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Filing by Most Used

As regular readers of this blog will know, I use a simple method to find my files quickly. This consists of always putting files away on the left-hand end of my shelf of files. The result is that the most recently used files are always found towards the left end of the shelf and the ones which haven’t been used for a long time are towards the right-hand end.

This method has stood me very well over several years now. It greatly speeds up the process of both finding and putting away files. This is in line with the principle that one should avoid as much as possible having no answer to the question “What do I do with this?”

However organising files in this way does have some disadvantages. One is that I keep having to move files along the shelf. This wouldn’t matter so much if “the shelf” was just one long continuous shelf. But in fact it’s four shelves in different places across my office, and so moving files can be quite a laborious business. Another disadvantage is that retrieving files by “last used” is not as efficient as retrieving them by “most used”. Because I use quite a large number of files in any given day, my most used file may move backwards and forwards along the shelves quite a distance. It would be quicker if my most used file were always in the same place.

So how can I achieve the goal of changing to having my files in “most used” order? It occurred to me that putting a mark on a file every time I used it would quickly show which files are most used. The easiest way to count the marks would be to make the marks themselves numbers. In other words write 1 on the file the first time I put it away; then the next time cross out the 1 and put 2. That way it would be easy to put the file back in numerical order. All the most used files would end up on the right and the least used files on the left. Because a file would only move a short distance each time it was used, there would be less moving of files backwards and forwards. So the net result would be that file retrieval would be speeded up and putting files away would also be simpler.

That’s the theory anyway. I’ve armed myself with some sticky labels and am going to see whether it works in practice. The sticky labels will be going on the spines of the files so I can see the numbers clearly at all times. I’ll let you know how I get on.

You may be asking “If you’re going to put the files away in numerical order, why not file by alphabetical order like everyone else does?” The answer is partly that my most used files are still going to be put away very much in the same place each time. But more importantly one of the banes of alphabetical filing is that I have to be able to remember the name of the file. Is the file called “Bank and Credit Card statements” or “Credit Card and Bank Statements”? Did I call it “Bills, Telephone” or “Telephone, Bills”? Alphabetical filing requires more mental effort, and the more mental effort I have to put into working a system, the less likely I am to keep to it.

Reader Comments (6)

Hi Mark
I keep my files in hierarchy form. The main category is color coded to easily "see" where it's going to be, and then I have the subfiles. Example: Bills are blue. Dark blue ones are recurring monthly and light blue are non monthly. Healthcare is green. I have files for my different doctors, dentist and my dog's vet. Taxes are red, Yellow is current action projects, Orange is pending, White is projects to be queque, etc..... I also keep a beautiful, ornate letter holder on the desk itself, and load it according to my Weekly Master List. The archives are labeled by Year and I also have one entitled Proof....Everything is within a few seconds of finding and putting away. I also use removeable tape and record when to purge it. My files stay ordered and clean without needing to worry about exact order.....It will be in the color zone or in my letter holder for this week's stuff. Example: I need to follow up with getting more meds for my dog. The green Vet folder will either be in my letter holder or in the green section!
I hope this helps.
August 7, 2008 at 14:50 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
I don't always use the actual color for the sub-folder as each folder has an inscription on it.....IE Green:Medical: Vet Red: Taxes: PropertyTax statements Red:Taxes:Tax deductions. You get the idea, yeah? Sometimes I'll swipe the title with a highlighter pen of the correct color to further facilitate things....
learning as I go
August 7, 2008 at 15:07 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
Since you are using shelves this may not work:

I keep all files in a large cabinet. I use colour coding to keep my 3 companies, private affairs and some other "groups" separate.
Within a company i will then use alphabetical order (just the first letter) and within a letter division the last used file will stand in the most forward position. So, behind the letter "B" I would find "bathroom", "BMW" and "bank" in that order. The last used file would then be the bathroom file.

The advantage is, that by subdivision no file will ever be far away. But you will need strict naming conventions otherwise you will search for your auto insurance policy in many different places instead of "A".
March 17, 2009 at 11:11 | Unregistered CommenterKlaus
May 18, 2009 at 6:36 | Unregistered Commenterchantix
Hey Mark! Have thought about just installing a really long shelf? 😆
September 5, 2017 at 12:52 | Unregistered CommenterSavannah Banks
I thought the point of the original system is that "last used" is a heuristic for "most used", so I was glad to see Mark return to the original. Filing documents in a single file sorted by "last modified" date has worked well for me for many years.
September 7, 2017 at 9:05 | Registered CommenterWill

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