How to handle paperwork?
December 13, 2018 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I am discovering that I suck with handling paperwork. I have crates and crates of actual paper files. I also have folders and subfolders in electronic format, and I am never satisfied about how they are organized. I always find myself asking questions like: should I organize these files by date? by theme? by whatever? Should I move it in this folder or the other? OR should I tag it? And whatever decision I make at the moment seems to be the unhelpful and unpractical one in the long run.

I am fairly organized, though I am not a natural. OmniFocus, DevonThink Pro Office, and Google Cal definitely help. But handling paperwork is my current nemesis. Please help me fight it.

An example: I have one electronic folder for finance which I call "Bills". In it, I have subfolders: Purchases, Purchases to arrive, Tickets for Events, Subscription for TLS, Articles on Finance, Notes on Finance, Verizon Cell Phone, etc. When I created these folders, they made a lot of sense. But when I look at them now, they drive me crazy.

Another scenario: I am working on a work report. I have a special folder where I save the different drafts. I finish the report and submit it to my boss. But my boss wants me to make a few tweaks, which means, let's say, two more drafts. No problem. All is saved. But a year later someone asks me, "can you give me the report?" I look at the folder, and I am paralyzed, "which one was the final draft that I submitted?" I could look at the date of the file, but I do not trust it. I do not know why, but I don't trust it.

I guess my bottom line is this: how do I distinguish between stuff that I have given others and stuff for my personal use that helps me prepare what I give others. But frankly, I am not sure that this is my only problem.

I thought I have some hoarding inclinations, but my office desk and apartment are pretty spartan, except for the crates of paper hidden under my bed. I think that the solution in some simple principle. So please let me know what helps you!

In desperation, KL
posted by Kitty_Levin to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I always find myself asking questions like: should I organize these files by date? by theme? by whatever? Should I move it in this folder or the other? OR should I tag it?
I prefer one large category like Finance and then use tags and/or meaningful file names to find what I need.

Reduce the number of folders in your Bills category. Do you need to separate purchases and tickets once they have arrived or you have used the ticket? I think one Pending folder and one Receipt folder. I'd put paid Verizon bills and paid subscriptions in the Receipt folder, too. Then you have notes and articles, which I would combine. If the notes are all created by you, do you need a folder for them or can you make that all one document?

I would append "-Submitted" to a file when I submit it. The draft to your boss is just another draft, but you could give it a name like First Official Draft. Once the submission happens, do you really need to keep all your old drafts? I would prune them down to 2 or 3.
posted by soelo at 7:59 AM on December 13, 2018

There are lots of ways to organize, and I'm sure you will get many suggestions here. For myself, I file things that I don't expect to return to, but might need to produce or consult in unusual circumstances, by month. I have 48 manilla folders each labelled with the name of a month, and every month I empty the oldest one and use the empty folder for the new month. In my case, I believe 4 years is the most I will ever need to go back due to tax laws. I have individual folders for important things (such as my will), stuff I expect to return to periodically (such as identifying documents), and stuff that just naturally seems to belong together. For example, I have a file detailing each of my housing moves, and one for each divorce. I don't expect to ever revisit these, but if I ever do I will probably want all the information together, and I certainly don't want to lose it at the end of 4 years. For work, I do everything online, but if I didn't I think I would organize things the same way, including a folder for each major project. In your case, it sounds like you should definitely date things as they go into the folder, so you know which one was last.
posted by ubiquity at 8:03 AM on December 13, 2018

For actual paper, the first pass is to cull things that are trash or just old. Keep tax related items for 7 or more years. Put those aside, sorted by year. Old bills and non-tax financial stuff is probably not necessary once it is over one year old. If you can't stand to lose it, scan it and then shred it.

There are some things you can reasonably expect to save for the rest of your life. But in that category, some of that is still better off scanned and shredded than physically kept like documents about old homes or cars. I keep a list of all of my former addresses and employers, but digital. Back up all your files, of course.

Memorabilia type items can be put in a scrapbook. You can just throw a bunch of page protectors in a three ring binder or you can get really fancy. It's up to you. I used to keep my movie ticket stubs, but I moved to keeping track of the title and date on a spreadsheet.

The rest should be reviewed on a regular basis - and ubiquity's 48 month files is a good example of how to do that.
posted by soelo at 8:11 AM on December 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

For electronic records, it's all in the name: Come up with a naming schema that you stick to. Don't make it too complicated, or you won't stay with it (this is very important!). It should include the date and title, and any other relevant info - the date because date stamps can't always be trusted, you are very right in that. I use ISO dating, so put the years first (2018-12-13) so that docs sort by date in my files. When you have your final version, add FINAL to the title. You can use DRAFT too, I do. This helps both you and anyone else who might be on an email chain with you to know what they are looking at. So your file would look like this "2018.12.13 - Budget proposal - DRAFT."

Use the same title every time. If you called something "phone bill" one time, don't call it "AT&T bill" the next time. This seems simple, but you would be amazed how this can mess you up. Take a second, when you're naming your files to check what you named something similar before. When you follow these procedures, I find that you don't need tons of folders, because things will sort properly, and your search will bring up what you need, if you've named it properly to begin with.
posted by backwards compatible at 8:35 AM on December 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I put everything in a single Evernote notebook for paperwork, using my phone camera, so that it is literally the easiest possible thing to do (therefore it gets done). Their OCR is so good I can search for whatever I need and find it, and the only extra step I do is try to give it a good title.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:47 AM on December 13, 2018

Work documents: name files as “_____draft”, “_____edit1”, “______edit2”, “____final”

On your computer: Keep reading material (on finance advice) in one folder (“Reading”); keep your actual bills in one big “bills” folder - then have sub folders for regular services (“phone”, “tv”). Keep one folder for receipts in there, too.

