Organization 101: File it, don’t pile it


I’m looking at the table I use for a desk in my home office. There is an in basket, a vertical file holder, and one stack of files and papers. At first glance, it is the desk of an organized person. It’s tidy and there is only one (short) stack of files and papers.

At second glance, it is a mess. It’s a mess because the files and papers in that one stack belong in a file drawer, not piled on the desk.

But on third glance, it is the desk of a genius: someone smart enough to know that filing (or scanning) the papers in that stack can wait until other, more important tasks are done.

At least that’s the way I choose to look at it. And being organized is subjective, isn’t it?

But only to a point.

We’ve all seen (and maybe been guilty of having) desks that look like the aftermath of a tornado. I don’t care what the owner of that desk might say or think, they don’t know where everything is. The owner of a desk like that is not organized.

But look, if you can find the file or paper you need (rule of thumb: thirty seconds or less) and you feel in control of your work place, who am I to suggest you need to get more organized. If, on the other hand, you are often unable to find what you need and you’re not happy about it, it’s time to do something about it.

Un-piling your desk isn’t difficult. I think the hard part for some people is the notion that if they file something away, they won’t remember a task they need to do or they won’t remember where they filed something they need. Ironically, that’s exactly what their mess of a desk does.

The solution is to have a system that (a) allows you to remember what you need to do, and (b) lets you quickly find what you have filed when you need it. That’s what Getting Things Done is all about. That’s what a program like Evernote allows you to do.

Getting things out of your head and onto paper or its digital equivalent is the first plank in the Getting Things Done platform. The second is having a system that allows you to regularly review your lists of tasks so that you will be reminded of them and can choose what to do next. The third plank is having a reference system that allows you to put things away, out of sight, but easily retrievable.

For me, filing reference material was the hardest part of the system, at least in a paper based world. For one thing, much of the reference material I collect has more than one purpose and could be filed in more than one place. Indecision often led me to defer filing and I wound up with boxes filled with paper.

Today, I file most things digitally. The pile on my desk will be scanned into Evernote. With Evernote’s  keyword searching capability, and other tools like tagging and “note links,” I can quickly find what I’m looking for, as I detail in Evernote for Lawyers: A Guide to Getting Organized & Increasing Productivity.

If your desk is a mess, it’s time to un-pile and smile.