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Five secret filing hacks from the masters

Stimulated by Frank's article Fileflag could be a good product over at What's the next action I'd like to share some simple filing tips I've picked up from clients and fellow practitioners. They're all low tech but high value hacks that many have found useful. Please share yours as well!

The "File bookmark" hack

file bookmark hackWhile I'm all in favor of neat office gadgets like the File Flag, there's an even simpler solution for people who use plain (non-hanging) files. When you pull a file, simply lift up the file behind it a few inches and let the remaining files in front of that one lean back. You'll find they keep the bookmark file up above the rest until you're ready to return the pulled file. When it's time to return the pulled file to its original spot, simply drop it in front of the raised bookmark file, push the bookmark file back down, and close the drawer. Viola!

There are a few limitations, including:
  • You can't shut the file drawer while the file is pulled, so this is only good for temporary uses.
  • Sometimes the bookmark file drops down, esp. if there aren't many files in front of it, or if it's a heavy one.
  • Sometimes you have to use the A-Z file guide itself if your file is the last in its group.
But for the most part this is an "aha" for clients.

The "Fold crease" hack

file folding hackHave you ever noticed that set of horizontal creases at the bottom of most file folders? Guess what - they're amazingly useful! When you have a file that's grown to more than a dozen or so pages, it starts to bow outward, messing up your nice filing drawer. Terrible! To fix the problem, simply open the file flat on your desk, choose a crease that will give you enough extra room, fold the crease, and - bingo - neat, expanded file.

Of course if they get too big, you'll have to upgrade to expanding jackets, e.g., something like these.

The "Staple, don't clip" hack

To keep your files as thin as possible, replace paper clips with staples. For thick bundles that you don't want to staple, you might prefer the so-called "ideal clamps" (such as these) rather than paper clips.

The "Unfold before you file" hack

This one is real simple: To keep files thin and make easier future perusals, always unfold any papers before you file them. Also, take them out of the envelope if you feel the need to keep it (staple it to the pages if you like.)

The "Magnetic bookend" hack

If you're a follower of Getting Things Done (and let's face it, it's now the most-hyped productivity book on the planet), you know the reasons why I recommend against hanging files. However, converting a drawer to plain file folders often results in the dreaded "files falling down" problem for drawers that don't have a movable metal plate (AKA "follower block", "compression plate", "spring-loaded backstop", or "back plate"). Very bad. After extensive research (I kid you not), I've discovered the optimal solution (at least for metal drawers) is to use a magnetic 'L-shaped' bookend to hold them up, like this.

If this won't work for you (my last client had nice wooden drawers) you can get creative and find something to prop them up. My default is reams of paper, which can be stacked and oriented different ways to make up the space. You can also use empty boxes, etc.

Reader Comments (25)

Good tips, Matt.

I would advise against using staples though. If you want to shred paperwork after a number of years, it's a major hassle to pull them all out.

One corner of a file getting fat from paper clips can be avoided by using the whole edge of the sheet(s) of paper as a paperclip edge. If you spread the paperclips out, on the various bundles in a file, you'll be sweet.

March 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Hi Ben, thanks for your point, a good one, and the work-around. In my case I just (gasp) shred the paper with the stapler - I've heard others do this, and it hasn't yet ruined it yet! Thanks for reading.

March 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Oh My God!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for the magnetic bookend idea. I am a poor student who already owns 2 2-drawer filing cabinets, and just could not justifying spending $100 or more to get one with the stopper thing. Plus my filing cabinets in my office at school are the horizontal ones, so that's even worse! And I believe you about the extensive research, because I've done a bit of my own trying to come up with a solution. I've been using the reams of paper for now, but that's much better! I'm going to go buy some tomorrow.

PS. I've shredded stuff with the staples too. A lot of new shredders even say right on the box that they're OK for that.

March 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

That was a mind-boggle! You mean there are people who didn't learn that in first grade? Seriously. My first grade teacher taught us to file our own folders in her file cabinet, and how to mark your place when you took one out. Until I read this post I'd forgotten I wasn't born with the knowledge.
"You can't shut the file drawer while the file is pulled, so this is only good for temporary uses."
Well, I can't be sure for all file cabinets, but in my three it's not a problem.
"Sometimes the bookmark file drops down, esp. if there aren't many files in front of it, or if it's a heavy one."
To prevent this, tilt the bookmark file at about twelve degrees (as Mrs. Bewley showed us in 1959) or, in the case of a front file or a heavy file, pull up one of the _papers_ from the marker file.

March 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey Kelly - very glad that tip helped one of my main goals in blogging. Your message definitely gets a [ star | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/09/use-gmails-star-to-highlight-your-good.html ].

Anonymous: Yes, its surprising what we do and don't learn, and what we think is "obvious." Your tilting tip is very welcome. After reading it, I realized I do that 1/2 the time anyway - thanks!

And to both of you: Thank you for reading and commenting.

March 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

FYI: Gina featured the story over at Lifehacker [ Filing Cabinet Tip: Bookmark where to return a file | http://www.lifehacker.com/software/filing/filing-cabinet-tip--bookmark-where-to-return-a-file-243608.php ]. Thanks!

