Quickest way to alphebatize and combine paperwork from unsorted piles?
August 16, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Quickest way to alphebatize and combine paperwork from unsorted piles?

Part of my job requires me to turn combine multiple small piles of paperwork with one large alphabetical pile of paperwork. Currently I take all the small piles, integrate/alphebatise these, then integrate this with the big pile. But is this the smartest way to do it?

Would it, for example, be just as quick to alphebatize as I go, and just navigate my way through the big pile with a large non-alphebatized mess?

Should I sort into several groups (A-M, N-Z), alphebatize these, then integrate these into the main pile?

I've tried different techniques but the amount of paperwork varies considerably by day, and sadly I don't have time to keep track of how fast I file per hour using the different techniques. Has anyone figured the quickest way to do these kinds of jobs, with zero resources and without going completely insane?

(I feel I should stress I'm really not as boring a guy as this makes me sound, I just have a boring job and a fairly hefty workload to contend with!)
posted by tzb to Work & Money (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is zero resources literally zero? Because if you can get them to buy an alphabetizer, problem solved. Back when I worked in a records department, that thing was my best friend.

Other than that, you can just make two piles: one mixed (A), one alphabetized (B), remove paperwork from A and insert in the proper spot in B. If there's a lot, you make to or three piles with X letters in each.
posted by griphus at 8:10 AM on August 16, 2012

First of all, do you have one of these? Because you will love life significantly more if you have one of those.

If I have a pile too large to handle in that I usually split it up a little bit and alphabetize in smaller groups then combine those groups into a larger pile. But I'm always amazed at how large a stack I can put in that and still have it be useful. Then I just pull out each letter and alphabetize each letter by hand. If each letter is too big then i use the sorter again to alphabetize each first letter by second letter.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:11 AM on August 16, 2012

Do you have one of these things? I did a ton of alphabetizing at an old job and it was crucial. You just toss things behind the letter they begin with, and then alphabetize each letter's pile once they are all divided up.
posted by something something at 8:11 AM on August 16, 2012

This is one of those things that you should spend your own money to buy if your company refuses to buy it for you. Seriously, it will help that much. Just buy it.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are you integrating into a literal big pile? Can you put this into folders, like hanging file folders? The logistics of separating piles of paper by hand probably take up more time than anything.

If it's a bunch of small piles and one main pile, I'd combine all the small piles, alphabetize them, and then integrate into the larger pile. That's how I did it when I worked for a large insurance company one summer whose files were located in three full rooms. Starting at one end and walking to the other to integrate files alphabetically was easier that way, but it does really depend on how large a pile you're talking about.
posted by xingcat at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2012

This is one of those things that you should spend your own money to buy if your company refuses to buy it for you.

Yeah, it really is that useful. Maybe you can make a donation box. Four people throw in five bucks and you're good to go.
posted by griphus at 8:13 AM on August 16, 2012

1. Use an alphabetizer. Or a magic sorting wand, call it what you will.
2. Sort the new papers first, then add them to your compilation. It will keep you moving through things in an orderly way.
3. If you can separate your compilation into sections that will help, too. Maybe use a second sorting stick for the larger pile. Or hanging files like xingcat recommends.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:21 AM on August 16, 2012

The way I used to sort large piles of paper.

(1) Grab a handful off the stack - it sounds like you already have small stacks.
(2) Sort into alphebetizer (I wasn't actually alphebetizing - I was sorting by room number, from 100 to 500 or so, but it's the same concept) by first letter or first digit.
(3) Repeat until the stack is gone.
(4) When they've all be sorted, repeat with each first letter - depending on the size of the letter-stacks, you may not need the alphebetizer.

I've tried doing it the other way - sorting all the small stacks and then integrating, but it leads to a lot of paper shuffling. Paper shuffling takes the most time, IME.
posted by muddgirl at 8:46 AM on August 16, 2012

Best answer: You are in luck - sorting is one of the most studied problems in computer science: google for sorting algorithms and you'll get a ton of different methods.

