Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

A Pattern Language for Productivity, Pattern #6: General Reference Files

by Andre · 4 Comments

One of the main obstacles to decluttering is the lack of a designated area, other than the wastebasket, to move clutter to. The main difference between a library and a pile of books is that the library imposes order on disorder, making the collection a functional system. The same principle can be applied to virtually any pile or scatter of papers in a home or office. The antidote to paper clutter is an simple A-to-Z general reference filing system. As the saying goes, “File, don’t pile.”

General reference files hold all the paperwork in your environment that you’ve collected and processed. Is that piece of paper on the kitchen counter trash, or is it worth keeping? Is it something that requires an action, or is it something that just needs to be saved for reference? If the answer to these questions are the latter in both cases, the paper either gets put in an existing file, or we create a new file for it — even if it’s only a single piece of paper. If it’s worth keeping, it’s worth filing.

As the name implies, general reference files are not intended to store specialized records, like bookkeeping, that require whole filing cabinets to themselves. The A-to-Z system creates a set a placeholders for new paperwork, though there’s nothing that actually prevents using the same system for bookkeeping; it’s just a matter of having enough cabinet space for all of the files.

Four drawers are the norm of most individuals’ home and office needs, though I’ve pared my files down to fit in a single two-draw file cabinet. The top drawer holds my tickler file in the front, and my supply of blank folders and hangers in the back. The bottom drawer holds my A-to-Z files. Try to keep the drawers under three-quarters full. Once you anticipate having to stuff a new file in with effort, you’ll start to unconsciously resist making the file in the first place.

Invest in a good file cabinet, one where the drawers roll in and out smoothly without much friction. For a year I tried to cut corners by using a plastic file cabinet at home that looked nice, but had drawers that became hard to pull out once the weight of additional files began to bear down on them. The usability contrast between the my home file cabinet and my metal office file cabinet (which rolled in and out smoothly) made it obvious that plastic file cabinets were a false economy. It’s more frugal in the long run the best file cabinet you can afford.

In GTD, the recommended practice use a typeset labeler for creating files. While this does make labelling a little slower, the increased legibility that results from having a drawer of typeset-labelled files make retrieval much faster. Keep the labeler on or in your desk at all times, and always have a supply of blank file folders on hand (I recommend third-cut). Having these readily available helps minimize the resistance to creating new files by eliminating the need to search for their components. Creating a new file should take less than 60 seconds, otherwise the practice is likely to taper off as an ongoing habit.

Another practice in GTD canon is to use hangerless files. Hanging file systems like Pendaflex add unnecessary overhead to filing, unless the file cabinet being used lacks a follower block (the adjustable backstop that keeps the files upright). If a hanging file system is already in place and cannot be modified due to company policy, or because the cabinet lacks a follower, a good strategy is to assign one file per hanger, and label the folder itself instead of attaching the plastic labelling tab to the hanger. If you have an empty drawer to spare, it’s a good idea to use it for storing your blank folders — and if necessary, your empty hangers.

Tags: A Pattern Language for Productivity


  • David GoodgerNo Gravatar // May 8, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    I have never understood the rule to use hangerless file folders.I don’t see how using Pendaflex adds any overhead. The rule seems completely arbitrary, and Allen’s GTD book doesn’t back it up with any arguments or evidence.

    Do you agree with the rule, and could you expand on the reasoning behind it?

    Thanks for your Pattern Language for Productivity series!

  • Pendaflex and the GTD Police // May 8, 2008 at 6:37 pm

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  • Neat, Organized and Uncluttered | Tools for Thought // Jan 12, 2009 at 1:51 pm

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