A-B-C-D-E-F-G, please make this job easier for me
November 11, 2010 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Best way to alphabetize a large number of files without going crazy?

My boss is going on vacation at the end of the year and I'm going to use the time to organize the files in our storage room. Things are only vaguely in alphabetical order now and it's killing us having to search through every box (there are about 20 file boxes of stuff, plus a large file cabinet that holds approximately the equivalent of 10 boxes) whenever we need a file.

The room is fairly small and cramped with a 6' conference table taking up 95% of the room.

I've tried to do it before, by taking stuff out of boxes and putting them into stacks corresponding to different letters of the alphabet (with the plan that once everything is in a proper stack, to put the A's in first, then B, and so on ), but after two or three boxes the stacks get too high and things start to topple over and it turns into a big disaster.

Are there any tips you can provide to make this experience work?

I'll have approximately ten days, four hours a day to get this whole thing done (and I'll have other work to do in the meantime) so breaking things up into smaller steps would also be beneficial.
posted by Lucinda to Work & Money (13 answers total)
Get about ten more empty boxes, or however many you can spare. The more you get the easier it will be.

Pick one box and alphabetize it, leaving it half to two-thirds empty to leave room for later insertions.

Pick a second box and alphabetize it in with the first box. Everything should now take up two boxes, both half/two-thirds empty.

Pick a third box, etc.

Eventually all the boxes should be alphabetized with irregular amounts of space in each. Unless this stuff is getting archived, leave the space in there for more files to be put there later.

As far as the file cabinet is concerned, is it going to be a continuation of the boxes? Or A-Z on its own? I suggest the half-empty-box method either way.
posted by griphus at 6:48 AM on November 11, 2010

Actually, half may be a bit much. Two-thirds to one-quarter empty should do you just as fine. Keep in mind that if you're alphabetizing by words (as opposed to serial numbers) starting letters are not evenly distributed across words in the English language.

I've been a records clerk for way too long.
posted by griphus at 6:50 AM on November 11, 2010

Best answer: Get three or four new file boxes, and put them on the table, marked A, B, C and D.

Go through the existing boxes, pulling anything that starts with those letters and refiling them in the new boxes. Don't sort, just store, we'll get back to that.

Once you've pulled all the A,B,C and D files out of the existing folders, put those boxes aside; if you have more new boxes, pull out four more, EFGH, and continue. Otherwise, you'll have to consolidate your existing files (ignoring their names and content) and free up some more boxes.

Same thing, pull but don't sort. When you're done this part, you'll have one or two boxes per letter, each of which you can sort quickly when you have a moment here and there.
posted by mhoye at 6:55 AM on November 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I just did this same project a couple months ago and, after a bit of trial and error, I actually came to a solution almost exactly like mhoye's suggestion. It worked really well!
posted by smirkyfodder at 6:59 AM on November 11, 2010

I would do it this way:

Step 0: Get a few extra empty boxes.

Step 1: Sort one box at a time. Do this by (1) emptying out one box; (2) taking the first file and putting it back in the box; (3) taking the next file and putting it where it should go relative to the files already in the box; and (4) repeating until you're done.

Step 2: Once all the boxes are sorted in this way, take an empty box and make it the A box. Go through each box and grab the A files, which will be in the front so this won't take much time. Put them in the A box, sorting as you go along as you did in Step 1.

Step 3: Repeat for each subsequent letter.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:18 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, you could do the bubble sort: iterate through the files and compare each file to the one before it. If those two are in order, move to the next. If they aren't, switch them. Repeat until you can go through all the files without having to make any swaps. Takes forever, but you don't need any extra space.

But I've always found that the most efficient way to sort, and also to be able to determine how much room each letter will take up, is to do what you suggested and make piles. Obviously it is space consuming and physically demanding, but besides being the fastest, it is the least "memory" dependent. You can step away for a minute or a week and pretty much catch right back up. Some of the other methods require you to remember what you are doing, and that makes interruptions costly as well as creates mental exhaustion.

I would suggest getting some extra boxes to use as the staging areas so your stacks of each letter don't get too big, or as new locations for the files. Copier paper boxes are pretty good for this, or you can get a 10 pack of those cheap 11 x 14 file boxes for like $14 at the office places.

If you have heavy things like cinder blocks or bricks laying around, you can make your piles horizontal and move the blocks as each letter expands.

Another thing would be if you have a shelving unit that you can convert into a temporary workspace. The initial A, B, C, etc sort goes really fast this way.
posted by gjc at 7:31 AM on November 11, 2010

If you need extra staging space, use the boss's office.
posted by CathyG at 8:10 AM on November 11, 2010

I'm not sure my solution provides any sort of shortcut, but when I have to do something similar (with much less space and time available to work at it) I first sort the pile into "front of the alphabet" (like A-L) and "back of the alphabet" (M-Z).

Then I go through each pile and break down further.

The above 'sorting into boxes' methods sound good though.
posted by noxetlux at 8:32 AM on November 11, 2010

Response by poster: I'm going to try mhoye's way - that seems like it would be the easiest to break down into small steps, and wouldn't require much additional room.


