Getting Organized

The cast party you hosted at your apartment was a smash. Everyone had fun, and no one opened the closet in your office where you hid the mounds of papers that usually live in stacks around your desk. Indeed, with all those piles out of sight, your office looks rather spacious and inviting. Sadly, your little filing cabinet is already stuffed to the gills, so you have resigned yourself to a life of maneuvering over and around the abundance of paper. What now?

Keeping track of paper is an unavoidable requirement of being an actor. Breakdowns, sides, scripts, contact sheets, and contracts are just some of the important documents that regularly flow in and out of your life. Not being able to quickly locate the information you need when you need it can be a small but stress-inducing irritant that over time may erode your enthusiasm for the business of showbiz.

Creating a simple, accessible storage system for your paperwork is a must. Once your files are organized, you will have a valuable tool that can be adapted to suit your needs for the rest of your life.

Folks are, by nature, either filers or pilers. That said, I suspect some of you true filers are currently piling because your cabinet or bins are dysfunctional—drawers that don't open properly, papers packed tighter than sardines, illegible tabs (if any at all). Under those circumstances, it's understandable to consider file cabinets places where paper goes to die.

The purpose of a file cabinet, plastic file bin, or cardboard file box is not only to store papers but also to enable rapid retrieval of them. Hanging files should hang and slide with ease so the containers seem roomy rather than resistant. Tabs should clearly guide you to what you are looking for.

Rather than arranging all your files alphabetically, organize them by categories. Each file drawer (or bin or box) should be assigned a single, broad category. At the very least, you need two drawers: one labeled "Household/Personal" and one labeled "Career." If you have a four-drawer file cabinet, label the drawers from top to bottom: "Household," "Career," "Personal," and "Archive." Inside each drawer, the main category is divided into subcategories with the use of colored tabs. A typical "Household" drawer will contain sections for finances/bills (green tabs), health (blue tabs), auto (red tabs), and general (yellow tabs). That way, if you are looking for your car insurance paperwork, you only need to look through one section of one drawer.

I recommend using hanging files to store your papers. Manila folders, when used alone, tend to slip down among one another. Some folks place each manila folder into a hanging folder, but I find this creates redundancy, adds bulk, and obscures tabs. Every so often you might use a manila folder to subdivide paperwork within a single hanging file.

I am not a fan of using colored files because they require a serious commitment to avoid causing visual clutter. For example, if you are using blue folders for your acting paperwork and you need to add a new folder to the acting category but you're out of blue folders, you must get more blue ones. Substituting other colors will ruin the visual system. A cheaper, better choice is to select a single color for all your hanging files. Olive-green folders provide a perfectly plain background that enhances the effectiveness of brightly colored tabs.

Colored tabs can be created in two equally effective ways. If you want to print them with a label maker, you'll need to keep an assortment of colored plastic tabs on hand. The cheaper method uses the clear plastic tabs provided with the olive-green hanging files; you manually color the paper inserts with vivid highlighters to code them. Instead of staggering your tabs, align them in a single row along the left or right side of the hanging files. A single row of tabs enables you to flip through them quickly without missing any and to add new files without disrupting the pattern.

Files need regular feeding and weeding. Annual weeding (archiving or purging older papers) makes monthly feeding (placing papers into the files) much easier. In January or after tax season are good times to weed your files, keeping current and relevant papers in the drawer and moving archival paperwork into deeper storage.

In your home office, have a container labeled "To be filed" where you can temporarily toss new papers. Then, once a month, schedule time to empty that container. Regular feeding requires you to visit your files and remind yourself of what's in them. The more you visit your files, the less you'll worry that storing papers out of sight keeps valuable information out of mind.

Organizational expert and career strategist Kristine Oller can be contacted at