I’m just as bad with the paper stuff, glad to see advice on that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:56 AM on December 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

(For file naming, be precise: “2018yearendreportdraft”, “2018yearendreportedit1”, etc)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:02 AM on December 13, 2018

If your main issue is distinguishing between all prior drafts and the final version, just save the final version with "Smith & Jones Report as submitted." Do this after you've sent it off. Otherwise you'll end up with "smithandjonesreportfinalfinal REAL FINAL this time for serious final"-type names.

If you have a lot of time to invest in solving this problem, the basic thing to do is to sit down, list out the top ten most frequent tasks you perform with your files, then maybe the top ten most important, and the top ten "rare, but would be incredibly inconvenient if I couldn't find the related files" tasks. Use the tasks to construct your file system around, rather than trying to design a file system in the abstract.
posted by praemunire at 9:58 AM on December 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I name drafts with dates and then letters as needed, (e.g., 2018-12-13b). Returned files with revisions get the editor's initials at the end (e.g., _MW). For longer-term projects, less-major drafts get put in an "Archives" folder so it's easy to find the versions I sent around. Final versions often get a different-formatted title for submission to make it easy on the recipient (e.g., Window-resume-positiontitle-company)

Scan or throw out your paper stuff. Don't bother downloading routine bills or those for small amounts, like your phone bill - if you have to dispute with the company, they'll give preference to whatever copy of the bill they have anyhow. Track packages to receive and tickets somewhere else, like a "waiting" folder in your email or on a calendar - things you look at often anyway so things won't get forgotten.

But seriously, a lot of your paper you can just throw out. I was resistant when I read Marie Kondo's book and she recommended this, but it's been years and I haven't missed anything. Use your phone to scan stuff if you must - it's just enough hassle to help you cull.
posted by momus_window at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm a graphic designer so I have lots of versions/drafts of files. My naming system is:

So it would be something like:

Every time I send a version to the client, the version letter is bumped up (so the first version is "a" and the next version is "b"). This allows us to communicate about changes ("remember the paragraph in version B? Let's use that instead of the new one we'd put in version C.") and it allows me to know which was the last version sent to the client.

(I never use "final" in a file name because -- I swear this is true -- it always jinxes the project. "Final" ends up meaning "ha ha you thought you were done but now this time-consuming and stupid change needs to be made at the last minute.")
posted by mcduff at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2018

I don't have a perfect system either (does anyone?) but...

Definitely put dates into filenames when you scan/digitize stuff. Put a date that is on the document, e.g. if it's a bill put the date of the bill period ending or something.

Use YYYY-MM-DD_filename.ext format. This is the only thing I can say with confidence I know is a good idea. This format allows you to sort by name and get a date-ordered list based on the document date (which might not be when it was scanned or modified), and it also lets you use a variety of filesystem tools to rename documents in bulk. Using an underscore between the date and the filename (and refraining from using hyphens or underscores in the filename, if you can help it) means you can easily parse out the date later on.

I have yet to work out the foldering for my electronic documents. I've gone back and forth on folders by year and then by payee/subject, or folders by subject and then under that by year... I can't really tell you if one is better than the other.

There are a bunch of "personal document management" systems around but I haven't found one that's super-awesome yet that I could really recommend. Still working on it...
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:23 PM on December 13, 2018

I save almost nothing. I'm almost 50, and so far, there hasn't been a whole lot that I've needed that I can't get. (Of course now I've jinxed myself.) I've gone paperless with every possible thing I can - pay stubs, all banking documents, 401K, taxes - so I don't get a lot of paper now. So that's your first step.

I have never, in my life, needed an old bill. So I would just toss all of those immediately.

I archive ALL of my emails so when I need the ticket for the concert tonight I search "concert ticket" and gmail finds it for me. I'm not sure what you mean by "purchases to arrive" but again, all my purchases are either done in Amazon or I get an email confirmation and I archive that. I also never delete any sent emails so in your example above, if I couldn't find the actual file, I could search my emails for my bosses name and whatever I thought the report was called, and use the most recent one.

My point here is, you need to save a lot less than you think you do. When in doubt, throw it out!
posted by lyssabee at 3:47 PM on December 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks for everyone for the suggestions! Please keep them coming even if they are several years after this post. I want to be able to eliminate, or at least minimize, the decision making model when filing paperwork.

Could you please help me think through praemunire's suggestion for listing:
- the top ten most frequent tasks you perform with your files
- the top ten most important
- the top ten "rare, but would be incredibly inconvenient if I couldn't find the related files" tasks

What are your top ten tasks you perform with your files? Or top three?

I always save my files with ProjectDraft_20181214, but final drafts is an issue. Even if I write 'final' in the title, the draft eventually bounces between people a number of times before it is really really for real final, and by then I am spent. I will try the _a, _b, and _c file.

There is much to be said about unnecessary electronic information hoarding which causes just as unnecessary hard drive bloat, so I think lyssabee is to some extent right.
posted by Kitty_Levin at 2:47 PM on December 14, 2018

have i got a link for you (the siderea file system, step by step, in exhaustive detail)
posted by Cozybee at 2:43 AM on December 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thank you, Cozybee! Awesome find!
posted by Kitty_Levin at 9:39 PM on December 16, 2018

Like lyssabee, I save almost nothing on paper. What I do save is so minimal that it doesn't need to be organized; it all goes in one folder that I can sift through if I actually need something.

For work, I have an "outdated drafts" subfolder that I use for some projects, but for many I just don't save every version... if something is returned, I save over the edits. If something terrible happened, I'd generally be able to dig up a copy as an e-mail attachment, but I've never had to.
posted by metasarah at 6:26 PM on December 17, 2018

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