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A-Z filing versus numerical filing

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  • A-Z filing versus numerical filing

    When reading this and other fora, there seem to exist two basic approaches for filing reference material: the A-Z filing in alphabetic order and the numerical filing where each item gets a number and the title and search index is stored in some support system (e.g. Excel or specific systems like PaperTiger).

    A-Z filing is often used with broad indexes. For instance, I read in examples like having an entry for tax where all tax related stuff goes in, etc. And it was said that you always have to identify the right entry point to find it later again.

    On the other hand, numerical filing seems to give each item a specific number and each item is registered in the support system. These seems to mean that you have a finer granularity of your identifies items. On the other hand, things which belong to each other are definitely not stored together because filing is done sequentially in the sequence the items comes in. Some posts expressed concern in this direction.

    Does anybody have experiences with both of the filing methods? Has sombody done an explicit choice? What were the arguments for or against the approaches? I'm just starting my filing system and would be happy to learn from your thoughts and experiences. Thank you.


  • #2
    To me, the chronological system seems highly organized, but it has the drawback of needing to keep up with a second system (the index) which bears no relationship to the data being filed, other than the time received.

    An A-Z system is much more intuitive, direct, and logical IMO. Its main shortcoming would be that a particular item might logically be filed in more than one place. However, that same drawback exists in the chronological system and it would seem that time spent poring over the categories in the index could be jus as easliy spent actually looking at the various locations in the A-Z index. Plus, there have been severl tips listed to remedy this problem, such as making up a "dummy" file referencing the actual location for items which might logically appear in more than one place.

    No system is perfect, but for me the A-Z system is fine. After all, the purpose of GTD is not to create a pristine system or methodolgy, but rather to put into place processes which actually facilitate getting things done in the most practical, reliable manner.
    Last edited by spectecGTD; 05-15-2005, 10:59 AM.


    • #3
      Use both...

      I currently run both types of filing system because I found there were a large number of documents that I couldn't easily accomodate in a simple A-Z system. I am a Christian speaker and minister and found that many articles, notes and other reference materials I wanted to keep for future use had too many themes, ideas or key words to make filing and retrieval straightforward.

      To give you a quick idea of how I use the two systems:

      - A-Z is used for general household reference and files that have perhaps only one or two reference keywords - perhaps a closed project name, subject heading or title - that is straightforward to recall.

      - I use a numerical system for indexing more complex documents I hold for research or preparation. Each item is quickly given a number and added to a list that includes the title, author, main subheads or thematic/reference keywords. These are stored in a small database application that is easily searchable and can also be hyperlinked to other online or electronic files (see MyInfo www.

      I find it helpful to hold a research or resource index separately and it makes longer papers and articles easy to access even if they deal with a great number of topics.


      • #4
        I have just moved from an A-Z filing system to a numerical system. Even though the A-Z system allows for like items to be grouped together, and is a more logical system, the front end speed of numerical filing makes up for any discomfort in not having related items sitting close by.

        The main problems I had with A-Z filing was the time I required to think through what I where I would look for an item in the future. Additionally, it never fails that the reason I am looking for a filed item is never the same as the reason I filed it originally.

        Keeping a paper index and some prenumbered file folders handy, I can file an item in well under one minute. With A-Z filing, I can label files and place them in their container in less than a minute, but I would often spend many agonizing minutes trying to decide what to label items, and in my mind, I was never comfortable about my ability to find the item again when filed.

        Once a week or so, I enter the name of the file from my paper copy index to a spreadsheet, to include a slew of key words, and print a clean copy.



        • #5
          Originally posted by carrdwight
          Keeping a paper index and some prenumbered file folders handy, I can file an item in well under one minute. With A-Z filing, I can label files and place them in their container in less than a minute, but I would often spend many agonizing minutes trying to decide what to label items, and in my mind, I was never comfortable about my ability to find the item again when filed.

          Have you thought about combining the use of an index with the A-Z filing? It shouldn't make a difference if you give the item a name or a number. Both could be put into the index together with some other information for searching.



          • #6
            People and organizations with really huge files seem to use numerical systems: libraries, hospitals, medical offices, etc. For medical records, part of the reason may be privacy: in a numerical system, you can't find a particular record by browsing. You have to have access to the index, which presumably can be controlled. A numerical system also makes sense when you might have multiple unrelated items with the same alphabetic index, such as two different patients named John Smith, or books about lithography (the artist's technique, the printing technique, or the semiconductor manufacturing technique?).

            On the other hand, my brief stab at numerical filing ended when I realized that I was letting things pile up rather than deal with the overhead of maintaining the index. For the relatively small files that most individuals accumulate, even an terrible filing system that you use is better than a perfect one that you don't.

            Yes, with alphabetical indexes you have to remember the appropriate index terms. But if all your financial stuff fits in one file drawer, it just doesn't take that long to figure out whether you filed the gas bill under "utilities," "natural gas," or "NStar."



            • #7
              Numerical filing

              Having gone through two alphabetical systems I now use Paper Tiger (, a numerical system. I have to say it's truly revolutionised my life, and fits in beautifuly with GTD. (By the way, I do not represent Paper Tiger, and I have nothing to gain from mentioning the company!).

              Within a short time of using it I was convinced that it wasn't necessary to organise papers in the filing cabinet in 'categories'; and a huge advantage is not having to shift all the files around when you add new ones. As long as the retrieval system is good, either a commercial one like Paper Tiger or a self-designed database/spreadsheet that allows a search function, then the numerical system will work. I honestly can't recommend it highly enough!

              Bronwyn Robertson


              • #8
                I know how to do Proper Filing. While I won't bore you by explaining the whole system, I will explain what to do about a document that belongs in more than one file. It's called a cross-reference. You insert a page into the file where the paper is NOT located, referencing where the paper IS located. All it takes is a quick notation on the paper of what document you are referencing, and the file to look in to get that paper. Fast and easy, and you only need to look in a maximum of two places for any paper.


                • #9
                  Filing Indexes

                  I purchase the manila folders with the cut all the way across the top of the file. I think they are called "full cut" or something similar. That way you have lots of space to put a long index name if needed. I hate those "one-third" cut files.

                  Additionally, you can combine indexing systems since you have a large "field" to work with. I put my next sequential number in my numbering system on the left side of the cut tab and an A-Z type description on the right side of the tab, then enter those designations in a simple Excel spreadsheet which I created to track where everything is in the file cabinet. I then print out the spreadsheet which goes into my first manila file folder labeled "Index" in my filing cabinet.

                  Danny Hardesty


                  • #10
                    I like to keep things as simple as possible.

                    So, my first recommendation is one of prevention - only file things you really, really need to. If you can get the information easily again from another source (like the internet) then trash it.

                    I've given each of my 6 filing drawers a category and labeled the outside of the drawer. (Eg. One drawer has my tickler files, another has my general reference files [receipts, instructions, etc] and one has 'Ideas for future' since I have lots of them, one is 'Research in progress'...)

                    Then, it's A-Z inside each drawer. Oh, there's one drawer at home with household stuff organized like that too.

                    Whatever you do, follow David's advice about keeping a spare tape for your labeller. I ran out and the filing is piling...

                    What eludes me is organizing files on my computer. I think I'll start a new topic on that one...