Episode 3: November 16, 2007
by Stever Robbins
I just found out one of my favorite childhood books was recently re-released. It’s called From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
In it, the little girl, Claudia, has to find a file that proves whether or not Michelangelo was the sculptor of a beautiful statue of an angel in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’s given one hour and a room with files from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. The catch: she doesn’t know where the proof is filed.
(My art geek friends loved the book because the kids hide out in the Met. I loved it for the filing cabinets. I was destined to be an organization geek. So sue me.) Filing systems—paper or not—are notorious for things going in but never coming out. Just remember the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They bury the Ark of the Covenant for all time by filing it in a government warehouse.
Why Is Filing Important?
If you’re under 18, you may be wondering what the fuss is. Give it ten years. As you find stuff that’s too valuable, too legal, too fun, or too incriminating to throw away, you’ll want to keep it, and you'll probably want to keep the more sensitive stuff safe to prevent identity theft. One time-honored way is by using a filing cabinet. And yes, even if you’re under 25, you’ll find you want to keep some things that can’t be scanned into the digital world. Besides, your online file folders are probably as scattered as most of the paper ones.
Come Up With Better File Names
The first secret to good filing is to choose your file topics carefully. For example, let’s say you’re an evil super-genius and you're making plans to take over the world. You create a plan to build a doomsday device and hold the world hostage. You have another plan to corner the market in thread (no more fashionable clothes, ever). And, of course, you have your fallback plan where you create zombies to do your bidding. You might be tempted to file all of them in a folder labeled “Taking Over the World.” But that’s way too general.
And here's why: Imagine you’re walking through the grocery store and on the back, top shelf of the baking aisle, you see a canister of “Extra-Strength Zombie-to-Life.” Given the convenience, you decide to go the zombie route. So, you come home, and start implementing your dastardly plan. But every time you pull out your file, you have to leaf through your notes on doomsday bombs and thread markets, all mixed up in your zombie files. Oy vay! What a mess. The problem is your folder topic is too general. You really need specific folders--one for each plan. So, a better labeling scheme would be three folders titled, “Doomsday Device,” “Thread Market Takeover,” and “Zombie Creation.” Then, when you grabbed a folder, you would get only the information on the project at hand.
Organize Your File Folders
Don’t take this subdividing thing too far! If you divide your “Doomsday Device” folder into “Watch Dr. Strangelove for ideas,” “Doomsday Device Thoughts,” and “Doomsday Device Materials Lists,” you’ve now spread your material through so many folders you’ll need to pull them all out at once to get anything done. Be as general as you can with your folders so each folder has everything you need on a topic, without being so general that you also include a lot of irrelevant stuff.
Proper Filing Means Easy Retrieval
There’s an even deeper principle hiding here: you really want to file stuff according to how you’ll want to retrieve it. So when you go to put something into a file, ask yourself, “When am I likely to need this?” ,and then ask, “What am I likely to be thinking at that moment?” Put the file there.
For example, I run workshops and do public speaking. When I did a session for a client, I would file it under my client’s name. So if I did a session called “Oprah or Iacocca: Becoming a Powerful Leader” for Widgets Inc. (not my client’s real name), initially, I filed my session under “Widgets Inc. - Oprah or Iacocca…” Now, while working for Widgets Inc., that was great. I always found the file.
Several years later, someone called and said, “I saw you do a session called ‘Oprah or Iacocca’ a while back. Could you do it for my company?” Well, neither of us remembered where I’d given it. It wasn’t under “O” for Oprah, or “L” for leadership. Oops! So, where should I have filed it?
Let’s think. When am I likely to want that file? Well, certainly if Widgets, Inc. calls and says “Please send us the handouts from that session you gave.” Or if someone calls and says, “Can you do your ‘Oprah or Iacocca?’ session?” Or if someone calls and says, “Do you have any leadership speeches?” And, I suppose, I would also want the file if someone calls and asks, “What topics do you have already prepared?”
So I’d like to file the speech under “W” for “Widgets,” “O” for “Oprah,” “L” for “leadership,” and “S” for “sessions.” But a lot of times clients change session titles to meet their needs, so filing it under “O” is a bad idea, because the title might change. So, here’s my solution: every folder for a speech or workshop gets labeled “Session - Leadership - Oprah or Iacocca.” Then I put a sticky note in my “Widgets” file saying, “I did the leadership session Oprah or Iacocca for this client.”
Now, all my sessions are together in one part of my file drawer. So I always know I can find a session I’ve done by looking somewhere in the “Sessions” area. Within sessions, they’re alphabetized according to topic, for example, “Leadership.”(in this case) And then lastly, I can still see the title on the label, also.
If you file for retrieval like this, you’ll find your files much easier to use. So, let’s review, always file according to when you’ll need the information and what you’ll be thinking at that time. Make your file labels general enough to hold whatever you might want at that time, but specific enough that you’re not leafing through lots of extra cruft.
Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler does, indeed, have a file proving the origin of the Metropolitan Museum’s statue. And it’s filed in a way that would make it easy for her to retrieve it. Whether Claudia manages the task… Well, you’ll just have to pick up the book and find out.
I have a lot more tips on filing in the Organization folder of my Quick and Dirty Tips page. If you have specific filing situations you’d like me to address, or any other questions about how to work less and do more, email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org, leave it on voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS, or go to the Get-It-Done Guy section of www.quickanddirtytips.com.