

  • It’s easy to find documents when you need them
  • Consistency – whatever you decide to do, be consistent!
  • It’s well organised and has a logical order to things. Folders and subfolders are used to help provide structure
  • Using a naming convention or having a standard way of naming and filing all your documents
  • Keep it simple! The idea of having a good filing system in place is about simplifying your life, not making things more complicated
Black background with brightly coloured arrows and question marks going in all different directions representing a lack of organisation. Text overlay reads start with a good structure

Mistake #1: Lack of structure and no consistency

A good filing system starts with setting up a good folder structure. The purpose of folders and subfolders is to group similar documents and provide the basic structure for your filing system. This in turn makes it quicker and easier to locate your documents when you need them. There’s no one right way to set up your folders. It depends on what your business is, the type of documents you are saving and how you search for your documents. Set up your folders in a way that makes sense for you (and anyone else that may need to access your folders within your business).

It might be helpful to start by planning out your folder structure on a piece of paper first. This will allow you to see how it will work, and then you can make any adjustments if needed before you go changing all your folders.

Whatever you do, DO NOT have a “miscellaneous” folder in there! This is just asking for trouble with your filing!

Consistency is the KEY to a successful filing system! If you only take one thing away from this post, let it be this – be consistent in what you do! If you at least name things consistently, this will make it so much easier for you to locate your documents!

Mistake #2: Using the incorrect format for dates and numbers

When using numbers or dates in your document names (particularly at the start of the name), it’s important to use the correct format as this will keep things in the correct chronological order for you.

Dates should be written in the format YYYYMMDD or YYYY-MM-DD. It may feel a little back to front for some people to write it this way (me included), but it’s actually the international standard format for writing dates (ISO 8601 for anyone interested). And the main bonus for you is that it will keep your documents listed in the correct date order. You can also use underscores to separate the numbers if you prefer: YYYY_MM_DD.

When using numbers as part of your document name, make sure you use double digits with a zero at the front for numbers under 10 (e.g. 01, 02, 03 etc… rather than 1, 2, 3). As with the dates, this keeps things in the correct numerical order. If your numbers are going to go into the hundreds (or more) then the number of zeros at the start should reflect this i.e. 001, 002…. 098, 099, 100, 101. 

Here’s an example of how your files will be listed using the different number formats. As you can see, if you don’t use the zero at the front, it throws out the order of your documents. 

man standing next to whiteboard demonstrating the difference in how numbers display. One side has numbers listed in correct order 01, 02, 03 etc. other side shows numbers jumbled 1, 10, 11, 2

Mistake #3: Not having a standard document naming format in place

This one ties in with the consistency thing I mentioned before. Having a standard way of naming your files (otherwise known as a naming convention) will hugely improve the organisation of your filing system, and make it much easier for you to quickly retrieve your documents!

Large businesses often have standard naming conventions in place for their workplace files, but it’s not generally something smaller businesses consider, especially if you are the only one accessing your files. Using naming conventions though is a great way to help you streamline your filing processes, which will also make you more productive.

There are many guidelines for naming conventions out there, but you must do what works for you. Just remember – whatever you choose to do, keep it consistent!

There are lots of different ways you can structure your naming convention. Some are very simple, while other people have complex strings of reference numbers and letters that only that person will understand. Again, it’s about what will work best for you, but my advice is to keep it simple.

Here are some examples of some different structures you can have in a naming convention (of course you can set it up however you like). See my tips below about naming your files also.

Naming structure examples:

date_topic
Many people use dates in their document names. Having a naming convention with the date at the start will ensure your documents are filed in date order.  This type of format is useful for things where you have multiple documents with the same topic over a period of time (i.e. meeting minutes, reports, financial statements etc…) E.g.:
2021-03-16_Board_Minutes
2021-04-15_Board_Minutes

client_topic_date
This kind of naming structure will ensure all documents for each client will be kept together. I personally prefer having a separate folder for each client, but you may for example want to keep all the contract documentation for all your clients in one folder – which is where this kind of naming format may work. E.g.:
ABC_marketing_guidelines_2020-09-03
ABC_proposal_2020-07-18
ABC_signed_contract_2020-08-15
XYZ_proposal_2020-10-08
XYZ_signed_contract_2020-10-20

You could also use client_date_topic which will sort your files first by client name, then by date E.g.:
ABC_2020-08-15_signed_contract
ABC_2020-09-03_marketing_guidelines

reference number_ name_topic/ reference_topic_date
If you use some kind of reference/ ID number with your projects or documents, and that’s how you typically search for your documents, you can use this at the start of the name which will then sort it by that reference number for you. E.g.:
0004125_AdamSmith_CaseNotes
0004125_AdamSmith_SupportingEvidence
0004126_SamDavies_CaseNotes

Ultimately it’s about looking at how you will retrieve your documents, and what is going to be the most helpful information for you in the document name. Then think about how you want it to be grouped or sorted. That will form the basis for developing your naming convention.

Drawer full of files with different labels. Text overlay reads what's in a name?

