Office Organization: What You Need To Know

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A disorganized office can hurt your productivity and cause you to miss opportunities and waste time. Lots of people tell you what to buy or how to make things look cute. Today I'm going to discuss processes more than products to help keep your work space neat and productive whether it be an office or a home office. How paper should flow through your office, how to create an effective filing system and how to keep files your working on organized plus more.

Is there some sort of one day filing and paperwork class I missed in school? For most of my life I've been one of those guys that has stacks and stacks of paper all over my office. On the desk, on the floor, on the printer, everywhere.

I always told myself even though it looked disorganized I could always find what I was looking for but that wasn't true. Most of the time I'd need a document and be able to pull it out of stacks of files like magic but every once in a while I'd need a document that I couldn't find. At that point I'd go into a massive organizing mode that would eat up most of a day, or two.

From time to time I would buy different office organizers to help me but they usually didn't do much. Okay, I bought a filing cabinet, and file folders and... what the heck am I supposed to do with them? The problem is a lot of office organizers don't come with instructions.

Maybe some people just know but nobody ever taught me how to file, how to keep working projects organized or how to manage incoming documents. I just had piles on my desk and when I saw I didn't need some stuff from a pile on my desk anymore (usually after running across it looking for something else) it would go in the trash or in a drawer.

Some things that are obvious to some aren't so obvious to others. Imagine the only writing implement you've ever used or seen is a standard wooden pencil. You need to write something down and someone hands you a retractable pen. You're a little confused but you recognize the basic shape so you put it in your hand, put the tip on the paper and nothing happens. It's frustrating. Maybe you eventually figure out the button on the top exposes the writing tip or maybe you stick the end in a pencil sharpener.

Over time I started to understand what worked for me and what didn't but it took a long time so I'm going to share that information with you to hopefully bring you up to speed fast.

Organizing Your Office Papers

Most of what I do in my office is digital and has been for more than a couple of decades yet I still have to deal with a lot of paper. Managing the flow of paper in your office is going to have a huge impact on the neatness of your workspace which in turn should help keep you productive. If you get the slowest car on the highway to drive just a little faster, everyone's going to get home sooner.

A few simple items can help you keep your papers organized. They don't cost a lot and they come in different colors and designs to match your decor but more importantly, they help keep you organized and productive. The basic principle is to break things into small chunks and tackle each chunk separately. This tends to work for most things, not just papers.

The ultimate goal with paper should be to get rid of it in some way. Either by recycling it or filing it away. The method I use for processing paperwork has helped me be more efficient and stay organized. Here's the basic flow.

The organizers you need to accomplish a good paper flow don't take up a lot of space either. Below you can see everything you need on or around the small desk from my Computer Desk From One Sheet Of Plywood plans.

A) Stacking Letter Trays

This is the main hub for your papers, Grand Central Station. Stacking letter trays allow you to quickly separate and access incoming and outgoing papers. They should be located in an area that's easy to access while you're sitting at your desk. In the past it used to just be an inbox and outbox but it's more common to see three or more trays now. I personally like to use 4 letter trays. Each tray should be labeled and you should know what to do with the stuff in that tray. Here's how I organize stacking letter trays.


This is the top tray. Whenever I get mail or other items that need my attention they go into my Inbox. At the start of the day and periodically throughout the day I'll grab what's in my inbox and either throw it in the recycling bin or move it to another tray.

On my desk I keep a notepad (E) and as I go through my inbox I'll jot down notes in my todo list based on the items in my inbox.


The next letter tray underneath my Inbox is labeled ASAP. It's my priority inbox. In it I put items that need my immediate attention. Things I should hopefully have done or at least start acting on that day. Letters from clients, bills, etc. Anything that winds up going in here will get emphasized in my to-do list. I just put a star next to it.

As I sit down to work I'll grab items from this slot and start working on them. At the end of the day I hope that this slot is empty. Either because I've completed the action required by that document or I have moved it to a new working folder.


In this tray go items I need to do something that don't need my immediate attention. Things like offers I want to review, bank statements that I need to enter into accounting software, receipts I need to review and file, etc.

Whenever my ASAP tray is empty and I'm not working on anything else I'll grab things from my To-Do tray and do something with them.

