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« Road Tests | Main | More about Systems »

File for Success!

One of the biggest reasons our offices tend to get into chaos is because we simply don’t know what to do with half the stuff that comes into our lives. If we don’t know what to do with it, we tend to put it down somewhere to deal with “later”. The inevitable result is piles of unsorted paper and a backlog of work.

One of the most important ways of ensuring that we know what to do with things is to have a filing system that is both easy to operate and completely up to date. Unfortunately most people, particularly in small businesses, try to work with filing systems that don’t properly support them. Remember: we will always tend to follow the path of least resistance. If our filing system is difficult and cumbersome to use then we will tend to avoid using it, which will then make it out of date as well - thus increasing the problem further. On the other hand if our filing system is fast, instinctive and up to date, it becomes easier to use it than not to use it. The good news is that you can have a fast, instinctive and up to date filing system fully operational by tomorrow. Here’s how.

The first step is to go out and buy plenty of lever arch files and clear enough space for them on a bookshelf. Forget about folders, ring binders, suspension files and all the rest. Lever arch files on a book shelf are the best way of filing. They stand upright, don’t fall over, can be moved around easily and it’s simple to insert and remove papers from them. What’s more you can use dividers to subdivide the contents. For things you don’t want to punch holes in, you can put them in a plastic envelope and file the plastic envelope. For very small items such as till receipts I staple them to a larger sheet of paper and file the sheet of paper. For those of you who don’t know what a lever-arch file is, here’s a picture.

How do you get a totally up to date filing system right now? It’s easy. Declare your old filing system dead and start completely afresh, opening new files as you need them. Every time you get a new piece of paper open a new file for it or put it into one of the new files you have already opened. Work the files in the way I suggested in a previous newsletter by putting the files as you use them at the top left hand end of the bookcase. With lever arch files it’s easy to move the files along to accommodate this. Doing it this way you will have a completely fresh and relevant filing system, where you can always lay your hands on the papers you use most often.

Reader Comments (17)

Hi, Mark...what is the USA equivalent? I tried searching for these in two of our huge office supply stores and they were baffled! Is there another product that's similar? I've always been a piler rather than a filer and have used 3 ring binders with my action files and a regular filing system for reference and archive files.....3 ring binders DO fall over! LOL! I'm almost totally done with project NO MORE BACKLOG thanks to your wonderful ideas....a millions thanks for that wouldn't even quite describe my gratitude!!!!! I'd love to toss my filing cabinet and stop having round paper dots everywhere. Again, thank you so much....Files that fall down would simply be icing on the cake!!!

December 4, 2006 at 22:24 | Unregistered Commenterclogged like a diaper in a toilet
Hi, Clogged

Great to hear the success you are having with the methods.

I don't know what the equivalent of a Lever Arch File would be in the USA. However I found a supplier online who imports them: Empire Imports
December 4, 2006 at 22:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks for the tip.....I finally finished my entire backlog at about! I couldn't sleep, I was cranky anyway so I knocked the rest out....I should circle this day on my calendar and treat it as a holiday! I'm going to see if I can actually celebrate that date next year with NO BACKLOG....much like addicts have anniversay dates....procrastinating to create backlogs qualifies as an addiction, yeah? LOL!
December 5, 2006 at 17:45 | Unregistered Commenterclogged like a diaper in a toilet
Thanks so much for the nice plug for Lever Arch Files and my business in your blog. I am the president of Empire Imports and we've been selling Lever Arch Files in the USA for 66 years!

We also have a division of our business called Bindertek that also sells Lever Arch files in the USA - BUT in the stand US size. Bindertek has a line of indexes designed for the legal profession as well.

I might not be impartial, but I agree there is no better way to organize paperwork than Lever Arch Files!

If anyone wants a Lever Arch Lesson - please feel free to email me at and also please excuse this shameless self promotion!

December 7, 2006 at 13:11 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Beall
Thank you Andy....I did check it out and I'm definitely going to try the starter kit....I don't know how to make a live link but I'm sure other Americans will be intrigued enough to check out the European "no falling" binder your site offers
December 8, 2006 at 16:09 | Unregistered Commenterclogged like a diaper in a toilet
I've used lever arch files in the past & agree they're great-but as an attorney I have multiples projects going on for each client-what do you recommend for the individual client files? red ropes dont do it-would you do a separate lever arch for each client? that may become burdensome since I've worked with some of these clients for 30+ years & we have extensive documentation for them.
July 23, 2007 at 3:21 | Unregistered CommenterKal Goren
Dear Kal

Thanks for your query. It's difficult to give recommendations without knowing the exact circumstances, but off the cuff my feeling would be that you want to have everything that is still current for a 30+ year client in one or more lever-arch files and everything that is dead and buried in archive boxes. That way you can access everything you are likely to need more or less immediately, while still being able to find old stuff if for some reason you have to refer to it.

