Reference Files

by Ramona Creel

Creating File Categories

What causes the downfall of a filing system? Chances are, it wasn't much of a “system” to begin with. More likely, it was just a random assortment of individual files that really had no connection to each other (aside from the fact that they lived in the same drawer.) To create a truly effective filing system, you need to start with a plan. Simply slapping a label on a folder won't cut it!

Look at your current filing system (or that pile of paper that you've been meaning to file for months) and start sorting your documents into broad categories. “Finances” might be one, “Utilities” could be another — at work, you might be looking at “Marketing” or “Client Files.” At this point, we're not focusing on detail — quite frankly, I don't care if it's a credit card bill or a bank statement right now. We'll worry about those distinctions later on.

Once you've complete that step, pick one of your “major category” piles (any pile) and let's sort through it again. This time, I want you to think about breaking your paper smaller subcategories. For example, your “Finances” stack could be divided into “Savings Account,” “Checking Account,” “Student Loan,” “Visa,” etc. This time, you want to be as specific as possible. Don't tell me that they are “bank statements” — tell me which account they belong to and break each out into a separate pile. We don't want any files “bunking” with other files — everyone gets his or her own separate folder.

The trick to developing a workable reference file is choosingcategories that make it easy to a) know where to put a piece of paperand b) know where to find it again. The problem is that most peoplefocus entirely on the “where to put it” side of things — they don'tenvision the day when they will need to retrieve that file. Then, whenthey go hunting for a specific document, their mind is thinkingdifferently than on the day they filed it — so they can't rememberwhat they labeled the folder. As you are deciding on a category for apiece of paper, ask yourself where you would look for that piece ofpaper when you need it again — this will help you create a logicalfile label that makes sense to you both now and down the road


After you've completed the sorting, each major category of paperwork should be assigned a different color (your choice) — and then we're going to put each of its subcategories into an individual hanging file folder. So in the home filing example above, “Finances” might be green, and each of your accounts gets a separate green hanging file folder. Then perhaps “Utilities” are in red, and each different service (“Gas,” “Electric,” “Water,” “Trash,” “Phone,” etc.) is assigned a separate red hanging file. It might seem like a small thing, but color-coding your system will save you a huge amount of time in filing and retrieving papers. Being able to look in your file drawer and see distinct bodies of information broken out by color just makes sense to your brain. And when you know that your financial statements are in green and your utility bills are in red and your car papers are in blue you don't even have to think — your hand just naturally goes to the appropriate section your file drawer.

Now that everyone has their own colored folder, we need to label each file. When creating your labels, move from general to specific. Don't tell me you are filing paperwork for your “Visa Credit Card” — call it “Credit Card: Visa”. When you arrange your folders alphabetically, all of the “Credit Card” files (no matter how many you have) will be together alphabetically in your “Finances” section, rather than scattered hither and yon. Our goal is to keep related files in close proximity to each other. Do this again and again for every grouping of files until you have labeled every file in each major category.

Setting It All Up

All you have to do now is put the files within each major category in alphabetical order, and then put the major categories themselves into the drawer in alphabetical order. Whenever you need to find a document or put something in a folder, just look first for the correct major category (identified by both the labels and the color) — then it's easy to put your hands on the correct file without a lot of searching.

Remember that we're setting up “reference” folders — these files contain documents that don't require immediate action, but that you do need to access regularly. They could be client files, financial records, phone lists, health records, marketing resources, personal hobbies, you name it. But the one thing each piece of paper has in common is that you have to be able to find it quickly on demand. In order to make that happen, here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you set up your system:

  • pick a category that is broad enough to encompass more than just acouple of pieces of paper — it's quicker and easier to search through afew thicker folders whose contents are all related, than a dozendifferent “onesie and twosie” files which have nothing in common witheach other
  • choose one type of filing system and stick with it — it doesn't matter if you file chronologically, alphabetically, or another way — just be consistent and do it the same way, all the time, throughout your entire system
  • when your files get overstuffed, it's time to divide that category out into a couple of smaller subcategories — if your “Client File: Marjory Jones” folder has gotten way too big, you can break it out chronologically (“Client File: Marjory Jones 2009”, “Client File: Marjory Jones 2010”) or topically (“Client File: Marjory Jones Communication”, “Client File: Marjory Jones Contracts”, “Client File: Marjory Jones Expenses”, etc.) so that the documents are still all together, but you have fewer pages per folder

Follow these simple yet effective steps for creating reference files, and you'll discover that your system takes most of the work out of filing (and retrieving) your important documents.

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.