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Can’t find your desk beneath the piles of paper?

Are you frustrated that you can’t find anything in your office when you need it? Is your desk so covered with papers that you can’t use it as a proper workspace, much less begin preparation of the dreaded tax return? Well, February is National Archive Your Files Month, so here are some simple steps to help you gain control of your workspace and your files.  

Step One – Gather Supplies

Before you begin clearing your desk, you need to have these supplies on hand – record retention guidelines (click here), black ink pen, red ink sharpie, stickie notes, large plastic garbage bags for trash and recycling, several boxes – one marked “Storage”, one marked “To File”, one marked “Needs Action”, one marked “Refer”.  

Step Two – Address Every Piece of Paper

Pick up each piece of paper on your desk and determine:

  • If it is trash or a record that you do not need to retain per the record retention guidelines (see above), toss it.  
  • If it is a record you need to keep per retention guidelines but is not current, put it in the box marked “Storage”.  When you are finished with sorting all your papers, this box will go into storage – your attic or wherever you keep things you do not need to get to on a regular basis.
  • If it is a paper that you need to save with your current files, put it in the box marked “To File” – you can deal with this after you get your desk cleared off.
  • If it is something that requires action on your part (e.g. a bill to be paid, an invitation that needs a response, etc.), put it in the box marked “Needs Action”
  • If it is something that requires action by or is of importance to another person, put it in the box marked “Refer.”

Step 3 – Determine File Categories

Now, you are ready to set up your filing system.  On a piece of paper, write down the major, large categories of papers that you need to maintain, and then under each major category write down relevant subcategories. Click here for examples of categories.  

Use hanging files with clear plastic tabs to delineate each major category.  I like to print with the red sharpie the titles of the major categories.  Within the major categories, write (in black ink) on manila folder tabs the titles for each sub category.  

If you like to use colored file folders, select a color for each major category and use this color for all file folders in this category.  Pastels work better because it is easier to see the file titles. Arrange files within categories in alphabetical order. 

Do not make the mistake of creating a file for every piece of paper – you will waste space in the file cabinet and your time thumbing through multiple files for the piece of paper you need.  

Step 4 – File Those Papers!

Before you start filing the papers that were piled on your desk, you need to get the papers in your file cabinet in order.  Remove all the papers currently stored in your filing cabinet and sort them according to the file categories you have created.  

Once you have finished re-filing all the papers that were in your filing cabinet, pick up the box labeled “To File” and put the papers that used to be on top of your desk in the proper filing category.  

Step 5 – Action and Referral

Do not hang on to the items that need to be handled by someone else – take the papers in the “Refer” box and deliver them to the person who is responsible for dealing with that particular matter.  

Consider setting up a tray or small file holder on or near your desk to hold “Action” items. When these papers are gathered together in a space that you know holds papers that are important and require your attention, you are less likely to lose them in the incoming shuffle of papers on your desk.  

Step 6 – Keep On Top of the Filing

If you are not good about filing your papers immediately (which you probably aren’t if you are reading this blog!), you may also want to set up a tray or file folder labeled “To File” so that these papers will not get confused with the papers that require immediate attention.  Try to set aside a regular time (for example, every night before bed or every Sunday afternoon) to tackle the filing so that you do not end up with such a pile up of papers that you lose heart and slip back into your old ways.  

Step 7 – Consider Scanning

Even if you follow these filing guidelines, the paper can pile up.  If you are running out of storage space, consider reducing the paper pile up by scanning important documents.  There are many fine scanners available at stores such as Office Depot and Staples that can easily transform paper to the computer and the cloud (and it never hurts to have a hard drive or USB back up as well).


Now that your desk is clear and your papers are organized, you are ready to work!  (And get started on those taxes – UGH!)

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