How To Organize Your Files

Organize The Physical Workspace Files for Productivity (Step 4 of 12)

One of the most difficult parts of having a productivity system is continuously having to deal with stuff that comes up in our physical workspace. Most of the time, things are just left on the desk to be dealt with later on. This will can lead to the accumulation of piles of unsorted things. Having a process to quickly deal with any incoming “stuff” in your physical workspace will be essential to maximizing productivity. 

In this step we will create a simple system for organizing all current things in your physical workspace as well as a process for dealing with ALL incoming things. We will start by organizing all of the things in your “Possibly Keep” pile from Step 2. 

What You Will Need:

Time needed: 3-4 hours (possibly more if you have many things to organize)
Materials neededA-Z filing Guides, Bookshelf, label maker, Pendeflex Folders, Filing Cabinet or Banker’s Boxes. For a list of recommended supplies for productivity please see the STEP 1 blog post on getting supplies. 

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Creating Your General Reference Filing System

Let’s start creating your organization system that will be able to accommodate anything that comes into your physical space. 

First, decide on a home for all of your general reference files. General Reference files are items that you don’t commonly use but are important enough that you need to store them away. Items such as important receipts, letters you want to save, vehicle documents, etc should be placed in the general reference file. 

I suggest using a filing cabinet if possible since it looks the neatest. However, I did not have a cabinet for many years as a medical student or resident and used Banker’s Boxes.

Next take out the A-Z filing Guides and place them in your cabinet (or Banker’s Box). This will be the framework to start sorting and storing all of your General Reference files. Here you will place all paper based documents into manila folders that are labeled with the labeler. 

Everyone has a different version of how they organize things in their mind. For me I like using the word “Vehicle” instead of “Cars.” I would suggest that you use the first word that comes up on your mind when you see a certain document. This will likely be the same word you will likely remember in the future to recall and obtain that document. 

After you have decided what word to use to file the document, use the label maker and create a label. In general, I only use the left tabbed Manila folders to keep things standardized.  I may use a middle-tabbed manila folder if there is a theme such as Taxes. In that case, I would create one middle-tabbed folder called “Taxes” and then a left-tabbed folder for each tax year. 

Here are examples of General Reference categories:

  • Finances
  • Vehicles
  • Health
  • Taxes
  • ID’s
  • People

If you have a significant amount of journal articles you may need also want to create a separate A-Z filing system for your journal articles. 

For journal articles here are the categories that I would suggest:

  • Allergy-Immunology
  • Cardiology
  • Dermatology
  • ENT
  • Gastroenterology
  • Gynecology
  • Hematology
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Neurology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Obstetrics
  • Ophthalmology
  • Pharmacy
  • Psychiatry
  • Pulmonary
  • Rheumatology
  • Surgery (Gen)
  • Toxicology
  • Trauma
  • Urology
  • Vascular

For the bookshelf, I would place books in general categories such as 

  • Medical books
  • Finances
  • Self-help
  • Research
  • Fiction

Create Your Active Projects Filing System

Some physical items you encounter may fall within an active ongoing project and you need to organize these physically. I would suggest you create a separate system using a hanging file holder if you don’t have many items. If you have many physical items in your active projects then it may warrant creating a separate cabinet (or Banker’s Box) for your active projects.

I actually do not recommend using an A-Z filing system for your active projects since many projects are date specific. Instead, use the label maker to create labels as such: Year.Month.Day PROJECT NAME

For example, if I have an ultrasound lecture to present on April 5th 2020 to Internal Medicine Residents, I would make the label: 2020.04.05 Ultrasound Lecture for IM Residents. 

Then I would then place the project folders that are due soonest in the front and place them consecutively based off of due date with the latest due date in the back. 

I used this physical Active Projects filing system for many years. However, all of my active projects are now scanned, stored and organized digitally so I do not have a separate organizational system for them in my physical workspace. I took me about a full day to scan all of my active projects documents into my computer. 

Deciding What to Do with Each Item in the “Possibly Keep” Pile

After creating a general reference and active projects filing system described above, you will have a framework for all items that you currently have not organized as well as future items that may come your way!

Now it’s time to decide what to do with each item in the “Possibly Keep” pile from Step 2. The key to this step is that you MUST decide. If you are going to keep an item, decide if it is a General Reference or an Active Projects Item and place it in the correct filing system using the label maker. If you decide you don’t need it then immediately throw it away. 

I highly suggest not physically writing on your pendeflex folders, a label maker will make your system look professional and increase the chances you will use and maintain your filing systems. It also shows that you are serious about improving your productivity by investing time in making it look professional. 

I suggest going through each item in the “Possibly Keep” pile from the top and immediately decide where it should go and then file it. You will need to go through each and every item so don’t waste time looking through the pile to see what things are easier to organize. Every item will need to be organized or tossed. 

If you have a scanner, I suggest that you scan any documents that can be stored digitally. We will work on organizing the digital workspace in the next two Steps (Steps 5 and 6). 

Being at Ground Zero

If you truly have completed steps 1 through 4 you will now be at what David Allen calls, “Ground Zero.” Well you will be at ground zero at least for your physical workspace. Pat yourself on the back because you already have the framework to become more productive than 90 percent of other people out there. 

Most people will never know what it feels like to be at ground zero. However, you should be experiencing a euphoric state when looking at your physical workspace that is now functional and actually adds to your productivity instead of impeding it with distractions of unsorted items and “stuff.”

The Key now is to maintain your physical environment EACH day. All new items that you have not decided on should go on the top rack of your 2-tray system and can now be efficiently sorted into your general reference file, active projects file, journal article file, scanned into your digital workspace, or trashed. 

Yes, let me repeat, you should clear out your top “pending review” tray of your physical environment EACH day. Make it a habit and you will see how much more productive your physical workspace can make you! In the following steps we will discuss how to deal with the digital environement.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Click here for an overview of all 12-steps to help you achieve a productive life.

Please sign up for our newsletter below if you would like to receive updates as each step comes out! Once again, I look forward to being part of your productive and stress-free life.

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