Last Updated on April 24, 2020 by Barbara Trapp

A Filing System for Paper Management

Note: This post on filing systems contains affiliate links. If you purchase those items through my links I may earn a commission. You will not pay more when buying a product through my link.

Most people need some sort of filing system to use for paper management, even if they prefer to go digital whenever possible. But what about insurance policies, warranties, and user manuals, certificates, passports, and health records, to name a few? You’ll want a place to easily file these things so they don’t turn into clutter. Ready to set up or redo a paper filing system? Here are some decisions to make before you purchase supplies.

Folders or just hanging folders?

Unless you want double work labeling, only hanging folders are needed. Plain manilla folders are very useful, however, during an initial sort of all your paper. Scribble temporary file names with a pencil and erase later for reuse.

Value/cheap or quality hanging files?

How annoying is it to have a hanging file fall apart (the metal piece separates from the file) or the hooks on the end of the files fall off the rails? Double annoying! Go ahead and buy the default dark green or brown files, but please, please, invest in reinforced versions like this one. Better yet, buy the Surehook brand, and not only will your hanging files stay in one piece, but they’ll also stay on the rails. The hooks are longer! You will thank me in a few years, or at least you won’t have regrets!

Solid color hanging files or multi?

q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=B002HI9RKM&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=zenyourden05 20Having all hanging files the same color makes filing easier and is probably a little cheaper. Just make sure you choose a color you won’t mind looking at for years! If you thrive on color for different categories, then these Surehook folders in mixed boxes of red, blue, green, orange, and yellow will work well. AND they work very well with the filing system I recommend.

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File tab in front or back?

Should the hanging file tab be attached to the front of the file or the back? While we’re at it, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was that dress on the internet blue and black, or white and gold? Either way, you’re right. My preference is to put file tabs on the front of the folder so I can grab them and drop papers in behind. But I have many clients who prefer tabs to be placed on the back of the folder so they can grab the file and place papers in front of it. Just pick one method and stick with it.

Left-align, center-align, right-align, or stagger file tabs?

I’ve always liked the look of staggered tabs. But here’s the thing about that layout: it slows me down. My eyes dart from left to right and back again when looking for a file. And when I add a new file, I have to reorder a few tabs around it so the order makes sense to me. And it bugs me when, if I am using a five-tab system, the first four tabs in a group are related, but the fifth one isn’t. It just looks wrong to me. Confusing? Yes. Nitpicky? Well, maybe…

I now recommend that all tabs be left-aligned, with an optional category tab placed on the far right of the folder that starts a new category or group of files. Our eyes naturally look to the left first anyway. No more eyes darting all over the files; just a quick scan from front to back with the prompt of a category tab if needed. This system works well with drawers or carts where files are stored front to back. But if files are stored sideways in lateral file cabinets, then align the tabs so they are at the front of the drawer, whether left or right-aligned. If you access files in this type of drawer while facing right, then your tabs need to be right-aligned, and vice versa.

Place papers in the file with the top of the papers pointing to the left or right?

This may seem like a small detail, but if you don’t want to spend your time shuffling papers around so they all point the same direction, you need a system.

Do you have a file nearby? Stop what you are doing and pull the papers out. Which hand did you use? If you used your right hand, then put papers in files with the top of the pages pointing to the left. If you used your left hand to pull the papers out, then it makes sense to put the papers in with the tops pointing to the right. But wait, are these your personal files, or do these files need to be accessed by others as well? If the latter, you may need to have papers pointing to the left. Why? Because right-handers rule the world. I know this because I was born left-handed, learned how to write with my left hand, and then was made to switch so I would conform (my teachers meant well!). Although I’ve been writing with my right hand for decades, my tendency would still be to grab papers with my left hand. But I am in the minority and most of my clients would prefer their papers point to the left. Once you’ve decided this, explain your preference to anyone else who accesses these files.

I’m getting dizzy, are you? On to more concrete options!

Drawer, tub, crate, or rolling cart?

First, are you an Innie or an Outie? If you prefer things to be in drawers or closets – out of view so they aren’t visual distractions – then you may be an Innie. If you need things out in plain view for visual inspiration and also because out-of-site means out-of-mind to you, then you may be an Outie. Take this tendency into consideration along with how and where you use your files.

Elfa rolling file cart with Freedom Filer Filing SystemDo you want to keep your files tucked out of sight and in one room only? If you promise to open them frequently to file things and purge as needed, then fill your drawers with files. If you aren’t so sure those things will happen, then consider using drawers for archived files like tax returns, reference material, or supplies.

Do your files need to leave the premises? Consider tubs or crates that fit in your trunk. Do you like to work at your kitchen table or sofa? Consider a rolling file cart that you can roll out of sight later.

Do you hate filing and/or have ADD or ADHD? Consider an “open” filing system such as a file cart, crate, or tub minus the lid. Removing extra steps to filing (open door to the office, pull the drawer out…) simplifies filing.

I use drawers for supplies, reference material, and archived files like tax returns. I use this rolling cart from The Container Store for all my frequently accessed files (monthly statements, policies, ID’s, warranties, etc) and a step rack for active files (prospects, business cards for follow-up, receipts to log). The step rack should be within reach of your workspace.

Labeling systems

A good system will make it easy to file and retrieve items. A great system will be evergreen – you won’t need to update file labels if you move, use different utility companies, or have a significant life change. The filing system I recommend and use with nearly all my clients is Freedom Filer.

This is a color-coded labeling system (a pack of labels) for home filing with add-ons for:

The Home 1/5 tab version is ideal for most people. The 1/3 system is more detailed, so compare them both if you aren’t sure. There are enough labels to make separate health and ID files for a family of four, with plenty of blank labels. You can purchase add-ons if needed, although most people don’t need them.

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You will need 60-80 hanging files and tabs to create a complete filing system with this kit. If you want to use colored hanging files that match Freedom Filer’s labels, then these Surehook files are perfect. Yellow is not one of the system’s label colors, but you can use those for archived tax files and warranty files.

Ready to get started? Order a filing kit directly from FreedomFiler using my discount link.   While there, check out all their different products including the Elfa rolling cart that I recommend to all my clients. This is a $10 discount from The Container Store.

Need help with this project? I am happy to help you create your last filing system ever! Call me at 904-500-7678 (SORT), message me, or just go ahead and schedule your free consult for business or residential organizing, or life and productivity coaching! I’d love to help you get organized so you can live the life you desire.

Barbara Trapp, CPO®, Certified Professional Organizer®, Productivity Consultant, and Life Coach
Zen Your Den®  and Zen Your Biz™
Professional Member, NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals)
Life Transitions Specialist, NAPO
Residential Organizing Specialist, NAPO
Workplace Productivity Specialist, NAPO