How to Organize a Filing Cabinet

posted in: Organizing 4

Do you need help organizing a filing cabinet in your home or office?

Are you wondering how you should store all of your files and documents?

Organizing a filing cabinet seems like it should be a relatively simple organization project.

You round up your papers, place them into manila file folders, slide those folders into hanging files, and then drop the lot into your cabinet.

Easy peasy, right?

Actually, there’s a lot more to organizing a filing cabinet than you may think!

You’re not just organizing files for the sheer fun of it…you’re organizing files so that you may refer to them in future.

In some ways, the process of organizing a filing cabinet is like making a plan for a future trip.

The only difference is that you’ll be taking your trip at some unknown point in future, be it two weeks, two years, or even two decades!

All the more reason for you take great care when organizing your files.

In this post, I offer several pointers to make organizing a filing cabinet for your needs oh-so easy.

These tips are meant to give you a solid framework when it comes to organizing your cabinet.

You can use these tips to organize any type of filing cabinet: a home office filing cabinet, a work filing cabinet, a school filing cabinet, a small business filing cabinet, and so much more.

Create a filing system.

The first step in organizing a filing cabinet is to create a filing system. This system will be the lifeblood of your filing cabinet and will be the method by which you will file and store your papers and documents.

You can think of this process similar to that of laying down the framework for a new house. You want to have the framework of the house in place (your filing system) before you start adding the walls, flooring, and insulation (your files).

The good news is that a filing system can be as general or as detailed as you’d like. It’s not necessary to create a complex or difficult to understand system in order to organize your files.

What matters most is that you create a reliable system and stick with it through the duration of your filing cabinet’s usage. The whole point of organizing your filing cabinet is to be able to easily and conveniently store and locate the files you need!

Do keep in mind: whenever you set out to create a filing system, you are creating it for your future self. You should be able to find what you need without any problems or difficulties. You don’t want to spend 10 minutes locating a file or racking your brain trying to remember the organizing structure of your filing cabinet.

One of the easiest ways to organize a filing cabinet is to organize files in alphabetic order. There’s just something satisfying about opening a filing cabinet drawer and seeing files neatly organized from A to Z, for household files, clients names, or projects.

If you’re feeling more adventurous in the organization department and wish to construct your own system using a combination of filing information, by all means do so. If you choose this route, take note that you will need to clearly define and maintain your organization system so as to keep things in order.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you construct your filing system:

  • How will my filing cabinet be used?
  • What types of files will I store in my filing cabinet?
  • Would a simple or complex filing system suit my needs?
  • Where will my filing cabinet be stored?
  • Who else besides myself will use my filing cabinet and files?

Make a list of files.

The next step in organizing a filing cabinet is to create a working list of files that will be stored within the filing cabinet. This step will help you organize your thoughts, and ultimately, your files.

Pull out a piece of paper and a pen, and start making a list of the names of files that will go into your cabinet. Perfection isn’t necessary for this first list iteration: simply jot down the names of the files you’d like to include in your filing cabinet as they come to you. If you need to, you can refer to nearby paperwork to help you identify the types of files you’d like to create.

Here’s a few simple examples to help you out: if you were organizing a filing cabinet for household bills, you might create a list with the following: Cable Bill, Gas Bill, Electric Bill, Telephone Bill, Water Bill, and so on. If you were organizing a filing cabinet based by client, you might create a list with the following client last names: Astor, Brown, Jones, Smith, Thompson, and so on.

Create clear and concise file names.

The third step in organizing a filing cabinet is to create clear and concise file names. A file name should clearly describe what is contained inside the file. You want to be able to see the file name and understand what is contained within the file without having to open the file and gaze inside the contents.

While a cleverly-named file may seem amusing right now, but in a few months’ time, you may end up puzzled or confused. When in doubt, think smart and simple. For example you might create a list using the names of the utilities listed in the above section. In this case, Cable Bill would become Alpha Cable, Gas Bill would become Beta Natural Gas, Electric Bill would become Gamma Electric and so on.

As you develop your file names, you’ll want to do your best to avoid creating duplicate file names and miscellaneous file folders. These types of files can cause a lot of trouble in a filing system.

Duplicate files literally create twice the amount of work; you’ll spend most of your time searching for misplaced or missing file components. While miscellaneous folders may seem convenient at first glance, they make it extremely difficult to retrieve important information.

Once you’ve confirmed your final list of files name, you can organize the file names according to your filing system. You can write your list over on the same or separate piece of paper, or use a series of sticky notes to organize items one by one. You can use this point as a final check to make sure the filing system and file names work well with one another.

Purchase or gather filing cabinet components.