Tips for naming your files and developing your own naming conventions

  • Keep the name as short as possible, but make sure it is still descriptive/ meaningful (remove any unnecessary words that don’t add value like at, the, and etc…).
  • Look at how you generally search for your documents – is it by date, client, project, reference number, person’s name, topic etc… Name and file your documents in line with the way that you will retrieve them.
  • The most important information (which is usually also what you search by) should be at the start of the document name. This is what your documents will be sorted by and it’s the first thing you will look for when retrieving your documents. So, if you need things to be in date order, have this as the first part of your document name.
  • Ideally, you would have all your documents named in the same format across all your folders. But, you may find this doesn’t always suit your needs. It’s ok to have the name format vary between different folders, just try not to have too many different variations otherwise it will get confusing. One folder may have the date at the start, and another may have the client name at the start if this works better for you.
  • If using “draft” or “final” as part of your description, include this at the end of the file name, not the start. If you have this at the start of the name, then all your ”draft” documents will be grouped together, which probably won’t be too helpful for you. E.g.:

Draft_admin_procedures
Draft_finance_report_2020-06-30
Draft_marketing_strategy_2020
Final_finance_report_2020-06-30

Finance_report_2020-06-30_Draft
Finance_report_2020-06-30_Final
Marketing_strategy_2020_Draft
Marketing_strategy_2020_Final

See how it keeps all the relevant topics grouped together in the second example – so much better!

  • For documents that are regularly updated or reviewed, add the version number (e.g. V01, V02…) to the end of the name so you can easily identify the most recent version of the document.
  • Avoid repeating words in the file path – so if you have a folder just set up for minutes, you probably don’t need to include word “minutes’ in the document name. Just be mindful if things are moved out of that folder, you still want to be able to easily identify what the documents are.
  • Avoid using obscure/ uncommon abbreviations as you may forget what they mean in a year’s time.
  • Most electronic filing convention guidelines advise that you should avoid using special characters in your file names, as these can cause issues in some programs or software. This even extends to punctuation like periods/ full stops, brackets and commas. Many programs won’t even accept these characters as part of the name, but some do, so just be mindful of this as it may cause issues somewhere else.
  • Instead of using spaces between words, it’s recommended that you use an underscore (_) or hyphen (-) to separate the words to avoid any potential issues in other software or programs. (I must admit I’m guilty of using spaces in my own file names). Some conventions suggest not even using the underscore or hyphen, but instead just using capitals to determine word breaks eg: 20210214MeetingMinutes. This might be better for computers to read, but I personally don’t like it as I prefer to have some sort of break between the words.
  • If you have employees or other people using your filing system, liaise with them to get their input into setting up a naming convention and folder structure that works for everyone.
  • Document your naming conventions and establish filing system rules to remind yourself how to name your files. If you have multiple people using your filing system, this also helps to keep everyone on the same page and ensure consistency.

Other Filing Tips To Help Ensure You Never Lose A Document Again!

  • As I mentioned before, there’s no place for a ‘miscellaneous’ folder in your filing system! A ‘miscellaneous’ folder will just turn into a black hole, with your documents likely to never to be seen again.
  • If saving a document sent to you from someone else, change the name in your system so it fits your naming convention and you can easily find it again. Don’t just save it as “attachment 1” because you will not remember what that relates to down the track.
  • Include the file name and path in the footer of documents that are printed so you can easily find it again in the future, without having to search through all your folders for it (but if you have a good system in place, finding things won’t be an issue anyway!).
  • Make sure you save your documents regularly and don’t forget to back up all your files and data regularly too (use a cloud based back up system or external drive for example).

Are you still using a paper-based filing system? here are a few tips to help you out:

  • Keep on top of it. While we all know filing isn’t a fun job, it is important. Doing it a little bit regularly will save you a much bigger headache later on.
  • Ditch the shoebox. Seriously, it’s time for an upgrade to some proper files. It might be convenient at the time to just dump everything into a box, but it makes it SO much harder to find things again when you need them.
  • As with electronic filing, file things based on how you will retrieve them, and in an order that makes sense. 
  • File your documents so that the most recent documents are at the front of the folder.
  • Use file dividers like you would use sub folders in your electronic filing system to help you stay organised. E.g. you may have a folder for a client which contains all different types of information, so have a separate section for each topic (e.g. meeting minutes, general correspondence, project outline, budget info, contacts etc…).
  • If you have a corresponding electronic folder for your paper file, make sure they are both set up in the same way. (e.g. using the same categories/ folders to organise the information). 
  • Check how long your documents need to be retained before disposing of them as there are legal guidelines for the retention of particular types of documents.  When disposing of documents, make sure you shred any confidential or sensitive information.
  • Archive items that you don’t need to refer to regularly, but you still need to keep. This will help free up room for your current stuff. Make sure you label the archive boxes well so you know exactly what is in there if you ever need to find anything. There are also offsite archiving facilities if you don’t have room to store them onsite. If using a separate storage facility, ensure you keep a register so you know what has been sent there.
Cartoon woman carrying a massive stack of papers indicating it is much easier to keep on top of your filing by doing it regularly rather than leaving it to build up
Owner of McLaren Business Services - Denise is sitting at desk with laptop open. Text in background reads Need to give your electronic filing system an overhaul but don't have the time (or desire) to do it yourself? Why not hand it over to me to take care of it for you.

Here’s a quick recap of the main points we covered: 

1. Have a good structure in place, and keep things consistent

2. Use the correct format for your dates and numbers to keep them in order, and 

3. Consider establishing a naming convention for your documents and files

I hope you found this information helpful and it has inspired you to give your filing system a bit of a tidy up.

If you’ve let your filing get a little out of control, that’s ok, we can fix it. I know you have better things to be doing than sorting out your filing system though. So, if you need some assistance with restoring order to your files, book a chat with me by clicking on the purple button below to discuss how I can help.

 

I do way more than just sorting out people’s filing by the way! Check out my services page to see what other sorts of tasks I can help you with, or book an obligation free call with me to discuss your needs (click on the purple button above to book a call). If you found this post helpful, be sure to head over and follow my Facebook page for more hints and tips!