If it's something I can complete quickly I'll start doing it then and there or I'll setup a new folder for it or add it to an existing file folder if it will take some time to complete.

One thing I haven't implemented yet but might is using a tickler file. This would work well with my To-Do box. A tickler file is a file folder holder that has 43 file folders. 12 for each month (Jan-Dec) and 31 for each day of the month. You can make your own or you can buy one like this Pendaflex DDF5-OX Acrylic coated expanding desk file.

Let's say your phone bill comes in today (the 2nd) and is due on the 15th of the month (and you don't have automatic billing) you would put the bill in your tickler file for let's say the 12th day's folder so you can pay it on that day. If someone's birthday is coming up you can add in a birthday card or a note to get a gift before that day. Right now I'm just adding items in my calendar.

To File

When I'm done with a file or if a document doesn't need my attention, just needs to be stored for future reference, I put it in my To File tray. When I have some free time I'll go through my To File tray and review the files before storing them in my filing cabinet. (More details on creating an effective filing system later on in this article.)

You can choose from a wide variety of letter trays available in various styles to match your decor.


I love it when stuff goes here because I don't have to do anything. :) Trash can however build up so it's important to have a good setup to get rid of items you don't need. Try to throw a lot of stuff away. You're probably keeping a lot of things you don't really need.

I keep my trash bins near my inbox so I can quickly dispose of things that I don't need.

Trash Bin (G)

Fairly simple. Garbage that isn't paper gets put in the trash bin. Plastic packaging, food wrappers and whatever non-recyclable garbage I generate throughout the day goes here. I even put my plastic recycling here too. Things like drink bottles. Don't worry, they get recycled. At the end of the day I empty my trash bin downstairs and pick out the recyclables. I didn't want to take up space with a bin just for plastics. 

I use this Rubbermaid® Commercial 3 1/2 gal Black Deskside Plastic Wastebasket in my home office because it's fairly small but still holds enough for me.

Paper Recycling (H)

Next to my trash can I have a Rubbermaid Commercial 3.4 Gallon Blue Deskside Recycling Container for paper that needs to be recycled. As I sort through my inbox I'll dump any junk mail, catalogs, offers I'm not interested in, etc in this bin. Even small cardboard boxes. The night before my paper recycling pickup I'll sort through it and get everything ready to put out on the curb.

With items like catalogs I'll take a quick look at the back or front covers and see if there are any coupons or special offers I'm interested before I throw it in the recycling bin. (It's 2015 and I know how to use the Internet, why would I want a catalog?) If there are any coupons I'll rip that page out and put it in my To-Do letter tray. I try to also contact the company to get myself off the mailing list too.

Paper Shredder (F)

It's very important to have a good cross-cut paper shredder to protect your privacy when disposing of certain files. Some municipalities make it difficult to recycle shredded paper and sometimes even if they do they'll just throw some in the garbage if it's not delivered correctly so check with them.

In the past I would shred everything but now I try to minimize what I shred. For financial documents I shred everything, including the envelope and any inserts even if they don't contain any personal information. I do remove the plastic windows on envelopes and some glossy paper because I'll put some of my shredded paper in the compost bin. (Most inks these days, even color, are soy based and biodegradable but look into it yourself to be safe.) 

For other items that aren't that personal, like credit card offers, I'll just shred the parts that contain sensitive information like application forms or anything with my name. I'll frequently just rip off the sections that contain my personal information to be shredded then put the rest in the recycling bin.

The day before paper recycling pick up I'll empty the shredder waste into a paper grocery bag, staple the bag and to put out on the curb or just dump as is into the compost pile.

From what I understand, a lot of recycling centers just throw shredded paper out in the trash if they are in plastic bags. Many also don't like to deal with shredded paper because it doesn't work well in their machines which is the main reason I try to minimize what I shred.

Since being selective of what I shred takes some time I'll usually just stack items on top of the shredder until I have time to sort through and shred them.

Step File Organizer (B)

If I knew how to use one of these many years ago I think I'd have saved a lot of time. The step file organizer is used to keep files handy for active projects you're working on and need to reference frequently. You keep them within arms reach on your desk so you don't have to dig through your filing cabinet or the messy pile on your desk. You keep them in the organizer until you're actually doing work with them so you can free up your desk space to have room to work.

