A good filing system records your decisions about what you plan to do next with a given document.
You win the filing game by labeling documents so that you know exactly what you are going to do next with whatever is in them, without your having to open the file to read anything inside.
Many people sort documents related to where they are in the work process; by their status.
In his excellent book The Organised* Writer, author Antony Johnston recommends setting up desk trays labeled “Inbox,” “Current,” “Future,” and “Pending”… for his writing projects. (<<< important specification)
He labels his desk trays with these status labels — they tell you what the status is, of something you are working on:
Inbox (unsorted documents you need to decide what to do with, what happens next with them)
Current (documents related to projects you are working on right now)
Future (documents you plan to work on soon)
Pending (documents you can’t work on for now, until something else happens — for example, you’re waiting for someone to get back to you with information you need)
We might also label desk trays with status names like the ones in Kanban systems:
Status labels record your decisions about where your documents are, in your work process.
What’s the hazard with these?
Status trays can easily become de facto inboxes: undifferentiated piles of paper that you have to read over and over again, to figure out what they mean for your workload.
Status trays work best when everything in them is similar; when you have multiple projects that are the same kind of project. This way, you’re not shifting contexts all the time.
For Johnston, a professional writer, his status desk trays are how he tracks what’s going on with his various writing projects — but, at least from his description in the book, he is not also piling personal projects, non-work-related projects, in his status trays.
For me, working from a home office with a day job that is wildly varied, I do not have dozens of similar projects. For me, status trays would leave me with undifferentiated piles of bills, package tracking receipts, work-related projects, brochures, and so forth. I would have to re-evaluate each piece of paper individually to know what to do with it; I would be shifting contexts all day.
This is why I use action files, instead of status trays, naming the files with verbs like “to call,” “to scan,” “to review” so that I immediately know what to do with them next.
This is also why I use trays to store materials for individual active projects rather than by status.
I would not be able to glance at a tray labeled “Current” or “Pending” and know exactly what kind of work awaits me in there. I don’t have dozens of similar projects; I have a handful of dissimilar actions.
This is the key, in organizing your work.
You win the filing game by setting up the kind of system that tells you what you need to do next with a document, without having to re-read it to figure that out.
If you’re working on a lot of similar projects, status trays can be really helpful. If you’re not, action files might work better for you.
* The author is British, so he spells “organized” with an “s.” Being American, I spell it with a “z.” Another American, Mark Twain, claimed to have no respect for people who could only spell a word one way.
Johnston, A. (2020) The organised writer: how to stay on top of all your projects and never miss a deadline. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.