I'm assuming here that lawyers can never just throw old stuff away!
July 23, 2007 at 17:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark-the question about filing is intriguing-I know to put the latest binder at the upper left shelf-but how do you file inside the binder ie within a client's tab, by date or what or do you just review all pieces of paper? also what about resource material?
thanks again
August 11, 2007 at 18:03 | Unregistered CommenterKal Goren
Hi, Kal

On the whole it's usually best to file by date with flags on the important stuff that you refer to often. But don't forget that the system is intended to be flexible, so experiment!

Resource material: it depends on the nature of this material. I keep all my instruction books for example in a separate box file. Magazines, catalogues, etc. that I wish to keep, go in a magazine rack.

Whatever filing system you are using, keep it well weeded.
August 18, 2007 at 9:51 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've just come across this article, but I must say I am a bit divided regarding this recommendation. It is completely correct to insist that a good filing system needs to be simple and fast to use. Otherwise people will start generating "to be filed" stacks and this is the death of any good office organisation.

As a good paper pusher I like the level arch folders for their neatness, but:

- they are very big and cumbersome. For any given small project I need to lift around the whole folder. For a small project I may need to open up a new folder which is then, for the time being, almost empty

- they take time: adding and removing parts of a file takes quite a long time since the mechanism needs to be opened and pages flipped

In my personal view, the US-style manila folder is a godsent, especially for those without a personal secretary! For us europeans the hanging style folder might be more common and appropriate but any of these is in my view a lot more flexible and faster than the level arch folder. I do not need to punch any holes and I do not need to operate any mechanism.

The subdivision of contexts, by the way, should come out about the same as in a well maintained level arch folder, but I can restack and regroup subjects much quicker.

As a final point archiving is much easier since I can archive individual hanging folders. If only a section of a level arch folder needs to go into the archive this will mean a lot of work in reorganising it.

Maybe this part should be reconsidered.
March 23, 2009 at 8:40 | Unregistered CommenterKlaus

I'm not familiar with the US-style manila folder. What method does it use to attach the papers? If the papers are just loose within the folder, my experience is that they are difficult to page through and tend to get mislaid easily.

Surely the whole point of a lever-arch file is that you can remove whole sections very easily?
March 24, 2009 at 11:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

exactly, they are just loose leaf folders. They usually go into cupboards with spring loaded backs and thus held upright.

Since I am from Germany I used to love lever-arch folders but they take up a lot of room when not filled to capacity and loading and unloading things takes a while.

Personnally I use them for all paper that just goes in there once and preferably doesn't leave the office under normal circumstances: bookkeeping records or account records for example. These just go in one by one and usually need to stay in order.

For everything project related that also needs to be moved I use hanging folders. Very flexible and quick. When these are ready for archiving they just move from my deskside drawer into the archive room but stay in one piece as a folder. There are also folders with, how do you call this, metal clamps (?) which work just like the lever-arches without a lever. These are used for example in legal documents when everything is needed in a precise order.

Hope this helps.
March 24, 2009 at 21:54 | Unregistered CommenterKlaus
Best part: How do you get a totally up to date filing system right now? It’s easy. Declare your old filing system dead and start completely afresh, opening new files as you need them. Every time you get a new piece of paper open a new file for it or put it into one of the new files you have already opened.

I don't have to go through all my old files before starting the new system, so long as I don't start new systems too often and don't bury important things in the un-reviewed parts.
September 9, 2010 at 22:20 | Unregistered CommenterCricket
I just finished your book "Do It Tomorrow" and it is the first organizing book that seems to address the actual issues I face, so thank you! It is like you are in my brain in a good way.

As a US resident, I am intrigued by the lever arch system and the thing I can't quite tell from any of the pictures or description, is the whole point is it squeezes papers together without needing to punch them like you would a three ring. Is that correct? If so, that seems a perfect solution for me, having to hole punch items keeps me from filing them.

I'd also like to share my solution for ongoing project filing with a smaller amount of papers: I absolutely love using these small case files: They are excellent for loose leaf ongoing projects as they keep them totally contained, weather proof, they are good for transporting, and are great for writing on in meetings when tables aren't available. I stick a label on the front so I know which ongoing project each case is for and then file the papers once the project is complete. They are pricey, but you only need about 5 and you can reuse them forever.
December 28, 2010 at 6:16 | Unregistered CommenterGlenda
Just found this via google.

I live in the UK & agree - arch files are brill. They stand up, have loads of bright colours & the paper etc can be moved easily.

I use mine for memory books. Scrapbook albums are really expensive over here, so I decided a few years ago to use A4 arch files & haven't regretted this decision at all.

I didn't realise that arch files aren't used much in the US.
March 2, 2014 at 23:31 | Unregistered CommenterJulie
Seven years later, you may not even go to this site anymore! But I am seeing your recommendation for 'small case files' and I am curious. That site no longer sells them. Can you send me a photo of yours? Please! They sound perfect for my needs. Ta!
September 8, 2017 at 9:57 | Unregistered CommenterSavannah Banks

I believe Glenda was talking about these:
September 8, 2017 at 12:49 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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