If you're working on your taxes in between other tasks for example, have your current year's tax file in it as well as last year's tax file. Keep any current client records or project files for any projects you're currently working on.

My home improvement To-Do folder sits in there too as I add projects I'd like to complete when I have the time. Additionally I have a folder for my archived to-do lists, more on that later.

As you pull stuff out of your ASAP or To-Do Letter tray, insert them into the step file organizer. Some come in a combination letter tray/step file organizer but I don't like those because I want my step files to be facing me so I can read the labels easily. Step files come in a variety of styles to suit your tastes check them out.

Other Accessories

I used to have a lot of other accessories on my desk which I started to remove as I found I wasn't using them that often. Now I only have a few basic items.

Stapler (D)

Back to the notion of chunking, stapling related items together before filing makes it easier to work with later. If I have a bill that comes in multiple pages, bank statements, etc. I staple them together right away so everything stays together before using or filing. A staple remover is also nice to have.

Pen Cup

I used to have a larger desk organizer with little drawers and multiple pockets but I find it best to keep only what I'll use frequently available on my desk. A mechanical pencil, pens (one black, blue and red), a pair of scissors, a small ruler, a couple of different colored highlighters, a sharpie or two... that's pretty much it unless you're an artist that needs a lot of multi colored drawing implements.

Oh yeah.. and some metal paper clips too. Not for clipping papers but from digging crumbs out from your keyboard. :)

All other office supplies go in drawers or shelves.

Sticky Pads

I try not to use these that much and only really use them to put some temporary labels on things like boxes I'll be shipping out but haven't labelled so I know what's inside. If you're monitor is still covered in sticky notes you need to figure out some better ways of doing things.

For me I keep electronic notes and add items to my Google Calendar.  Even if it's something small like return a call by 3:00 pm. That way I get alerts at my desk or on my phone. I use Thunderbird  for email and it can also show me items in my Google Calendars so I am always able see what's happening when I'm checking mail.

Idea Pad

I keep two notepads on my desk. One is my idea pad. The main purpose is to sketch out ideas and flesh out details before actually working on something. So much of what I do involves a computer it's just a nice way to take a break and write.

Master To Do Pad

Next is my To Do pad, my most important pad. Start of each day I go over my previous day's list and see what still needs to be done. I like to copy over old items that haven't been completed rather than just look up the old list. Doing so helps reinforce it in my mind that I need to accomplish that task. 

If a task has been on my list for multiple days and I haven't had the time to take action on it I create I take some time to write down what I have and add it to my "incubator" file of projects I'd like to do but aren't that important compared to other tasks.

Important tasks get marked with an star and time sensitive tasks get a deadline added to them. As I get voicemails I'll add them to my list if they need to be followed up on. For emails I just mark them in Thunderbird to indicate I need to follow up on them.

My Master To Do List doesn't contain a lot of details. I have other To Do lists that are associated to projects. For example, if I'm working on a home improvement project I'll have a file with all my receipts, plans and a list of all the tasks I need to do. If I'm writing software I'll have TODO notes in my source code. The master to do list will just say something like work on xxx project.

At the end of the month I go through all my to-do notes and try to gauge how quickly it takes me to perform certain tasks to see if I need to make improvements.

I've tried to find software that can manage my todo lists better but I always go back to pen and paper. Maybe one day I'll write something if I can finish up the million other projects I'd like to build.


You'll need someplace to store files you need to hold on to but don't need accessible all the time. A filing cabinet (C) is the typical choice.  Whenever I'm done with a project or task, I'll put those files in the To File letter tray, then when I have time I'll go through that letter tray to go over the files and put them in the filing cabinet.

At least once a week I'll work on the To File tray. Focusing just on filing away documents gives me time to stop and review the files to see if there's anything I can learn thinking back on it and also gives me time to think if I really need to hold on to all those documents or if I can dispose of them.

In the beginning I didn't know how to file things. Different people do things different ways and there really isn't a lot of information I could find online. I didn't even know what to file. Over the years I found a filing system that works both for work related files and personal files.

Hanging File Folders and File Folders

First, the basics.  You need hanging file folders to put your file folders in :) but more importantly, hanging file folders help group the major categories. 

