Piles or Files, Which is Best?

Judith Guertin Posted in Getting Organized

Which system do you use?


I once shared an office with a therapist whose style of organizing was different from mine. We shared the caseload of an adult/adolescent psychiatric unit. In our work, we used lots of forms and handouts. While our organizing and paper management philosophies were different, they were both effective. She was a classic "piler." She kept her important papers in a large pile on top of the desk. She could go to the pile of paper on the desk and find the form she needed…in seconds. That paper pile was “her system.” Some of our colleagues saw these piles and felt they looked disorganized and messy. Did the pile hold her back? Could she find what she needed in seconds? Yes, she could find what she needed, when she needed it.
Now, what about my system? I preferred things in files, labeled in folders in a file cabinet and my desktop clear...I think my professional organizer roots are showing here... Could I find what I needed quickly and easily? Yes, my system was not the same as my friends’, but it worked well for me.
Each system had its shortcomings though. When we were training students, how would they find things in the pile on the desk? When our students tried to find information in her piles, it took them more than a few seconds, for sure. How about the students using my system? How would the student find things in my filing cabinet if they did not know what I chose to name the file? Many of them started their own systems for finding what they needed. Some made binders with the forms for running their groups. Others made folders of their own for the filing cabinet. Everyone got to choose the system that they liked best.
I face these same challenges working with clients. There is no one size fits all system that works for everyone. Yet, there are a series of questions that you can ask when setting up a system. These are the four questions, taught to me by my mentor, Barbara Hemphill. Barbara is the founder of the Productive Environment Institute. She is now celebrating 40 years of asking these important questions.
Here they are:
1. Does it work? Can you find what you need in seconds?
2. Do you like it? Are you satisfied with the way it works?
3. Does it work for others you care about? If you share these files with others, can they find what they need in seconds? This is true for both paper and digital files.
4. Can you recover quickly? Let's face it life happens to everyone. When things in your system get out of control, can you put them back in order in a short time? Think about what your office looks like when you are finishing a big project and have lots of things on the desk. Do you return from traveling to a big pile in the middle of your desk? Are there things you need to put away in your backpack, briefcase, and suitcases? If your system works, then putting it back in order will take minutes, not days.
The lesson here is you get to choose your system. The key is to find a system that works for you in your circumstances.
There will be times when you are working with a system created by someone else. If you go back to question number three - Does it work for those I care about? In this situation, you are the person they care about so, here is your chance to see if you can work together on the system. Adapt the system so it will work for you too.
Wondering how answering these four questions could help you? Let’s chat! Click here to grab a spot on my calendar.

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