(Not) Throwing It All Away

The organization resolution

Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash

I once knew a professor who had literal stacks of paper piled up all over his office. Everywhere: floor, desk, chairs, windowsills. The stacks were all at least a foot or so high. It looked like a disaster site, but if you asked him for a specific piece of paper from seven years ago, he could reach into the middle of a stack and pull it out. Great for him, but no one else could find anything in his office (including a place to sit).

If organizing your office is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, I have some suggestions. You’ll need a box of manila folders, a label maker, cardboard storage boxes, hanging files and file cabinets.

I’m not some workplace Marie Kondo who’s going to tell you to throw everything in your office out (after all, none of it “brings joy”). Just the opposite: I’m going to tell you to save documents, at least for a while. Not in stacks on the floor, though.

You’re going to think some of my suggestions are nuts. But here at my workplace we’ve been audited, we’ve been stiffed, and we’ve been sued. In each case, our thorough and perhaps a bit obsessive record keeping has saved us.

It’s not just a matter of keeping the files, it’s also a matter of organizing the storage in a way that it is accessible and clearly labelled. If you are looking through four-year-old files for a document, you want to make that search as simple as possible.

The first week of the year, every single year, I take the departing year’s files and put them into a dedicated file cabinet in my office. I find I have to refer back to the previous year frequently and it’s easier to have those files handy. Then I set up new files for the new year.

So 2019 will go into the last-year file cabinet. But that cabinet is already full of 2018 files! Where do they go?

Author photo. Yes, I know I left the C out of “invoices”

The files from two years ago are placed in cardboard storage boxes and stashed in the basement. We have a storage archive going back decades. These boxes include every piece of paper we generate: customer invoices, employee payroll, vendor bills, notes written on desk blotters.

We also back up our computer once weekly and our Quickbooks files daily. Emails, both received and sent, are backed up monthly. Phone messages and emails are kept for at least one year. For phone messages, we use duplicate phone pads that are clearly labeled with start and end dates in black Sharpie; the pads are saved on a bookshelf.

It’s not enough to throw everything in a box and call it a day.

I’ll admit we could start throwing out some of the boxes. We have an abundance of space, so we have let them stack up. But I’d still want to keep boxes going back about ten years.

It’s not enough to throw everything in a box and call it a day. You need to throw it in a box in a way that you can find things later. We keep separate manila folders for each vendor and employee. We save all receipts, invoices, timecards and check stubs. Insurance gets three separate folders: workmen’s comp, health and auto. Each credit card gets a folder. Desk blotter sheets are folded up and placed in a folder each month (only if they have notes on them).

Author photo

It takes time to be organized, but in my opinion it’s worth it.

Recently we received a nuisance summons demanding all our correspondence with a customer for the past two years. The attorneys were searching to see if we’d done the work that triggered the lawsuit (we hadn’t but they didn’t believe us). It was a photocopying nightmare, but we were able to provide a 2" thick envelope of correspondence, none of which included anything they were looking for.

A few years ago, a disgruntled former employee filed a labor complaint with the state, arguing that he had been denied overtime. We had to submit copies of several years’ worth of time cards and our check stubs showing what he’d been paid. After he lost that case, he filed a worker’s compensation claim, saying he’d been injured at work two years previously. But the injury dates he listed were several months after he’d been fired, which we again had to prove via payroll records.

Every store we habitually buy from gets a folder, even Lowe’s. It seems silly but it saves so much time searching for receipts when you need to return or exchange something.

When we were audited, we had to provide subcontractor invoices from the previous year. They were handily stored in a manila folder entitled “Subcontractors.” Tip: if the IRS wants to audit you, they’ll contact you by certified mail. They use regular mail for minor notices. They never, ever use the phone or email. They don’t even have your phone number or email address.

I wrote a previous article about how we handle overdue collections. A thorough organizational system is a linchpin of debt collection. You need the facts at hand: who called and when, the agreed-upon work & price, and any efforts to collect. If you throw out phone messages, emails or contracts, you won’t have any of that information.

If piles of paper all over your office is a system that works for you, by all means stick with it. But most of us aren’t geniuses who can pull the right phone message out of a two-foot stack on the floor.

It’s much easier to find what you need when you’ve put your papers away in their proper place.

Researched thinkpieces on trends and current events. If there’s a bandwagon, I’m probably on it.