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Getting Things Done vs. Hanging Files

After years of disorganization, I'm planning to start the Getting Things Done method as detailed in David Allen's book, which a lot of people here have recommended.  I plan to throw myself into this and follow the system completely, at least initially, because I really want to clean up my disorganized life and stop things from falling through the cracks as they do all so often.

I have been reading the book in preparation for this, and it sounds like a solid system.  However, one thing really confuses me:  What is the deal with his animosity toward hanging files?  I honestly do not understand it and am curious as to what I'm missing.

David Allen:  "At the risk of seriously offending a lot of people who are already using hanging files, I recommend that you totally do away with the hanging-file hardware and use just plain folders standing up by themselves in a file drawer, held up by the movable metal plate in the back.  Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc and the formality that imposes on the filing system."

So here I'm already confused.  How do hanging files take more effort to make?  He then quotes email he received from someone who made the switch after years of putting it off, but other than saying, "WOW!  It's so much easier", they don't really explain.

David Allen then continues by offering some tips for those saddled with them since "at work...side-opening hanging-file cabinets have become standard corporate issue".  This just puzzles me further, since aren't the plain manila folders he advocates also side-opening?  Or is he saying the cabinets are side-opening, and that's what he doesn't like?  If the latter, wouldn't just avoiding that cabinet style be enough?

Continuing, he suggests people "label the files, not the hangers".  OK, now I'm even more lost.  In my hanging-file system, I have hanging files with labels on them.  I don't get the distinction between files and hangers, as they're the same thing.  Are some people stuffing manila folders into the hanging files or something?  His next tip is, "Use only one file folder per hanger", so maybe.

His final tip is to "keep a big supply of plain hangers and new file folders in the front of the first file drawer so you can make new files and store them in a flash".  So, again, we have this concept of separate files and hangers.

I'm honestly not trying to be difficult here.  It's just unlike virtually everything else in the book I do not understand what the benefit is.

So let's compare.  Here's how I (and pretty much everyone I know) works with hanging files:  For each topic, you get a hanging file, label it, put the stuff in it, then put it in the hanging file cabinet.  That's it.  I prefer it to plain manila folders because to use those file cabinets you have to mess around with the sliding metal backstop all the time.  Either it's too tight, or you have too much slack and your files are slumping, etc.  It's a pain.  Hanging files, by contrast, hang, so they are always nice and upright and you don't need a backstop at all -- just hang your file, and you're set.

The ONLY disadvantage I can see is if you're carrying them around the metal hangers sticking out at the sides can be slightly annoying.  But that really isn't a big deal to me, and David Allen doesn't even mention that.  From his point of view, he loves using the automatic labeler, so I could see that maybe he wouldn't like the slide-in labels most hanging files have, but he doesn't give that as a reason either.  Instead, he makes vague statements about their inefficiency.

So what am I missing?

(Sorry to write such a long post about such a simple topic, but I'm just hoping someone can tell me what I'm missing...)

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Wasting time worrying about things like that will keep you disorganized.  All you need to do is "fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run" - which probably precludes wasting time on these discussion forums.

Just as disorganized
Saturday, August 7, 2004

The point is to make the filing system quick and easy, or you'll never do it.  If you can do hanging files and it's still convenient enough that you file something right away as you go through your inbox, no problem.  But as soon as you start stacking things in a "to be filed" pile, you're no longer doing the GTD system.

The point of manila folders is that they're very easy, have no small loose pieces (unlike hanging folders with their plastic tabs and tiny labels), and it's more fun to print a label than to write on those itty-bitty hanging folder labels.  Hence filing is quick and easy and you're much more likely to file something right away.  The filing system is supposed to be something you don't have to think about or analyze very much.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Just as disorganized,

I certainly wouldn't claim that worrying about this was a productive use of time.  But I was just curious about this because David Allen seems to think it's important and yet from the book I couldn't really see why.