(CathyG - if I tried using my boss's office as extra space, I'd end up doing things like "Does cold medicine with an expiration date of 1989* get filed under 'C' or 'M'?")

*we actually found this, when we moved
posted by Lucinda at 8:45 AM on November 11, 2010

Back when I did a lot of filing, one thing that made it much, much easier was having an expandable collator like this one.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:04 PM on November 11, 2010

I wouldn't wait until the end of the year to do this in one hit. I'd institute a new re-filing process to make the storage room optimize itself over time, starting right now.

Get one new, empty box, label it "Sorted Files" and put it in the storage room.

Whenever anybody retrieves a file - any file - the rule is that they must put it back in the Sorted Files box instead of where they found it, and that they must not muck up the alphabetization within that box.

Whenever anybody needs a file, the first place they should usually look for it is in the Sorted Files box. This will initially be very quick, as it's a search within a small, nicely alphabetized collection. Over time it will get slower, but you'll be more than compensated by not needing to search the unsorted section as often, and finding it smaller when you do search it.

When the Sorted Files box gets full, split it into two boxes labelled e.g. "Sorted Files A-O" and "Sorted Files P-Z". Make the split at whichever letter results in the two new boxes holding roughly the same amount of stuff. Do the same kind of split as soon as one of those gets full.

Whenever you need to add a new Sorted Files box and it won't fit in the storage room, find the four least-full unsorted boxes and consolidate their contents into three.

Assuming only that some of your files will need more frequent retrieval than others, this method will save you a lot of work overall. Your most frequently accessed stuff will end up in Sorted Files first, quickly reducing retrieval effort. Unsorted files move only quite slowly, so such (perhaps unconscious) knowledge as already exists about where stuff is in the storage room will not suddenly become useless. If it turns out that lots of files don't actually need retrieving very often, and they end up languishing unloved in the unsorted section, that's OK too - in fact including them in a Great Big Sort would just have wasted time, doubly so because big collections are disproportionately harder to sort than small ones.
posted by flabdablet at 10:33 PM on November 11, 2010

Response by poster: flabdablet, I do that right now. I have five file boxes under my desk that are the "sorted files" boxes. When I'm done with a current file, or have pulled a file from the storage room, it goes (in alphabetical order) in one of these boxes. But they're getting filled quickly.

Assuming only that some of your files will need more frequent retrieval than others

It's the files that require infrequent retrieval that is causing this mess. My boss (he's a lawyer) will come up to me and say "I just got a call from Paul Smith, you remember Paul Smith, right?" (I don't.) "He bought his house back in 1993..." (I started working for my boss in 2006.) "...and now he's selling it. Can you find the file from when he bought the house?"

If the files were all alphabetized, I could easily grab the right file. As it stands now, I have to go through all the boxes.

Since I have no real way of knowing when some file from the past is going to become relevant, they all have to be sorted.


Part of the problem, too, is that the size of these files varies so wildly. Some are single manila folders with a few sheets of paper in them, some are 5" thick redweld folders. I may have a box that's just about full, but then the next file alphabetically is some monstrosity that won't fit in the box. (This is also the problem with pulling them out to sort - one file can take up a lot of room.)
posted by Lucinda at 5:39 AM on November 12, 2010

I have five file boxes under my desk that are the "sorted files" boxes. When I'm done with a current file, or have pulled a file from the storage room, it goes (in alphabetical order) in one of these boxes.

Cool! You're already saving yourself a heap of time. Keeping all the sorted files under your desk isn't sustainable, though; there also needs to be a Sorted Files section in the storage room, which will eventually grow to dominate the space in there.

But they're getting filled quickly.

Having your most-frequently-accessed files under your desk is probably saving you more time than you realize, and it's a good thing to keep doing. You can do that and grow a Sorted Files collection in the storage room to complement it, using a random restocking procedure. Whenever you notice that your under-desk collection is getting a little tight, grab an empty box and fill it with files selected at random from all the boxes under the desk. Then take that box back to the storage room and re-file them in Sorted Files.

Because you're only removing one box's worth of files at any time from the five under the desk, any given file has only a 20% chance of losing its privileged place there; it will be quite rare to find a truly frequently-accessed file making many redundant trips between your desk and the storage room.

It's the files that require infrequent retrieval that is causing this mess ... If the files were all alphabetized, I could easily grab the right file. As it stands now, I have to go through all the boxes.

Okay. So spending some of the boss's vacation time by retrieving files at random from the mess (which needs no searching, and will therefore be quick) and re-filing them into the storage room's Sorted Files will probably pay off. You'll find this at least as quick to do as just about any other manual sorting method, and it has the advantage that if you don't in fact find time to get the whole thing done in one hit, none of the effort is wasted since it's just part of what you'd be doing anyway.

The keys to the whole thing are (a) making a clear visual distinction between the new Sorted Files boxes and the old mess and (b) splitting Sorted Files boxes in half when they get tight, so you've almost always got enough free space to do your re-file quickly.
posted by flabdablet at 5:57 PM on November 12, 2010

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