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How to file with C21 efficiency

C21 is shorthand for twenty-first century, and despite all our electronic workmates, filing in our era can be more of a challenge rather than less. There’s more to file, and more options for doing so.

Here’s what works for some experts we know. Some of these ideas may work for you, too.

Mind your p’s and e’s

It’s a C21 Filing Fact of Life: your system will most likely incorporate both electronic (e) and print (p) files. Decide what you want to e-file and what you want to p-file, and try not to overlap the two. If you file the physical copy of an email, consider deleting the virtual copy.

Key e-rule

Back up your files. You know you should...but do you? Put it on your calendar to help make it happen. Then breathe a big sigh of relief when you actually need the backup.

Key p-rule

Distinguish between retrieval and storage. The files that you keep within reach should be ones that you refer to at least once a week. If you haven’t retrieved a file in six months, it probably doesn’t need to occupy valuable space close to you.

File by degrees

Try organizing your print files by hot, medium and cold.


If it’s that hot, say some of our filing experts, think about whether you should file it at all. Act on it first. Then, if you still plan on referring to it every day, make it a desk file.


Put the files you use on a routine, weekly basis in a cabinet that’s within arm’s reach or on a file trolley that you can pull up to your desk.

As our friend Julie Morgenstern, the author of Organizing from the Inside Out, reminds us: putting your file cabinets in reach of your desk—even if they supplant a credenza—saves steps and time.


Move files you haven’t referred to in 12 months to storage and free up valuable space on and near your work area. If 12 months doesn’t work for you, decide on your own timeframe when they should go cold—and do it.

Mary Ellen Canniff, who operates a home-office organization service called Piles of Files, recommends this method for house files: put the current year’s in the top drawer of the file cabinet (she favors lateral ones), the prior year’s in the second drawer and older files in containers for storage.

File by category

Our other favorite tip from Julie: file by category, rather than A to Z. Aim for three to five broad categories, then assign a file drawer to each one if you can.

Are you a tickler for details?

Tickler files are meant to be a nearly failsafe way to follow up when you need to. While you can tickle by topic, a better way is by date. You might have a monthly tickler by day (1-31) and a yearly tickler by month (Jan, Feb, Mar).

Not all the organized people we know use p-files for their ticklers. Some prefer to use their electronic calendars as follow-ups, or to put a reminder note in their task folder.

To color-code or not

Some organizational gurus swear by it, others don’t. Our advice: use colorful folders regardless, as they’re a welcome visual break from a sea of manila. And if you find yourself assigning categories to each color—red for action, blue for quiet reading time, green for today—then that system was meant for you. The next level of color-coding? Coordinating ink colors.

It’s surprising how a little bit of good planning can free your time—and your mind—for more creative tasks than looking for a file.