I periodically get to solve the same problem, combining 4-5 stacks of about 20-50 randomly sorted student papers each into one big, alphabetized stack. The metod I have settled into is sorting each small pile by straight insertion [ You have two piles: one sorted and one unsorted. Get the top paper from the unsorted pack, and put it in its place in the sorted pack. Repeat until the unsorted pile is gone. About halfway through you have memorized approximate positions in the sorted pack, and finding where to insert is very fast ], then putting all the smaller stacks next to each other and repeatedly picking off the first paper from the ones visible.

Another good way:

(1) Put everything in one big pile
(2) Go through big pile and split into smaller piles by initial letter into a few smaller piles, e.g. A-H,I-P,Q-Z (very fast)
(3) Sort each small pile by straight insertion (or your favorite method for small piles)
(4) Combine smaller piles into big pile (trivially easy, just put them on top of each other in order)

In general there is no one quickest method, since performance also depends on things such as stack sizes, letter distribution, initial ordering of the set etc.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:50 AM on August 16, 2012

I was going to recommend getting 26 hanging file folders, but apparently the Alphabetizer has already been created. (My inventions are always already invented. Damnit.)
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:51 AM on August 16, 2012

Best answer: Dr. Dracator is right, the right answer depends somewhat on your own ability and working memory. Some people excel at different things.

If I have a LOT of things to sort, then I would make 26 different piles for each letter and distribute into the piles based on first letter, and then sort each pile individually. It's a little brute-force-y, but requires zero memory usage and is basically mindless. There are a lot of iterations (basically at least two for each item), but they are easy.

If I have fewer things, then I'll do like he says and use an alphabetizer or insert them into a new pile in the right spot every time. There are fewer iterations, but each iteration is more "expensive", ie, you have to think harder at each step.

Like choosing the right gear on a bicycle, it depends completely on the abilities of the person/machine doing the work.

Enjoy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorting_algorithm

The bubble sort is a good example of a REALLY easy way to sort, but one that takes many iterations. You compare the first element with the second, switch them if they are wrong and then move on and compare the second with the third. It's called a bubble sort because each element bubbles up or down to its right spot. You are done when you can go through the whole list without ever making a swap. It isn't a very practical way to sort though.
posted by gjc at 10:06 AM on August 16, 2012

Unless there are fewer than about 30 items (it's better with 20), I sort them into piles first (A-M, N-Z; or if it's a whole lot, A-C, D-F, etc.) and then sort the piles. I can't keep sorting into one master alphabetized pile with more than 30 items without considerable stress and it taking forever.

(I have a lot of practice sorting student paper sets.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:36 PM on August 16, 2012

And previously.
posted by exphysicist345 at 1:31 PM on August 16, 2012

Alphabetizer, if you have one. I strongly recommend one, they are infinitely useful. Otherwise, yeah, sort into groups A-D, E-K, etc, and then tackle those into single letters, and then within letters, etc.
posted by epanalepsis at 4:13 PM on August 16, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the response guys. My workplace doesn't have an alphabetizer but I may have to change that, we spend a lot of time doing this kind of work and it sounds like a very worthwhile investment. Sadly hanging folders and boxfiles are out - we will eventually store these in boxfiles, but they have to go through an additional audit stage before they can be integrated again there. Inefficiency isn't in my workplace's vocabulary, seemingly...

In the meantime I like the sound of the sorting algorithms and will spend some time over the weekend reading further (OK, so turns out I am that boring of a guy!). I'm pleased that at least concurrences approves of the pyramid piles approach, of loosely sorting then resorting these smaller sections before integration. It felt like a good step but I couldn't help feeling someone smarter than me would tell me what a terrible idea that was.
posted by tzb at 6:47 AM on August 17, 2012

Response by poster: *consensus, not concurrences.
posted by tzb at 6:53 AM on August 17, 2012

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