Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.
A A Milne
You are probably wondering what setting up a system of paper management has to do with creativity but, believe me, the biggest benefit from getting organised is that it frees up more time to spend on generating ideas and less on trying to find that crucial piece of paper.
Before you set out on your creative challenge to pigeon hole your paper, let me tell you about my system –
It’s simple really – I have one continuous set of files for everything and, honestly, not a single thing gets mislaid. Everything I do falls into my three life areas – Vitality, Process and Design and all of my paperwork is organised using a five level table of contents (TOC). Mine is set up in MS Word but I think most word processing systems offer similar. I use A-Z tabs with the contents of each letter divided by subject area (alphabetically of course!) and, where necessary, numbered tabs within that subject area which is like this:
Level 1 – Main life area e.g. Vitality
Level 2 – Subject area and the letter of the alphabet under which information appears e.g. Barriers and Obstacles
Level 3 – sub-category of the subject – within its own separately labelled tab, filed alphabetically e.g. Barriers
Level 4 – lists all the articles, drafts, and research contained in the sub-category; and
Level 5 – Highlights anything in particular about an article so I can view at a glance in the Table of Contents
Here’s a small snapshot from one of my files:
I keep hard copies of the TOC on my files but also use the electronic version to great effect because it is easy to find a subject using Word’s search feature. I’ve also got it saved to the Cloud so I can refer to it wherever I am via my trusty tablet!
When I started this system I already had spent a couple of years trying out others so already had a good idea of what I needed to store and retrieve, but when you are starting out it can be difficult to decide exactly what you want to keep and what you don’t.
The important thing is to set something in place in the early stages so that you don’t end up as I did – well on the path to paper Armageddon!
I’ve learnt a few simple tips along the way which should help you in setting up your system –
Start as you mean to go on
Very obvious, I know, but it can be really easy to slip back into bad ways – I fell off the wagon a couple of times in the early days but with a little discipline the system you create can be a good one.
Find the system that works for you
I am completely happy with A-Z but if you wold be happier, say, with different files or boxes for your subject matter – then do so. If colour coding floats your boat – then go sailing!
Have no more than two paper collection points
And ideally, have just one.
Mine is an A4 size box that is only about 10 cm deep. Once it is full – the paper gets filed – no messing! Don’t be tempted to have a container that is so large that when it is full the prospect of sorting can be completely daunting. With my box I only need to spend about an hour every week or so on filing, and sometimes not even that.
Use your filing time as a review process as well
It just may be that last week’s big idea, that you collected chapter and verse on, now leaves you cold – so discard it. Be brutal – don’t keep something just in case. If you are unlikely to use it – discard it. If you are not sure – then keep it.
Be consistent in your naming conventions
I stick rigidly to my three areas and five levels. It can be tempting to start adding other sections but if you add too many it then become unwieldy. It take a little practise but I now think strictly in terms of Vitality, Process and Design – I know almost instinctively what area I am going to place my paperwork and how I’m likely to use it.
I know paper storage may seem like a complete pain when all you want to be is creative, but I promise it’s really worth getting to grips with this creative challenge now so that your paper passion doesn’t turn into paper pandemonium.