In addition to reading the book, I looked at some sites and forums about GTD.  I came across numerous references to people trashing all their hanging file folders, cabinets and all, and saying what a difference it made.  So when I got to that point in the book, I was eager to find out the big secret that made non-hanging folders so much more productive.  Instead I came away thinking, "Huh?"


I understand the point of making things quick and easy (and fun).  I just didn't see how non-hanging files accomplished any of that.  For me, hanging files are a lot easier to work with since they just hang nicely instead of requiring you to fuss with a backstop to find a compromise between "too tight" and "too saggy".

"The point of manila folders is that they're very easy, have no small loose pieces (unlike hanging folders with their plastic tabs and tiny labels), and it's more fun to print a label than to write on those itty-bitty hanging folder labels."

OK, I can buy that, I guess.  But David Allen never SAYS that.  Instead he talks as those hanging files are a dual system where you need hangers and files.  I was skimming through the list of supplies he recommends and came across another reference to this there:  "You'll need plenty of fild folders...You may also need an equal number of Pendaflex-style file-folder hangers, if your file system requires them."

So my best guess is that we live in completely different universes -- in his, people using hanging file systems by putting manila files into the hanging files (what he calls "hangers"), and in mine they just use the hanging file by itself.  Honestly, I have NEVER seen anyone do what he suggests is the norm, with the exception of when they had existing manila folders and kind just lazily dumped them into a hanging folder rather than pull out the contents.

"The filing system is supposed to be something you don't have to think about or analyze very much."

I agree.  And I don't plan to analyze it this much on a continuous basis!  I was just a little puzzled when after reading how getting rid of hanging files has changed people's live when I got to the explanation of why they were so horrible I didn't understand what the problem was.

At this point I'm going to continue with my hanging file system, since I find it quicker and easier than backstop-based file cabinets.

Unless, of course, some David Allen guru pops in to show me what I've missed and convinces me that hanging files really ARE one of the most evil inventions of all time.  ;-)

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Disorganized - I'm with you. I use hanging files, but my lack of organization has nothing to do with that; it's just a cross between ADD ("ooh, shiny") and laziness.

I *have* seen people put manila folders inside hanging folders - generally in highly-structured offices, like legal or accounting offices where the hanger will be a client or a year and the manila folders will be subdivisions (client income, client expenses or months)

Honestly, when I see that kind of absolutism about a tool, esp. without justification, I recognize it's a kind of "Here is my single belief and why I am so successful" - it's like the "leave your desk clean at the end of the day" or "Keep three calendars on the wall" thing. That tool served them well, but it's not a panacea. It's a good tool, and useful, but it doesn't solve the problem.

Fine bookcases can still be built with hand tools - it's not impossible if you don't have a Makita plunge router.


Saturday, August 7, 2004

II 've come to realize that you don't *need* that many folders when you work on projects.
What I do:

* one folder per project where I put everything without too much sorting

as the project grows, it may have its own binder. When the project is over, it stays in the shelf for 6 months. After that it's eiter archived or moved to the maintenance shelf.

BTW I dumped about 100 Kgs of useless binders and papers I accumulated over the years "just in case".

Work by "projects", it's much easier to sort things by projets than by vague categories...

Saturday, August 7, 2004

"side-opening hanging-file cabinets"

In that snippet he's referring to side-opening *cabinets*, not side-opening hanging files. In file cabinets like this:  you can't easily use manila folders only, because there is no back stop. The rest of that section is then him recommending better ways of using that style of cabinet by using hanging file folders to basically support the manila folders.

I've taken a number of tips from his system and have been very happy with them. In my case I do use manila folders with a labeller, but my filing cabinets don't have backstops so I put them into hanging files for storage. I do put multiple folders in a given hanging file, but only as a means of supporting them, the resulting divsions/grouping mean nothing.

