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Back to Basics: Reference Filing

Back to Basics: Reference Filing

Reference Filing

    One of the greatest sources of clutter in just about any office environment is unfiled paperwork. I think everyone suffers at least a little from Keep-It Syndrome, that horrendous affliction that causes us to imbue every scrap of paper that crosses our desks with a mysterious power that makes it nearly impossible to throw anything away.

    At least part of the problem is indecisiveness. Many of the papers that we keep aren’t really necessary, but we keep then “just in case” we need them down the road. Since they’re not particularly useful, they’re hard to organize in any meaningful way, so they stack up or get shoved into a shoebox or crammed into an unruly filing cabinet in no particular order.

    But that’s only part of the problem. A deeper problem is knowing we need something, but not knowing how to file it in a way that keep s it out of our way when we don’t need it but makes it easy to retrieve in a moment when we do need it. The fear of losing something important, or forgetting about it, can be paralyzing, often leading us to leave more stuff out than we file away.

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    Filing is probably the easiest, least thought-requiring task you can do in an office, yet because so much is at risk, it creates a great deal of anxiety – and in virtually every office environment I’ve ever worked in, that anxiety has contributed greatly to the failure of the filing getting done.

    So what to do?

    First of all, we need to distinguish between several different kinds of papers. The first are project files, which I’ve discussed before – these need to be close at hand, and are usually the easiest to figure out. The second are official documents – invoices, bills, receipts, forms, reports, meeting minutes, etc. These also tend to fall into natural categories that suggest themselves and are easy to develop a filing system around.

    The real problem area when it comes to filing is reference material. Reference material is anything that contains information that we need or will need at some point and which will have an application beyond their immediate use. For me, one major body of reference material – we’re talking maybe 10,000 pages here – are academic articles and notes that I’ve been collecting since I started graduate school over a decade ago. As an academic, I use this material for writing papers, researching topics for presentation in class, and provoking new ideas – but none of it does me any good if I can’t find what I’m looking for when I’m looking for it.

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    The system that immediately suggests itself is alphabetical, and for years that was how I organized most of my papers: alphabetical by author’s last name, just like my books. The problem with this system is that while it’s easy to figure out where new papers go – just look at the author’s last name – file retrieval is a pain. If I want information on food taboos in the South Pacific, for example, I have to remember that Margaret Mead wrote about that topic. Mead’s easy to remember – she is probably the most famous of all anthropologists – but what if the paper I want is something I glanced at by an author whose name I can’t recall, maybe a graduate student at an obscure university?

    To solve the problem of retrieval, I reorganized many of my files according to main subject. This is the system that David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, and it does greatly assist with retrieval. After several years of topic-based filing, I had several nicely organized drawers with folders arranged alphabetical by topic: “Colonialism” after  “Cold War” and before  “Counter-Insurgency”. Finding a folder full of references on any particular topic was a breeze.

    On top of the filing cabinet, though, was a growing pile of unfiled papers. Un-file-able papers. Papers that dealt equally with two or more topics, papers that didn’t lend themselves to any easily-remembered topic heading, and so on. As Allen notes, if it takes more than a few seconds to file something, the chances that you’ll do it drop drastically – filing has to be quick, easy, and even fun, or we’ll resist doing it. Which means that as my pile of work I couldn’t categorize, label, and file in a few seconds grew, I became more and more resistive towards filing altogether.

    And thus my empire of paper fell.

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    Enter the Paper Dragon

    The system I am beginning to implement is inspired by the system used by the Paper Tiger document management software. In the Paper Tiger system, files are numbered and filed low to high. Each new document or group of documents goes into the next available empty folder, and a description of the contents and keywords are entered under that folder’s number in the software’s database. Thus, my folder full of resources on counter-insurgency might be in folder 08174; to find it, I simply search the database for “counter-insurgency”, which will tell me exactly where the documents I need are.

    The Paper Tiger software isn’t cheap – the full-featured version of individual end-users is around $170. Instead, I’m creating a simple spreadsheet, with columns as follows:

    Folder #  |  Title  | Author  |  Keywords  |  Notes

    The folder number column is already numbered to 1000 (or 01000, actually – I can add more numbers up to 99,999 if I need to. I’m thinking long haul, here!). The idea is that to find anything, I can CTRL-F search. Later, I can create queries against the table, but for now, a simple “find in page” search should be sufficient. Later still, I can import the whole shebang into Access or some other database – maybe I’ll go crazy one weekend and import it into MySQL and write a Ruby on Rails front end! (I’ve always wanted to learn Ruby on Rails…)

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    The Paper Tiger is essentially a tagging system for physical documents (although technically it could be extended to cover digital documents on my PC or, indeed, any item anywhere that I was willing to catalog. But the important thing is, it solves both the problem of filing – without being restricted to one topic heading, I no longer have to worry about not being able to find something because I filed it under “Imperialism” and looked for it under “Colonialism” – and the problem of retrieval – the only skill I need to find a file is counting.

    What about you? How have you solved your filing problems – or have you? What hasn’t worked for you in the past (or the present), and what has? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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    Last Updated on October 28, 2020

    How to Take Time for Yourself and Restore Your Energy

    How to Take Time for Yourself and Restore Your Energy

    Do you ever find yourself longing to take time for yourself? Many of us are so busy with work, school, and home life that often there is no time left over to do something that you enjoy. What follows are some ways to carve out that essential time you need to slow down, enjoy life, and rejuvenate your mental and physical health.

