Even though we live in the digital age, paperwork is still very much a part of doing business. Despite your best efforts (myself included), the paper hasn’t gone away and a gazillion software applications haven’t fully replaced the need for printing.
This means your paper needs a home, usually a file folder. And they pile up, multiplying like rabbits and you pretend to have some semblance of order because this pile is what you absolutely need to get to today, and the other pile is “sometime this week” while this other pile is about to become the monster of all File Folder Monsters and just might consume you alive!
Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, or maybe it’s close. But one thing you know with certainty is that your current “system” could definitely be better!
I was there, believe me. Client growth during my second year of business as a virtual assistant sort of exploded, and I found myself with multiple clients, all with vastly different needs accompanied by their own unique tasks. I didn’t have a good system in place to keep the paperwork side of things organized.
When it comes to hectic work days, I tend to thrive, but this was a different animal. Some items required action - if they got hidden I’d forget about it (out of sight, out of mind as they say), and clients were sometimes snail-mailing items for me to address as well. I found that I had some paperwork related to reference (didn’t need it all the time, but when I did I needed to find it fast), and other items were for long-term storage like executed contracts.
What. A. Mess.
I had to implement a system, one that I could maintain easily (i.e. be consistent with) and would work for all of my clients. If your business handles multiple clients/projects, and you’re finding yourself dealing with piles of folders instead of an actionable process, some of these steps should translate well for you!
In this blog post, I’m going to talk about two methods:
Multiple File Folders for each client/project
Single File Folders/Portfolios Divided into Sections
Method One: Multiple File Folders for Each Client or Project
With this method, you’re going to have more than one file folder per client or project. Whether this works for you is based on personal preference and the amount of paperwork you are dealing with. I happen to use both methods listed above because each client is unique with their needs, so I have a blended approach.
Labeling the File Folders*
Each file folder is labeled for a specific action or need:
Actionable: items/tasks to do something with
Reference: items to reference
Permanent: contracts and billing info
Questions: a place to store paperwork that I needed to discuss with the client
Misc/Other: client-specific folder for unique paperwork
*If paperwork was not involved, then I used Asana (a fantastic project management system) to remember to Act, Question, etc. Even with Asana, I would sometimes have hard copies of notes of papers to reference along with an assigned task.
Labeling each folder for the actionable type of paperwork it stored was a good first step in partitioning out the folders.
Storing the File Folders
This was key! In order to eliminate the piles, I had to come up with a system to physically store the folders, while noting what required my attention, etc.
I have a large step file folder to store the vast majority of client folders - this is physically located out of my line of sight on my desk. Permanent folders for contracts etc. remained in the filing cabinet. The epiphany came when I acquired a second step file folder to store my “today” folders. This folder rack is stored in an easily accessible location where I can open folders actively work on items stored within.
The beauty of having a primary actionable file folder rack, is that it forced me to plan for tomorrow at the end of every day, and introduced accountability while reviewing tomorrow's calendar (Am I prepared for that discussion? What am I still missing / what are the holdups to completing this project?).
Suddenly, I became a magician because I was always thinking ahead and was able to anticipate potential problems. *serious pat on the back*
The step file folder holder I use for “today’s items” has a front slot that’s perfect for holding an index card that I place reminder post-its on. I tend to remember things better when I’ve written it down. Between that and physically seeing the post it at the front of my “today” file folder rack, I tend to remember the small things that can get lost.
I use 3-letter client codes to preface the file folder label, then when I have something to review, ask, or enter for that particular client, I have a place to store the paperwork. Same for when I’m done with a piece of paper (bank statements are a great example) - there’s a file folder to house completed items as well.
More often than not, I’m adding these post-its during my end-of-day planning/review for tomorrow. “Oh yeah, I need to ask so-and-so if they received their shipment”, or “I still need an answer to last week’s email about this project” sort of thing. I’ve also utilized it for random text messages from clients needing a quick item - I just jot it down and put it on that index card! It’s quicker than using my project management system for tiny requests -- it’s been a lifesaver!
Method Two: Single File Folders/Portfolios Divided into Sections
This method has become ideal for the clients I do heavy bookkeeping for and need to coordinate physically swapping receipts. I have a permanent portfolio that stays in my office to house receipts I’ve entered, as well as my folder for active questions/needs, and each slot corresponds to the individual bank accounts.
In these photos, you can see each section corresponds to a bank account and because there weren’t enough “slots”, I have folders for additional accounts in the back. Every portfolio I use with the client is set up the exact same way. Multiple staff members drop new receipts into their portfolio, and it’s nicely organized for me when I receive it from the client.
Alternatives to Portfolios
If you don’t need a large portfolio, you may find that cardstock in between 2 or 3 sections of your folder could save a lot of time!
Another option is to use a notebook with 3-hole punch folders to store paperwork.
Carving Out Time in Your Schedule
Another challenge for most folks is carving out the time to stay organized. Yes, staying organized can take a few extra minutes at the moment, but can save you hours later because you weren’t searching for a file that has now been consumed by the towering stack on the corner of your desk, or forgetting you should’ve asked a question, etc. You know the saying - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?
At the end of your workday, set aside 15 minutes to put away your file folders from today’s work, and set up your folders for tomorrow. Or use 10 minutes in the morning to set up your folders for today. Whatever you do, make time for it. Put it on your calendar!
Having something so simple on your calendar is like giving yourself permission to spend time on a task that may otherwise be devalued or pushed aside. Staying organized often requires taking a few simple steps on a consistent basis - allow yourself the time to make it happen and you’ll notice a huge improvement!
Use the opportunity to revisit what you’re missing, what you have, etc. to make tomorrow as efficient as possible.
Are you going to do this every day at the exact same time? Probably not. Does this mean you’re never going to be organized if you don’t? Of course not, there’s always hope!
The most important aspect is that you are trying something new in an effort to change old habits. You can do it! I’d love to hear about methods you may have come up with for yourself.