The next step in organizing your filing cabinet is to purchase or gather all the components you’ll need for your filing cabinet. This includes buying or identifying the filing cabinet you’ll use, as well as assembling items like file folders, hanging folders, hanging folder tabs (if using), pencil, pen, or marker. You can use a label maker if you’d like to create labels, but it’s certainly not necessary. Check around your home or office for existing supplies before purchasing items online or in store.

Think filing cabinets or files folders have to be dull and boring? These days, you can find different types of office furniture and office supplies in a variety of shapes, colors, and patterns. From colorful filing cabinets, to bright portable file folders, to intricate and sassy manila folders, there’s something for every taste and budget. Keep your eyes open while shopping for fun and colorful supplies to add a bit of “pop” to your filing cabinet!

Prepare file folders and hanging files.

Next, you’ll want to begin preparing your file folders and hanging file. Grab a bunch of file and hanging folders and start labeling them according to the list(s) you prepared above. You can label files using whatever method you see fit: labeling with a pencil makes it easy to change or edit items, while using a label maker can make things look more unified.

Take your time when preparing your file folders. You don’t want to unintentionally create duplicate files or mislabel items. Start by labeling one file folder and then set the folder aside. Continue the process with the remainder of your file folders.

Prepare your filing cabinet.

The next step is to prepare your filing cabinet. Remove the contents of your filing cabinet (if any) and place them onto a clean, flat surface for the time being. If you’re working with an empty or brand-new filing cabinet, you can start placing your pre-labeled hanging files and folders into the cabinet according to your file system.

When you’re finished with this step, you should have several empty files and file folders ready to receive papers and documents.

Place papers into file folders.

Now it’s time to place your papers and documents into the appropriate folders. Feel free to refer back to your filing system and file list as needed to remind yourself as to what goes where. When placing papers inside of folders, you should organize papers in either chronologic or reverse chronologic order. This will make it easy to retrieve information when you need it.

For instance, if you have a series of cell phone bills from the past year, you can place them in chronologic order from January, February, March, and so on. You could also file these same bills in reverse chronologic order, so that the first bill sitting in the file will be the most recent bill, such as November, October, September, and so on.

You may have to spend some time sorting through papers, materials, and documents to match like items with like, but the essential structure of your files is already there. Check out my post on sorting papers for some quick tips here and read up on paper decluttering tips here.

Set up a system for filing success.

Have a massive stack of papers that need to be filed? Keep a basket, box, or container near your filing cabinet to temporarily store papers. You can then file several items at a time, instead of piecemeal. You may also want to set up a nearby recycling bin or a shredder with a container to make it easy to properly dispose of old, or outdated papers.

Avoid letting your filing pile up; it’s far easier to file five pieces of paper in one sitting than five hundred! Get into the habit of filing papers on a regular basis. You can file papers at the end of the day, week, or month. The most important thing is to make sure that you work is consistent.

You can turn filling papers into a productive task at any time of the day you so choose, start your day off with some filing, do a spot of filing before lunch, or save filing for whenever you need to take a break from your desk, stretch your legs, or give your mind a rest from work that requires deep thought and concentration.

How about you? What do you find is the most difficult thing about keeping a filing cabinet organized? Let’s see if we can’t help you out. Join in the conversation and leave a comment below!

Want help organizing that filing cabinet? If you want help decluttering and organizing your filing cabinet, I offer professional organizing services and organizing mindset coaching. Click here to learn more about how to work with me.

Get organized the easy-peasy way! My eBook, 31 Easy Ways to Get Organized in the New Year, is filled with quick tips to help you bring more order to your space. Click here to learn more.

Follow Rashelle:
Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.
Latest posts from

4 Responses

  1. Marcy

    My biggest challenge is letting my “to file” pile grow to large before tackling. I also like to purge utility bill receipts each year. I once discovered I had up to five years of statements filed. However, I now get so many e-statements that I don’t have the paper bulk. That leads to a new filing challenge of creating the folders on my desktop computer to file at each email notification.

    • Rashelle

      Yes, tackling that “to file” pile can be quite a challenge. Keep things light and manageable on the paper end by setting a small goal to file 10 items each day, or as much as you can within a ten minute period. You could also set filters in your email so your statements go into the right folder; no manual filing necessary!

  2. Barbie Norris

    I have a great file cabinet, I just painted it and now I have5 drawers of folders and paper’s that I now have to go thru and put back. I’m going to try using those bigger folders and use one of the drawers for thing’s that otherwise don’t have a home, like one for artwork and a folder for the battery charger because I always have to go looking for it….do you think that would work?

    • Rashelle

      Hi Barbie, thanks for your comment. It certainly sounds like you have a organization plan for your filing cabinet! As far as using one of the drawers for storage, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work if you are short on storage space. I would suggest you clearly label items so it is clear as to which items belong where, and so that miscellaneous items don’t work their way inside the cabinet. Hope that helps!