Getting Things Done: Organising

I’ve tracked the previous two steps as I’m loosely following David Allen’s plan for being more productive: first I collected my clutter, then I processed it. After that, it was time for what I confess is my favourite part: organising.

Organising is what it sounds like: setting up a system of ‘buckets’ into which everything can be put so that you know what it is and where to find it. This includes both reference files, which are really static holding places for things that don’t require action but need to be kept, and files for items that are ‘active’ or might become active at some point. In physical terms, organisation involves whatever arrangement of file folders, calendars, notebooks, etc. suits your particular style.


One thing I like about Allen’s approach is that he doesn’t insist on any particular filing system or tracking system for how you organise your reference materials and to-do lists; you can choose what particular tools work best for you.

My chosen system involves these tools:

  • A paperwork inbox which serves the household and is the first place to put any mail, invitations, etc.
  • A diary (planner/schedule) where I record appointments, things that need to be done on a specific day, and a weekly meal plan
  • A ‘to-do’ folder (which is a plastic wallet) with any little bits of paperwork that need attending to by me personally; we have one for me and one for my husband
  • A set of household reference files which are the result of merging mine and my husband’s file collections and so includes our own stuff as well as the things pertaining to the joint household

I have a separate system for my PhD, which I will discuss in a later post.

Reference files

The majority of our household management stuff is in the form of paperwork, and most of this resides in the reference file system. Anything from my to-do folder, e.g. a recent application for a student railcard, is transferred to the reference file system once it’s complete and no further action is required.

One thing I appreciate about Allen’s approach is that he advocates using a system for filing that is very simple and a little old-fashioned: he recommends plain tabbed folders, with labels clearly written, all kept in a single collection in alphabetical order.

The advantages of this system are that it is

  • Flexible and easy to alter
  • Inexpensive

Here are a few things Allen does not recommend which might be surprising:

  • Hanging files: these take up more space, can be prone to bending when overfull, can damage your nails or fingers when you’re sorting through them, and it’s very fiddly to make the labels.
  • Colour coding: the pitfall of a colour coded file system—for example blue for utilities, green for car stuff, orange for medical, etc.—is that inevitably you’ll need a blue folder and have none to hand, while you end up with a surplus of another colour. Then either you put off making new files until you get more of a certain colour, or you break your system by using the wrong colour.
  • Separating file collections by type: this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but in general Allen says that all your household files, or work files, should be in a single alphabetised sequence. Don’t try to separate them out into less-used and more-used, or bills vs. other stuff, or ‘fun’ vs. ‘household’. It’s easier to find what you want if you know it’s all in a single place. It also reduces the annoyance of having to decide where to put the borderline items that could go in either category.

While I do have a soft spot for fancy organisational systems and pretty file folders, I really agree with Allen on all these points. Often, the more sophisticated the system, the more effort it takes to maintain. The goal, at the end of the day, is that when you need to add a new folder it takes the minimum of effort to do so.

The tools

What I used in setting up our filing system were the following:

  • A lot of plain brown file folders, which I bought in a box of 100 from Amazon: I do like the American manila folders better for quality and colour, but this seems to be the British equivalent and so will have to do!
  • Some old white sticky labels which I wrote on with a plain pen.
  • Two file boxes: I broke Allen’s rule about splitting file collections because we just don’t have the space to keep everything in one place right now, so I store the more static files (e.g. academic records) in a metal file box, and the files which are ‘ongoing’ (utilities, household stuff, car stuff) in a file-sized cardboard box on the desk.

That’s it! I list everything here to emphasise that overhauling a file system doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, everything we used cost under £10 all together. The metal file box I got for free secondhand from someone else, as I did the labels, and the other file box is just a cardboard box.

The method: reference files

Sorting stuff and making folders isn’t advanced work, but here are a few tips that weren’t obvious to me at first but which I learned in undertaking this project:

Break things down into the smallest reasonable categories, to avoid overfull folders and make things easy to find. For example, I have several bank accounts with one bank and receive paper statements because I need them for my visa. So instead of putting them all into a single folder, I made an individual folder for each account and labelled them ‘Lloyds – 00000000’ with the bank name followed by account number. That way they get alphabetised together, but it’s easy to go straight to the folder for the right account.

Make a folder for everything, even if it’s just one item. For example, our phone and broadband are all paid electronically and Mike hadn’t kept any paperwork pertaining to them. All I had was the little card with the network information. I made a folder called ‘Internet’ for that little card on its own! The reason for this is that, when you start cutting corners by tossing stuff together just because it’s on it’s own, it will get buried under a category that doesn’t make sense and you won’t be able to find it.