Another tip that I read on their website and really like is to start roughing out a project by grabbing a manila folder, opening it up and doing your "mind map" or whatever right on the inside of it. For example, the other day I got an idea about a new product. I grabbed a manila folder, a pen, and some blank paper. Sat down on the couch and brainstormed the product on the manila folder, then went on to do the object diagrams, db layouts, and UI sketches on the blank paper. I put the sheets into the folder, labeled it, and now have a fully planned out product and all  of my thoughts on it nicely captured. All in around an hour, and it's out of my head in a system that I can trust.

In case you haven't seen it, there is a fairly active "posting board" on their site where these kinds of questions are regularly discussed:


Saturday, August 7, 2004

(damned-trailing-space-issue-on-this-board :) )

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Josh - nice plan on starting a project. I remember my worst "Smart but doesn't get things done" days where, when I have an idea for a new project I blow eight hours trying to decide on the software to use to plan it...

Just like writing - sit down and start.


Saturday, August 7, 2004

I think he likes the manilla folders better is because it is much quicker to create new ones. Just scribble on the tab and you're done. Most hanging folders have those goofy clear tabs. Using one is combersome, the plastic cover adds no real value and can become separated, especially if you lift out the folder and take it with you. But you won't want to anyway; they are are unwieldy, having metals tabs that stick out and might scratch the coffee table or you if your not careful.

I can understand why he doesn't like them, some people might like creating those types of folders. I think my wife is one of those people, its like a ritual almost. For her being organized in not an issue, she loves it. This is not the intended audience here. Its people like me, who don't like to spend anytime organizing, that can benefit from this type of advice. If filing something means assembling the clears tabs and tiny paper strip onto the hanging folder after having hunted down all the parts out of my carefully organized storage, then in my case its probably not going to get done.

His pragmatic advice avoids that by making it super quick and gets almost all the same long term benefit as the slower, more cumbersome method.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

"I remember my worst "Smart but doesn't get things done" days where, when I have an idea for a new project I blow eight hours trying to decide on the software to use to plan it..."

Man, I can relate. What gets even worse is when you blow another day or two deciding  that no good program exists, so you'll need to write one. Recursive productivity paralysis is NEVER a good thing :).


Saturday, August 7, 2004

His issue with hanging file folders stems mainly from the fact that when you use them in conjunction with manila file folders you end up with 3 manila file folders in 1 hanging file folder, and 3 manila file folders will have nothing to do with each other.

Yellow "Pendaflex" Hanging File Folder
- Anderson Account
- Apex Account
- Arthurson Account

Green "Pendaflex" Hanging File Folder
- Beatrice's Deli Menu
- Beaumon Account
- Logos


I believe he says that if you're going to use hanging file folders, be sure to use one of them per item/manila file folder, and not stuff a group into each hanging file folder.
Saturday, August 7, 2004

Another point to consider, whichever type of folders you use, is having them easily accessible.  I kept my hanging folders in a couple of plastic file chests which stack.  But as a result, I'm disinclined to unstack them to retrieve or file something...which results in the "to be filed" pile.

When I started GTD, I got a couple of small cardboard box-things that hold a few dozen files apiece, and I keep them within reach of my desk chair.  It may not be a better system than hanging files, but it's better for me, for two reasons:  (1)  Since it's quick and easy, I do the filing as it comes.  (2)  Since its goal is to be functional rather than perfect, I'm less inclined to tweak it to be perfect.

I'm a perfectionist and have a tendency to make huge projects out of perfecting things.  Since this filing system is imposed from outside, as it were, and since it's not my preferred method in the first place, I'm less inclined to spend days trying to "fix" it; instead I just use it.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Oh, and I guess "Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc and the formality it imposes on the filing system." I guess the whole "little white tab / plastic label" thing bothers him too.

I was never a fan of hanging file folders in the first place, so when he advocated getting rid of them, I had no problem with it. My girlfriend still uses them though.
Saturday, August 7, 2004

Check out for some good filing tips.

male secretary
Saturday, August 7, 2004

I believe this is the link you wanted to point us to:
Saturday, August 7, 2004

What else, apart from signed contracts, would you want to use paper for anyway?

