Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Zillion Folder Filing System

"I bought a donut and they gave me a receipt for the donut... I can't imagine a scenario in which I would need to prove that I bought a donut. "Listen, skeptical friend, don’t even act like I didn't buy a donut, I've got the documentation right here. Oh wait, it's back home in the file... under 'D', for donut."
- Mitch Hedberg

(you might want to peek at the Prelude to the Zillion Folder Filing System for some accompanying illustrations)

It doesn't sound like it would work - but I've been using it for 8 months, and so far, it totally does. And having a filing system that really works, that you actually *use*, makes an incredible difference. Imagine never losing a scrap of paper, very important or not so important, lists, plans, instructions, previous work. Imagine being able to instantly pull up every single piece of paper associated with a particular project and have it on your lap.

I think what inhibited me in developing an organizational system was the feeling that I should have a clever, detailed hierarchy set up that would anticipate my every need. What are the major divisions of your life? Now how can you subdivide those? You could spend a lot of time trying to figure that out. Then a piece of paper comes along that doesn't fit into one of the categories, so you don't file it, or stick it somewhere it doesn't really belong, and bingo, your system is broken, like most people's.

So this is one that actually works for me. I got it from Getting Things Done by David Allen, and have named it the Zillion Folder Filing System. There's no point in repeating it all, so I'll just give the skeleton and my experiencce with it. What you absolutely need to make it work:

* A filing cabinet with drawers that slide open and closed smoothly, even when heavily loaded
* The metal thingy that goes in those drawers to help file folders stand up. Sometimes found at the very back. (mine was in pieces, so it was a great victory when I figured out how all the spring and all the bits of metal went together)
* A zillion ordinary manila folders (in practice I think I bought 200 - the point is that they should feel very plentiful)
* A labeller, and at least one extra roll of tape for it. (I bought a Dymo Letra Tag, about $30, and it's worked great for me)

How to do it:
1. Place all of these items within sitting-down, arms reach of your desk
2. When you have a piece of paper you want to save for future reference, put it into an existing folder, or grab a manila folder and make a label for it.
3. Stick that folder into the drawer in *alphabetical order*

That's basically all there is to it. Occasionally there might be a topic that really demands subfolders. In that case, just put the heading then a dash then the subheading. Like for my teaching assistanceship, I have "Psyc 380 - Handouts" and "Psyc 380 - Marking". You should feel totally ok with putting a single piece of paper in its own folder. Definitely every distinct project you start should have its own folder.

So you probably have lots of objections coming to mind. This is an extremely *dumb* system. But that's why it works: by not having to deal with a fancy system when you want to file something, you actually *use* it. (plus using the labeller is *fun* - I wouldn't even bother trying this out without buying a labeller) There have been cases where I couldn't remember what the name of the project was that I filed it under, but those are surprisingly rare. Generally I can go directly to the one I need. The alphabetical system means that you can usually aim for the right spatial location. It also happens once in a while that I make a folder where one already exists, but that's not too big of a deal either.

You still might feel like it will be overwhelming. To give you an idea about how it scales up, I have at least 150 folders in my drawer at the moment, almost all being the top level of a hierarchy. The whole system is about a foot and a half in thickness. Sometimes I have to adjust the slidy thing if they get too tight, but in general I can pull folders out and drop them in with ease, as well as sticking in pieces of paper and flipping the titles to find one.

Some examples of folders I have in my office reference system:
* Business cards
* Passport (this just contains my passport!)
* School admin (eg registration forms)
* Taxes 2006 (every time I got a piece of paper for my taxes, I stuck it in here. This year I finished my taxes 3 days early - instead of 2 months late like last year)
* Thesis (at least 20 subfolders under this heading, such as "Draft 2" "Planning", "Results", etc)
* Medical receipts
* Advisor meeting notes

I was so inspired by how well this worked that I adopted Zillion Folder Filing in lots of other places. I have another paper one at home, in one of those standup plastic frames which used to hold my ineffective six hanging files. It includes categories like Gift Certificates, Warranties, Menus, Manuals, Landlord and Poems. I use the system for my email - navigating a zillion folders is even faster and makes more sense in an electronic system. I have 81 email folders, and it's absolutely no problem. I use it on my harddrive at home (55 folders) and at work, and to organize all my internet bookmarks. Sometimes in an electronic context it makes more sense to organize things into subfolders. But I generally do this just when the folders for some area are getting very numerous. It just makes it less easy and fun to file something if you have to dig around in an elaborate hierarchy for where it belongs, and that means you won't file.

Again it's hard to overstate the impact consistent filing has had on how I work. To pick just one aspect, if I scrawl some plans or a diagram of something for a project, on the back of an envelope say, it's still amazing to me that I'm able to instantly retrieve it two months later, when I've nearly forgotten it existed - and start from *there* rather than from scratch again. Gradually I'm coming to trust my filing system, and I'm only beginning to see the power of that.

As a final note, Zillion Folder Filing might be helpful on its own, but it is made to work with two other David Allen concepts which I live by and plan to post about: having an In box, and doing a weekly review. If you try it, first of all post a comment, and second if it works, you should probably buy the David Allen book for all the other good stuff in there.

No I don't have a file for "Donut" - but I do know just where it would go.


Anonymous said...

Why the tape labeller? Why not just write on the folder tabs?

Daniel S said...

It's a reasonable question, which I don't have a 100% convincing answer for. There may be more of an explanation in the David Allen book. It just seems to be an integral part of the magic. Like I say, label-making is fun. Also, when you open the drawers, it's very easy to read all the headings (especially compared to my handwriting), and seeing all those neat headings just helps you to feel like things are well and solidly in order. This doesn't bear much on graduate school, but they look very professional if you take them into a meeting.

Do you have any thoughts on this Jim? I know that unlike me you could make beautifully calligraphed headings if you wanted to, and yet you are using a labeller.

Are you someone who is known to me? Or a random person who has stumbled across my little web page? If the latter, welcome!

amphimacer said...

I have a suggestion of an answer to the labeller question, in several parts: a) the labeller gives you a different colour, so it really sticks out; b) it's comparatively easy to remove and put a new label on, should the occasion arise; and c) it is part of the magic -- it makes you feel like you're setting up a real system, not just fiddling around.

But here's another thing, from the perspective of twenty-plus years after finishing university: be prepared to throw things out. I found, when I moved a few years ago, that I still had some high school papers, and undergrad stuff, which was of little value to anyone. I just hadn't gone through it for many years, and a good cleaning-out was overdue. Having a look through will give you space, as you discard things that no longer have value.

But as to the donut receipt: keep financial records in a separate set of files. I found myself, some years, able to claim as income tax deductions things you might not think of deducting until it's time to do your taxes. One year, after having done some freelance work for a while, I started to get the work in the form of pdf files, so all of a sudden my internet costs became deductible.