business planning

7 steps to organize business paperwork so you always find what you need

There are a lot of stressors that come with being self-employed or starting a business. Managing and organizing business paperwork shouldn’t be one one of them.

Far too many entrepreneurs find themselves buried under documents. There are contracts, invoices, reports, spreadsheets, employment applications and records, insurance policies, and financial statements. The list goes on. From the important to the minuscule, the sea of paperwork seems never-ending.

Bringing some order to your business documents gives you increased clarity about what you have (and what you’re missing). It can also give you a greater sense of control over the administrative side of your business. Plus, you’ll stress less when you actually need to find something.

Keeping track of business documents manually is one option, but it’s not the most organized approach. Seasoned business owners recommend investing in software for things like expense tracking, invoicing, and payroll, according to a 2020 survey. 1 in 10 said they waited too long to buy software to manage these processes and paperwork. #regrets

It’s time to establish a system you can stick with—and invest in the tools to help. Here are seven steps to transform your paperwork management from messy to meticulous.

1. Get the materials you need

The last thing you want is to scatter all of your papers across your office only to realize you don’t have what you need to make order out of the chaos.

Before so much as touching a page, ensure you have access to what you’ll need. These items can include:

  • Shredder
  • File folders
  • Filing cabinet
  • Label maker or labels
  • Safe for important documents

What you require can vary based on your existing system, business, and goals. The point is to just make sure you’re prepared for the task before diving right in.

2. Create a system

Consider this your golden rule of organizing paperwork: The fewer times you touch a piece of paper, the better.

That means you should think through a system of how you want to file those documents before you start sorting through them.

How do you want to categorize them? There are numerous different options including:

  • By client or customer
  • By year or specific time frames
  • By category (finances, hiring, legal)
  • By type of document (contracts, invoices, financial statements)

A good filing system should be intuitive. So, if you’re struggling to figure out the best way to approach this, ask yourself: If I were looking for this item in the future, what would I first search under?

Whatever system you establish for your physical files, use the same one for your computer files. Doing so will help you identify the most user-friendly approach to sorting and separating those documents. Your future self will thank you.

3. Start with one area at a time

You probably have business documents tucked away a lot of different places. Perhaps there’s your filing cabinet, the growing pile on your desk, your tangled web of computer files, plus all of the important paperwork that’s hanging out in your email inbox.

This can feel overwhelming, so make the process more manageable by starting with one area at a time.

Tackle that filing cabinet first before moving onto the loose papers scattered around your office. Doing so means you’ll conquer this project methodically, avoid missing anything important, and maintain a cohesive system as you move through each of these storage locations.

4. Purge unneeded paperwork

Getting rid of paperwork can inspire a hefty amount of paranoia. How do you know for sure you’ll never need this again? What if the ATO shows up and demands to see that receipt from 2001?

That concern is relatable (albeit, not totally valid). But it also means you’re at risk of clogging up your space with all sorts of unnecessary records.

How can you tell what should stay and what should go? Exact requirements can vary based on the type of document, but generally the “seven-year rule” is a good one to abide by.

Anything that dates back more than seven years can likely be discarded without causing any issues for your business.

5. Keep accessibility top of mind

Once you’ve removed unnecessary clutter, it’s time to file what’s left using the system and categories you established above.

As you’re putting physical papers away, consider how accessible you need them to be.

Perhaps that booklet about your insurance policy can be relegated to a locked filing cabinet—you almost never look at it. But maybe you want the client contracts that you reference frequently to be within easy reach in an accordion file in your desk drawer.

Your filing system should help you, rather than create extra hassles. Making these considerations means you’ll store things in a way that makes the most sense for your daily work life. At the same time, rigorously implement the organizational system you selected above.

6. Backup your files digitally

There’s way less physical paper involved in business ownership than there used to be, but you likely still have plenty of tangible documents that you’re keeping stored.

This step is totally optional, but it can help you to give you some peace of mind that you’ll always be able to access the information that you need.

For all of the physical paperwork that you’re storing, consider creating a digital backup by scanning important documents to be stored in the cloud or on an external hard drive, or adding your receipts in QuickBooks.

Name your digital files something obvious. Having a bunch of documents named “attachment_93bsg03ow” will make it impossible to find what you need. Use a straightforward file name so that you can search for and find the document you need without opening the files themselves.

It takes time at first, but it also means that if the worst were to happen—like a fire, flood, or some equally-disastrous event—you won’t lose everything.

7. Establish an upkeep plan

You did it. You organized all of your paperwork. Most likely your first thought is something along the lines of, “Ugh, I hope I never have to do that again!”

Here’s the good news: You won’t have to, provided you’re committed to maintaining the system you just established.

It’s daunting to only address your paperwork when it’s an unmanageable mess. So, if you really don’t want to go through that process again, set aside a little bit of time each week or month when you can get caught up on any paper-related organization.

Physically schedule these paperwork catch-up sessions in your calendar so you don’t forget! Then, honor them like you would any other appointment or commitment. This way you’ll stay on top of it, and avoid having to tackle this same hours-long undertaking in the near future.

Less mess, less stress with organized business paperwork

Keeping your documents in order is one of those business tasks that slides to the back burner—until you desperately need to find something and curse your lack of a system.

Sorting through your paperwork requires an upfront time investment, but will be well worth it in the end when you revel in your increased organization and reduced stress levels. Rely on these seven steps, and you’ll develop a system that makes it easy to find what you need—right when you need it.

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