I’ve been making pretty good progress reading (sometimes reviewing or revisiting) a professional book a week this year. Most of the books are teaching books, but I’m always looking for ways to bring ideas from other fields into the classroom, and during the month of October, I found myself on a productivity binge.

It seemed like every productivity blog I read referenced David Allen’s Getting Things Done, so I had to check it out. He, like many other productivity experts, recommends a system, but I find that systems designed for other professionals rarely work for teachers.  Our needs are different.

filing system

If you’re unfamiliar with Allen’s GTD system, you can Google it and find adherents blogging about it all over the Internet. I’m still mulling over ways to make it work in the classroom, but there is one trick I have implemented and it has already improved my ability to get things done.

Tell me if this doesn’t sound like Allen may be referring to teachers: “if it takes longer than 60 seconds to file something where it belongs, you won’t file, you’ll stack.”  How many of us have stacks upon stacks on our desks and almost every other flat surface in the classroom?

Allen outlines a pretty intense two-or-three day process to “capture, clarify, organize, reflect on, and engage with” all these stacks of stuff.  My own, abreviated version still took a couple of hours spread across a couple of days,  but now that it’s done, I have been able to keep the system going for a month, loving how easy it is to maintain and to find what I’m looking for when I need it!

You will need:

  • 23 hanging file folders
  • labels (I like these)
  • a frame to hold the hanging folders in your filing cabinet
  • space in the front of the top drawer of your filing cabinet
  • a recycling bin
  • empty manila file folders (and some stickers to relabel them, if you’re reusing)
  • all those papers on your desk, including the stickies on your computer monitor and that one taped under your keyboard with your passwords written on it

Start by labeling your hanging folders—one for each letter of the alphabet, except X, Y, and Z—they can all share one folder.  Hang these on the frame in the top drawer of your filing cabinet, in order. Then, one stack at a time, work your way through the papers you’ve piled up.

If you’re like me and have file folders that had infiltrated your piles, you can put them back where they belong in your original filing system.  Then, start by deciding whether or not you need each of the other papers in your stack. Recycle everything you can.

If it’s something you think you may need, go ahead and file it in the alphabetical system. I came across agendas from various meetings, created folders for each of the meetings, and stored the agendas there. When I have to go back for Day 2 of the College Board training, I’ll know to look in the C folder. My homework for our schoolwide PD went into the G folder for “Growth Mindset.” I have folders for all my current projects and so any loose papers immediately have a place to go.

When I’m preparing for a meeting with Mrs. Johnson, for example, I’ll just put my notes in the J folder and then know exactly where to find them when it’s time for the meeting. I taped my sticky note password reminders inside folders–N for Newsela, C for CommonLit.

A lot of my hanging folders have nothing in them, but they’re ready and waiting for the next “nonactionable but potentially relevant and useful” information that Allen says clutter our mental and physical workspaces.  He’s right; getting things off my desk and off my mind (does this password need a special character or just the capital?) has made it easier to get my work done.

So far, I’ve been able to find things when people ask and have maintained a stack-free office.  I’ll definitely have to schedule a decluttering occasionally, but for now, I have a place for all those papers I just might need.

One thought on “Clear the Clutter: A Filing System that Works

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