Papers piling up on your desk? You're not alone. According to the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), the number one organizing dilemma for entrepreneurs is getting a handle on paperwork.
"The onslaught of incoming communication is enormous in our society," says Sande Nelson, a New York City-based professional organizer who specializes in helping businesses get organized. "Mail comes in from a variety of different sources, and the results of not keeping it all up can be dropped actions and piles of paper that cause more problems," she says. "A good filing system is a valuable tool to help you get things done and grow your business. It will serve you loyally for as long as it is maintained."
But how to get started? Here are four steps small-business owners can take to create a filing system that works for them:
1. Set it up yourself. "The biggest problem I see is letting [your] employees design your system," says Angela Wallace, president of NAPO. "They will create what works for them, not what works for the business. And an added disadvantage: when the employee leaves, no one else knows the system. Each business owner needs to establish business systems, and then train employees to use the business system."
If you need help designing a system, Wallace says it's a good idea to hire a professional organizer, who can show you some best practices. However, the business owner should work closely with the organizer to create a system they can understand and maintain.
2. Keep it simple. "The key to a successful filing system for business is to keep it simple and clear," says Nelson. She has her clients divide papers into sections that make sense for their business. Each section is broken down into categories, subcategories and subdivisions.
For example, Nelson says "Financial Information" is a section most small-businesses would have in their filing system. "Banking" would be a category within the section, and "Bank Name" would be a subcategory. Finally, "Statements" or "Policies" could be subdivisions.
3. Use easy-to-remember names for files. "One bad habit entrepreneurs make is saying, 'I can't remember what I called that file so I'll just make another with the name I think of now,'" Nelson says. “This action heralds the death of a filing system."
Since files can often be labeled correctly more than one way, Nelson suggests making an index of file names. If you’re still worried you won’t remember the name, Nelson says you can add other possible names for a file to your index, cross referencing them with the actual file name.
4. Maintain your system weekly. Once you have your system in place, Nelson says to maintain it by going through mail and papers at least once a week and filing them immediately. She recommends throwing out junk mail without opening it and shredding things like unwanted credit card offers.
"Establish a regular time each day or week to sit down and handle paperwork," she says. "Only routine handling will keep the beast at bay."
Wallace agrees: "Be vigilant about what you keep. Do you need to keep it? Can you get it someplace else? Only keep what you really need for only as long as you need it."