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Excellent ideas and very helpful, thanks. Some things I already knew like NO PAPERCLIPS arrrrgghhh but the bookends are a good idea.

About the staples and shredding, I use a staple'less stapler, like one from Staple Free Stapler from wrappables on amazon.com. I love mine.

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBecka

Glad to have helped, Becka. I love the idea of stapleless stapler! Looks like there are some limitations (5 pages max, doesn't hold forever), but I love anything that reduces consumption.

There's one [ here | http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FStaple-Free-Stapler-Blue%2Fdp%2FB0006VMK8I%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Doffice-products%26qid%3D1173813029%26sr%3D8-1&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325 ], FYI.

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Big GTD fan and I always like new tips. Since I already had a set of file cabinets that use hanging folders, I switched to box bottom folders. They do take up some room that a bookend wouldn't, but it also lets me keep the file fairly "loose" to make it easier to retrieve and file.

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for the info, Anonymous. I had to look up what box bottom folders where - found some here: [ Hanging Box Bottom Folders with Sides | http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FHanging-Bottom-Folders-Capacity-ESS59203%2Fdp%2FB0006OHS6O&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325 ].

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Wow so many people still use file cabinets? Amazing...

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Rubber bottomed bookends work well too, and on wood too!

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Anonymi: Wow so many people still use file cabinets? Amazing... Yep - still lots of paper in the world, more you can argue with great inexpensive printers. Plus, many clients still like to print rather than keep it all digital (e.g., emails).

Rubber bottomed bookends work well too, and on wood too! Great suggestion - thanks! Kind of a mouthful, though - reminds me of "rubber baby buggy bumpers" (a US thing?)

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt, just realized there is the most important argument against paperclips still missing: they tend to pick up loose papers that don't belong to the stack in question. This is why clips are completely banned from my workplace. For the shredding problem: there are still those with smaller shredders that will actually break or jam if you put staples through them, but why not simply tear them off? The paper will be destroyed anyway. The only reason to pull them out is if you need to copy them with an automated paper infeed.

BTW, keep up the good work! Regards from Germany,


April 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKlaus-Otto

Klaus: Excellent point! I've noticed that myself: when slipping a page into a folder it sometimes slides under a clip.

Regarding the shredder, perfect timing: I just burnt out the motor of ours (the automatic shut-off failed), so it's time for another.

April 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Dear Matt~

I appreciate your tips about non-hanging files. I am implementing Getting Things Done right now! The one problem I'm running into is finding the "movable metal plate" to hold up my loose files! I have a nice wooden file cabinet, so the great magnet idea won't work. I've tried searching for the item with the AKA names you gave for the thing, but wouldn't you know, I also am having a heck of a time finding what I'm looking for! Do you have any more guidance! I know this seems like a silly amount of effort to put into a small tool, but as you know, it is often those small tools that can liberate us from blockages in our organizational flow! Thanks a lot, Taylor Pattinson

September 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for your question, Taylor. Hmmm. The only thoughts that come to mind are a) prop them up in the back with something like a box, reams of paper, etc., or b) replace your nice cabinets with good metal ones with good ball-bearings and the sliding plate built-in.

Good luck, and please let me know how you solve it - it would help other readers I'm sure.

September 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

(Adobong Avocado left this)

Awesome tip on the file folder creases. (The other tips were great as well).

Folder makers should have an instruction manual with their products!! lol

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Thanks, Adobong.

> Folder makers should have an instruction manual with their products!! lol

Easier just to hire me ;-)

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Just want you to know that your tips are still relevant. I just bought file cabinets for folders and was dismayed that they didn't have a way to keep them upright. New to me.

May 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTerry

Glad to help, Terry! Thanks for stopping by.

May 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I don't know if you have any suggestions for this or if it's outside of your area - searching around brought me here.

I have a lateral file suspended between two poles, as part of a wall system. When I open the lateral file all the way, it puts forward pressure on the poles and pulls them out of the wall. Here's what I'm looking for: little feet or props (ideally on wheels) that fold up under the drawer when it's closed but then pop down when it's open so you can support the drawer on the floor as it opens! Like little airplane landing gear.

What do you think? Any ideas as to where I could find this?

June 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Hey, Henry. Good question. I have no idea how you'd do this. Are you in an office with someone else who has the same setup? How do they do it? Have you tried calling the filing company's customer service? They might have ideas. If you send a picture, maybe we can brainstorm something up!

June 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
It is very important to select the cabinets depending on the storage folder sizes and shapes. Ultimately you are getting it for storing your necessary documents so, to get it depending on the paper sizes is very important and necessary otherwise it will have no use. Since, the cabinets grabs more space so its usability id very important!
Hi! Does anyone know somewhere (website) where I can order some of those manilla file folders with top tabs, and also the corresponding A-Z file guides, all of the in A4 format? I searched and didn't find anything! There are lots of sites selling those in Letter or Legal size, but nothing in A4 format. :-(
I'd really appreciate your help! Thanks!
September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlexandre Miguel Pinto

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