Keep track of your paperwork with Adam Fidler’s five folder system

Swamped with paperwork? Is your desk used as a dumping ground? What’s the best system to use to keep on top of those papers? The following process focuses on just five folders (A4 document wallets). The secret is that every piece of paper you touch goes in one of those five folders – a place for everything and everything in its place.

I was taught this system by the PA to the Chief Executive of a high-profile FTSE100 organisation and have now used it for ten years. It’s never let me down yet, but it only works if you use it systematically.

You may think the system is cumbersome or old fashioned, takes too long to use or that it adds to your workload. But you’ll soon get into the swing of things and follow it methodically, which will save you time in the long run.

You need to create five separate folders labelled with a sticker on the front or a Dymo label.

Folder 1 – Current

In this folder, put anything you need to action. It’s the pile of work that you are working on currently. It could include some typing from your executive or some notes they scribbled down as actions for you to do. Anything you need to do you should write down (otherwise you’ll forget) and all those bits of paper go in this file.

Folder 2 – Pending

In this folder, put anything you are waiting for a response on – for example, if you’ve emailed an assistant with times for a meeting and you’re waiting for them to reply. Or if you’ve sent off an order form for a book that your executive wants urgently, and you are waiting for it to arrive, pop it in here. Anything you touch that is now out of your hands (you are waiting for someone else to action something) goes in this folder. It does mean you need to print out all your orders, notes and emails. But hitting print is often quicker than scribbling yourself a reminder note.

Why have a pending folder? Because if you don’t you’ll forget. How will you remember you are waiting for a reply? How will you remember that you ordered a book for your executive three weeks ago, and it still hasn’t arrived? Workloads are so busy these days that it is easy to get into a daily routine and forget certain things. Putting items away in your pending folder enables you to temporary ‘forget’ the small things, so you can focus on what’s in front of you and what needs doing now – not what you are waiting for others to action.

When the person you are waiting to hear from replies, you can grab the paperwork from your pending file quickly to jog your memory. Equally, when your executive says, ‘Did you get a reply back from Sue Smith the other week?’, you grab your pending folder and flick through it to find the email you sent. This confirms the date it was sent, so you can see how long it has been since you heard from her, and contact her again.

Now, here comes the smart bit. When you chase Sue Smith, you can write ‘chased’ and the date in the corner of the document or email that you have been saving in this folder. This means that when your boss asks if you’ve heard from her again, you can quite confidently say ‘I chased her on 4th May’. It’s a way of keeping track of where you are with things.

If you keep the document (with dates and updates written in pencil on the corner) you’ll never forget it, even though it’s not on your immediate radar. It’s amazing how often you have to chase people before you get a reply. Not a problem. Just sift through your pending folder every few days to remind yourself what you are waiting for, do the chase, update the document and file it again. That way, you know precisely where you are with things when you re-look at them several days later.

Folder 3 – Bring Forward

In this folder, put any papers or items for the future, such as meeting papers or personal reminders. Put them in date order, and write in the deadline on the top corner. It could be papers your executive needs for a meeting, train tickets, or a task you need to complete on a certain date. The dates are the key here – everything is put in date order so you can flick through easily and find documents relevant to a specific day.

Some of you may use a concertina file for this. These have a section for every day of the month (numbered one to 31) where you put the documents behind the relevant day of the month.

I’ve tried and tested using a single folder as opposed to a concertina file, and do find the single folder advantageous for a number of reasons.

First, when you have one folder that’s split into sections with dates, and flick through to find papers for a certain day, you have to flick through all the papers – which means you are constantly reminding yourself of things in the pipeline. In a concertina file, when you only go to the date you are looking for, you don’t see anything else other than what’s happening on that specific day.

Second, with a concertina file, I found that papers tended to get lost – because meetings got moved but the meeting papers arranged in the original date slot. Again, if you are flicking through all papers to find a certain meeting paper for a certain date, then you happen to see the other papers and think ‘Oh that meeting has been moved now’, which prompts you to re-date and move the papers accordingly. With a concertina file, this doesn’t happen.

The single folder gives you global overview of your paperwork and adds to your knowledge of what’s happening for your executive over the next month. I can’t work without a bring forward folder. You can also grab it quickly if your executive has a query about an event or meeting on a particuarl day of the month.

Folder 4 – Your Executive

In this folder, put anything you need to discuss with your executive. When you are called in you can take this folder in with you, and whizz through all the things you need to check before you can action them. Put all your queries in here and do them all in one go when you have time with your executive, rather than doing them piece meal or on an ad hoc basis.

Folder 5 – Filing

Anything you can now file (it has been completed) can go in here. It could just as easily be a filing tray – but if you use a folder, you’ll be more encouraged to do the filing when the folder is full (more frequently) than if you wait until the filing tray is bursting.

If you stick to the system, it’s foolproof. It’s never let me down and it keeps you systematic and organised. In addition, if you often work remotely or from various locations for your executive, you can take your folders with you as you travel around. But, a system will only work if you stick to it. Good luck.

Adam Fidler is the Principal and Founder of Adam Fidler Academy, which offers inspirational teaching and learning for PAs, EAs and business support professionals. His most popular courses ‘Get Ahead as an Executive PA’ and ‘The Strategic Executive ... (Read More)

3 comments on “The Five Folder System

  1. claudette on

    I have used this system for 3.5 years with a folder that can be brought from Viking which has colour coded sections also. It most definitely works and it keeps all paperwork contained in one file.


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