At least one hanging file folder per one of the 5 major categories listed below. Then you put those color coded files in that hanging file folder. In most cases though you'll need multiple hanging file folders per category. It's all going to depend on how many pages are in each file folder and how many folders you have.

Color Coding

Color coding helps you find what you're looking for faster. In your filing cabinet you'll have hanging file folders, file folders, tabs for hanging file folders and labels for file folders, all of which can have colors to help categorize them.

Going back to chunking, there are 2 large chunks in my home office, personal and business files. Keep the two separate. Use separate cabinets, use separate drawers or use different color folders. I keep separate cabinets and different colored folders. That way I can quickly identify what's on my desk at any given time.

I like to keep things simple. I have one set of colors for work folders and one set for personal. My work folders use standard green hanging folders with standard manila file folders. For personal files I use a different color hanging and file folder to differentiate them between the two.

I find this to be more economical, if you use different color folders and you run out of one color, you then have to wait until you buy more, then you often have more of the one's you don't need.

For color coding I use these Avery 05266 Laser Printer File Folder Labels in Assorted Colors. In each pack you get blue, green, red, yellow and white labels. I color code files as follows.

Personal Files Color Coding

Blue - Medical related files. Health insurance information, medical records, medical bills, receipts, etc.

Green - Financial files. Bank statements, investment account statements, financial planning files, etc.

Red - Mainly bills. Utilities, cable, phone, credit cards, loans, taxes, etc.

Yellow - Home and auto related. Deeds, insurance, home improvement projects, mortgage, loans, lease, etc.

White - Miscellaneous stuff that doesn't fit into other categories, I don't use these too much.

Business Files Color Coding

Blue - Personnel files.

Green - Financial accounts.

Red - Bills, taxes and other expenses.

Yellow - Client files, client project files, etc.

White - Equipment, property, internal projects, marketing.

If those categories don't exactly work for you, come up with your own. Just remember to keep the categories broad. 

Alphabetize or Categorize?

Some people advise you to alphabetize all your files, some say you should sort everything by category. I do both. For example I keep all my client files together, all my financial files together but within those categories I alphabetize them.


Set aside some time to go through your files and throw away anything you no longer need. At least once a month I scan through my files and pick some that look like they don't need to be there any more or have a lot of papers in them and chuck it all or just parts I won't need anymore.

Once or twice a year I'll do a major review and get rid of things I no longer need. Right now for example I'm cleaning out all the manuals I keep in my file cabinet. Appliances, tools, electronics, etc. I'm keeping warranty information and receipts but getting rid of manuals if I can find them online. Instead I keep them all in a folder on my computer.


Years ago I never would have imagined I'd become a cardboard box hoarder but to a small degree I did. In addition to some of the products I receive I also purchase a lot of stuff online. At one point it got pretty bad how many boxes I had around my office and basement.

If you want to return an item for a refund, having the original packaging is very important. Whenever I receive a package I immediately mark a date on it one month away from the day I received it. Since most return policies are 30-days, I know the box is safe to throw away after that date.

The night before my paper recycling pickup I'll go through the area where I store boxes and find any that have a date older than today's current date. Those boxes can be recycled so grab any useful bits from inside the box (manuals, extra parts, etc) break down the boxes and bundle them for recycling. Most of the manuals and other paper items in the box get recycled too except for anything relating to warranties.

This has finally helped me keep the box clutter at bay.


  1. I've been organizing my desk to meet my new workflow habits I've started. I discovered one tool that has helped me tremendously and it's a Fujitsu Scan Snap desktop scanner. We have a large Canon copier/printer/scanner in our office but I have to ask someone else to scan docs to their computer and email me the document, disrupting my workflow as well as theirs. It's surprisingly fast, integrates with other apps on my PC and most importantly, it doesn't disrupt my workflow so I can close out tasks much quicker than before. The workflow issue is more important than I previously understood, and this is why having an organized desktop is important. I picked up a few ideas from this article about how to organize and label my folders. Thanks - great article!

  2. so very helpful. I am going try all of these suggestions as my office has always been a lot of cardboard boxs and piles of papers. Thank you for being so clear and explaining things for the novice. I really found the photo and labels very helpful.
    Wish thee was a few more esp of the filing system. Thanks again Mari

  3. Excellent suggestions. Thanks for sharing.