    The Importance of Self-Care

    In today’s on-the-go society, taking time for yourself is often looked upon as being selfish or unproductive. You have a job to do, kids to take care of, meals to cook, bills to pay, and the list goes on. How can you possibly justify taking time out for self-care without feeling guilty[1]?

    The truth is that without self-care, you’re not giving yourself a fighting chance to give your best to each aspect of your life. If you don’t take care of your own needs first, you’ll find yourself burnt out and struggling in everyday life before you know it[2].

    Take time for yourself with self-care

      Shift your perspective and accept that taking time for self-care is key if you truly want to live a productive, happy, and successful life.

      Simple Ways to Take Time for Yourself

      Finding time to focus on self-care can be difficult, especially with the demands of work and family life. Often, scheduling time before you need it can be a great to way to ensure you don’t skimp on the all-important personal time. Here are a few simple ways to take time for yourself.

      Evenings With Yourself

      Try to save certain weeknights just for you. If others ask you to do things those nights, just tell them you have plans. Use the time for gardening, reading, exercise, thinking, or the ultimate luxury of doing nothing!

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      Monthly Treat

      Schedule a treat for yourself once a month. It could be on your lunch break, a weekend, or it could be leaving work early. Maybe you get a spa treatment, go see a movie, a haircut, play golf, or whatever treat you’re always thinking about but rarely get to do.

      Schedule it in at least a month before to ensure that nothing gets in the way of that time.

      Buy Tickets in Advance

      Buy tickets for a baseball game, theater production, concert, or any other event you would enjoy. Having the tickets already in hand will force you to make it happen!

      Leave Work on Time

      This is one of the simplest things you can do when you’re craving personal time. Many of us stay at work late on a regular basis. If this is you, make it a point to leave work exactly on time at least once a week, if not more[3]. And then enjoy that time by participating in your favorite hobby or spending time with a friend you rarely see.

      Join a Group

      Joining a group can be a great way to include socializing when you take time for yourself. Find a group or club that revolves around an interest or passion of yours or something you’ve been wanting to try. You can find a book club, photography club, or bird watching group. It can be anything that helps you feel rejuvenated.

      Take an Adult Education Class

      Have you been wanting to learn something new or brush up on something you learned a while back? There are tons of free online classes, and many community colleges also offer free or cheap classes.

      You can learn a foreign language, try yoga, or brush up on your painting skills.

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      Exercise

      For busy people it can be difficult to make time for this, but it’s important to do so. A new habit is started with just one step.

      For example, you can walk for 20 minutes in the morning, and then build on that success daily. Vary how you spend that time. On some days use the time for thinking and daydreaming. Other days you can listen to motivational audio, and on days you want a real boost, listen to your favorite music!

      However, if you’ve been exercising for a while and usually listen to music, try go without any input for a change. Instead, let your mind wander and expand.

      Here are some ways to find time for exercise in your busy life.

      Taking Time for Yourself on the Go

      Some of us spend hours commuting to and from work. This can be a great chance to take time for yourself!

      Commute Via Public Transportation

      If you can, ditch your car and let someone else do the driving. Use that time to plan your day or do some reading, writing, creative thinking, or even meditation.

      Driving in Your Car

      Make the most of this time, and vary how you spend it. If you always listen to music, perhaps also try educational radio (NPR), audio books, or even quiet time.

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      Use that quiet time for brainstorming. Either think in your head or even talk your ideas out loud. Bring a voice recorder. You could write a book via voice recorder over time.

      Waiting in the Car

      If you find that you have a certain amount of “waiting time” in your life, change how you perceive it. Instead of “waiting time,” you can instantly change it into “free time” by reading a book, writing a to-do list, or practicing meditation.

      Two Birds With One Stone

      Look for ideas where you can fit in time for you within things you need to do already or that will have multiple benefits. See the ideas below to give you an idea.

      Walk to Work

      This is a a great one because you’re accomplishing many things at once. You’re getting exercise, you have time to think or enjoy music/audio, and you’re helping to save the environment.

      Arrive Early

      Any appointment that you have, plan to arrive 15-30 minutes early. Then use this time to sit back and relax with a book or magazine.

      Volunteer

      There are so many benefits with this. You make a difference for others, escape work and personal worries, and grow as a person. This about what kind of volunteering interests you and find a group to join. It could be environmental, educational, or anything that brings you a sense of purpose.

      Eat Lunch Alone

      Try sneaking away for a quiet lunch alone on a park bench or even in your car. Enjoy some quiet time with no one to talk to and no distracting noises.

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      Time Away From Kids

      You love your kids, but sometimes you just need a break from parent life. Here are some ideas to help you step away from that role for a bit.

      Organize a “Mom’s/Dad’s Morning Out” Circle

      If you have a friend or group of friends, you could arrange to share babysitting services a few times a month so that others in the group get some time alone.

      Hire a Babysitter

      Make a plan to have a babysitter that you trust watch your children once a month or once a week so that you can take time for yourself. Take it a step further and make that a date night or a night you participate in a class or hobby.

      Find a Gym With a Babysitting Service

      Find a gym that offers childcare so that you can take a yoga class, do some strength training, or even work out with a personal trainer. Make sure you fully research the safety of their childcare program first, though, and get some references if possible.

      The Bottom Line

      If you feel like you need to take time for yourself and relieve stress, there are many ways to do it. Even if you have a chaotic life where there seems to be only seconds to spare on any given day, it’s possible to carve out time for yourself by simply planning ahead. Make this a monthly occurrence to begin a healthy self-care habit.

      More Tips on Self-Care

      Featured photo credit: Erwann Letue via unsplash.com

      Reference

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