Mar 2005 Table of Contents

BALANCING ACT

How to Become a Defensive Filer

Saving information you don’t need could be costing you more than you think.

Fam Pract Manag. 2005 Mar;12(3):90.

Physician offices are busy places that can quickly become disorganized and overloaded with information coming from all directions. The single most important step you can take to streamline and organize your office is to get rid of documents you do not need – in other words, documents that do not deserve a home in your files. A document should have to earn its way into your filing system.

Which documents do I really need?

Storing files, whether paper or electronic, takes your time and space. If you don’t organize them, they will take your sanity. Some documents, such as tax returns and patient records, are obvious keepers. But what should you do with all of those in-house memos, reports, letters, faxes and journal articles – documents you probably haven’t consulted lately but think you may need someday?

I recommend that you become a “defensive filer.” To do this, approach your files like you approach your refrigerator. Your refrigerator is essentially a food filing cabinet where you practice defensive filing every day. You store food there that you plan to retrieve later. Some foods are staples, some foods are leftovers and some foods are smuggled treats you hide for yourself. All three categories are acceptable, but they won’t last forever. Just like food, information has a “use-by” date. It expires if you let it sit too long, especially in a field based on scientific discoveries and clinical studies.

Additionally, if you cram your refrigerator with too much food that you think you might need someday, you’ll have a hard time finding what you need when you need it. Storing unnecessary food is not cost-effective, either. It wastes money to buy more food than your household can realistically consume. It also wastes cabinet space and time spent shopping, stocking, sorting and rearranging. Your files work the same way.

Ask the right questions

To prevent the accumulation of expired or expendable information, evaluate your documents before filing. Here are four important screening questions to ask yourself about any information, whether paper-based or electronic:

1. Where else can I get this information? If others are already devoting their time, storage space and materials to preserve, update and catalog this information in their files, you don’t need to do the same. Let them pay to maintain it.

2. What is the expiration date on this information? Medical information is subject to frequent revision. Don’t save something that will be outdated by the time you file it. Instead, learn where you can access the most current version. It may be faster to check reliable medical Web sites for fresh information than to dig through your own outdated articles.

3. How often do I use this particular information? Some information can be classified as a staple. You know from experience that you will always need it on hand. For example, if you use a certain reference frequently and it’s quicker to pull it from your files than to keep looking the information up, then file it.

4. Am I waffling over whether to keep this information in my files? If the answer is “yes,” then toss it. If you can’t immediately make a strong case for spending the time and money to file a certain piece of information, you probably don’t need it. By discarding it, you’ll be able to find essential information more quickly.

Make it a habit

Just as your kitchen is not meant to function as a grocery store, your office is not meant to function as an archive. Defensive filing can be a valuable skill that will save you time, space and money in the long run. Putting in the extra effort now will pay off the next time you need quick access to an important document in your office – or those hidden treats in the fridge.

Anna Cox-Havron is a professional organizer. Her company, The File Factor, LLC, specializes in time management, workflow analysis and office organization for businesses and professionals.

Conflicts of interest: none reported.

Send comments to fpmedit@aafp.org.

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