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Reference Files

As Published In Smead Organomics
Reference Files

Publicity -- Smead Organomics

You may have heard the term “desk reference files” before, but what does it mean? This is one of the foundational cornerstones of an organized paper management system — it’s where your most important informational documents life. Not sure how the whole thing works? Well let me tell you!

Reference Vs. Action Files

Desk reference files contain documents that don’t require immediate action, but that you do need to access regularly for reference purposes. Your desk reference files could include:

  • client files
  • financial records
  • phone lists
  • marketing resources
  • product cheat sheets
  • anything else you need to have access to often

Why Most Desk Reference Systems Don’t Work

The trick to developing a workable desk reference file is choosing categories that make it easy to a) know where to put a piece of paper, and b) know where to find it again. The problem is that most people focus entirely on the “where to put it” side of things. They don’t envision the day when they will need to retrieve that file. Then when they go hunting for a specific document, their mind is thinking totally differently than on the day they filed it — so they can’t remember what they labeled the folder. Absolute chaos!

Creating Desk Reference File Categories

As you decide on a category for a piece of paper, there are a few rules to follow that will allow you to locate that file easily again in the future First, pick a category that is broad enough to encompass more than just a couple of pieces of paper. (It’s quicker and easier to search through a few thicker folders whose contents are all related, than a dozen different “onesie and twosie” files which have nothing in common with each other.) Also think about where you would LOOK for that piece of paper when you need it again. This will help you create a logical file label that makes sense to you both now and down the road. Start your labels with a category that can be applied to a group of folders — then attach the subcategory, so all of one category will be grouped together:

  • before — “electric,” “water,” “gas,” “phone”
  • after — “utilities: electric,” “utilities: water,” “utilities: gas,” “utilities: phone”

Finally, choose one type of filing and stick with it. It doesn’t matter if you go chronological, alphabetical, or another way — just be consistent and do it the same way, all the time, throughout your entire system.

The Care And Feeding Of Your Filing System

When your files get overstuffed, it’s time to divide that category into a couple of smaller subcategories. So for example, when your “client file: Marjory Jones” folder becomes too big, you can break it out maybe chronologically (“client file: Marjory Jones 2013,” “client file: Marjory Jones 2014”) or even categorically (“client file: Marjory Jones communication,” “client file: Marjory Jones contracts”). Again, the method doesn’t matter — what’s important is that like documents are kept together, with fewer pages per folder.

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and

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