Be ready to split, combine and re-categorise as your file needs change. Some folders will be permanent, things pertaining to bills or records that won’t change. But the only way to keep the system flexible and meeting your needs is to be willing to adjust it whenever necessary by adding new categories or splitting large folders into sub-folders.

Here’s the final result: I realise my set of files don’t look flashy, and you can see phone cords in the background, but the system is very functional!


The method: ‘to-do’ files and schedule

The other aspect of the system is a way of managing active items. I have two main tools for this.

First of all is my diary (or planner, in American lingo!). Obviously I use it to write down appointments. Allen advises against using a calendar or planner to make to-do lists because it clutters up the day with items which aren’t actually mandatory on that day and have to be rewritten elsewhere if they aren’t finished. I don’t make extensive lists in mine, but I do often write down two or three tasks for the day, separate from my PhD work – things like returning library books, mailing something, etc.

I’ve also started using it for planning far-in-the-future reminders. For example, I recently tried to access a manuscript at the British Library but it wasn’t available because the collection was in storage for building work to be done. So I marked a day a couple of months ahead in my diary to check again to see if the manuscript is available yet, so I don’t forget or have to keep reminding myself between now and then. I do the same thing with other people’s ‘big life events’, for example moves or PhD vivas: when they tell me about something important coming in three months, I write it down immediately so I don’t lose track of it.

The second tool is my to-do list and to-do folder. I keep the list in the folder. The folder contains any paperwork that needs completing, a reminder for an email I need to send, etc. Once it’s completed, it’s taken out of the folder and either goes to the reference files or somewhere else (maybe in the mail). My to-do list is just a sheet of paper which contains a basic list of things to accomplish, which I tick off when complete. At the bottom is a ‘someday/maybe’ section for things which aren’t crucial to do, or urgent, but which I might like to do: things like organising a certain part of a closet, or doing a project for fun.

This list + folder combination is really boringly basic, but so far it’s working really well. Ironically, even though my to-do list looks long, because I know everything is on it I’m less stressed out by it than by a disorganised system. I can give it a quick scan about once a week, tick off anything completed, and know in about a minute whether anything needs doing or if everything is okay just ‘simmering’ for now. And because I do review it and take care of anything I can at regular intervals, the folder is never scarily full of stuff, so I don’t procrastinate because of fear of opening the folder!

The results

Practically, it’s organising that finally gives you the beginnings of a real system that can keep running in a cyclical fashion. For example, if there’s a piece of mail on the table that isn’t urgent, on any given day I’ll engage in collection by putting it into the inbox; then I’ll process it (usually on a weekend) when I go through the whole inbox and make decisions about everything there; then, depending on whether it’s for reference or needs filing, I’ll organise it by filing it or putting it in my or my husband’s to-do folder.

I found that, after our collecting and processing, I ended up with a lot of things that I filed which I wouldn’t have bothered to file before. Many of these were the kinds of paper odds and ends that are hard to categorise, or which I don’t usually even consider ‘paperwork’, and which, previously, I wouldn’t have wasted a file folder on. But they were also the things that tended to get shuffled around and lost. Some of these things included:

  • Passport/ID photos: when you get these taken, you always end up with more than you need and you might want the extras, if only you can find them!
  • A membership card to the York Scottish Country Dance Society: I don’t need it in my purse, I probably won’t ever use it, but I did pay for it, so now I know where it is.
  • Maps: I often keep city maps of places I’ve been because they can come in handy to use again, as can printouts of directions or driving routes, but they easily get lost on a bookshelf, whereas they become useable if neatly filed.

I was a bit skeptical about the to-do list/folder combination, partly because it was so basic and because I often associate to-do lists with the failure to accomplish what’s on them. Sometimes that’s just a result of laziness or busyness, but I now think that, for me, sometimes it was a result of not having a master list or a single place for everything. That sense of being scattered, for me, creates enormous anxiety and means that you can’t trust your system. If you can’t trust that any given list represents everything, it’s hard to make wise decisions about what to do now or later, what’s most important, etc., because there could always be something lurking elsewhere you’ve missed. In fact, I think I get more done by having one huge list to look at, and am less intimidated by it than by a scattered system.

The next step in Allen’s system is review, which will be coming in a later post!

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