Paper is superior to the computer in many ways, but information storage and retrieval is not one of them.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, August 8, 2004

I think paper's ineffeciency is it's big selling point.

Why do I think this? Well, think of the amount of, say, heat or water it takes to destroy a filing cabinet, vs. the amount it takes to destroy a hard drive.
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Put a match to your paper files and a match to your portable HD and see which goes up in flames first.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, August 8, 2004

I would fully expect the hard drive to fail before the equivelant amount of information on paper. Ever try to burn a book? It's extremely difficult because air doesn't get in between the papers.

War and Peace is 3.13 MB (according to Project Gutenberg). Try burning 250,000 copies of War and Peace - in a metal filing cabinet - and then tell me again how easy it is.
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Besides, Stephen, you're overlooking the obvious arguments.

Digital storage is becoming cheaper - the reams of paper and ink required to fill 80 gigs of information probably cost much more than an 80 gig hard drive, or the equivelant amount of optical storage.

Digital storage is more environmentally friendly.

Digital storage is easier to archive, duplicate, and transport.

As you mentioned, digital storage is easier to search through.

Digital storage is easier to manipulate/edit.

You really should be concentrating on futhering your argument and not trying to refute mine.
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Oh, and it takes up far less space too.
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Getting things done is nothing to do with hanging files, manila folders, desk drawers or the static properties of your carpet.

Everything I have is on my desk I don't waste time sticking it somewhere else to forget where it is, therefore I must be getting things done, I might not be able to tell anyone what bit of paper they sent me and doing the accounts is always a pain in the arse but hey, I'm getting things done.

Simon Lucy
Sunday, August 8, 2004

I used to use hanging files with manila subfolders within.  It worked out pretty well for a while.

In the last couple of years, I've taken to creating what I call "project books" - a three-ring binder with a bunch of section dividers within.  Each client project gets a project book.  Whenever I have a printed document relating to a given project, I slap it in the 3-hole punch and file it within the appropriate divider in the appropriate notebook.

It's nice and portable with no fear of anything falling out if I should have to cart the notebook with me to a client meeting.
Sunday, August 8, 2004

I have a stack of manila folders on the corner of my desk, one for each project that I've worked on. I never print out anything explicity for the folder, but it serves as a collection for all hardcopies I generate during a specific project.

For example, one folder here has a few header file (C++) printouts I made, with my hand-written comments on the side. It also has a few pages with an STL tutorial that was particularly useful at the time. The sort of stuff that just doesn't store well electronically.

If someone has a question about a previous project of mine, often I'll browse quickly through the relevent folder, and it helps to get my mind back into that space.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

It's really simple - space optimization.

He is quite explicit that even if you do use hangers, you must have only one "internal" folder per hanger; so he's not saying avoid hangers so as to avoid some kind of chaos induced by having more than one internal per hanger.

The bottom line is, hangers merely add to your cost and limit the number of files you can have in any one drawer (since they add a 100% paper overhead).

But all that said, I use hangers.  I following the book's recommendations for ages, just using the internals, stacked up by the back plate.  I got fed up with it.  Hangers may take up more space, but you can always buy another drawer!  And so they cost more - but so does a labeller! 

Hangers - especially good quality ones - swish nicely back and forth, and make it easy to rifle through files.

Yes, don't label them (label the internals).  And yes, only have one internal per hanger.  But go for the hangers if you want - they're FINE.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Hi. I'm your friendly GTD guru! My name is James, and I'm one of two associates based in London, UK, working for Personal Best. We're exclusivly accredited by David to deliver his material in UK and continental Europe. Those are my "guru" credentials.

I've only just noticed this discussion, by accident as it happens, and I think that you've mostly worked out the answers to your initial questions yourself, but for the record, here goes:

If you're not using hangers, you put the stuff you want to file ("content") into a manilla folder, label it and put it upright in the file cabinet drawer. You use the metal slider to make sure that the folders can't slop about, but aren't too tight either.

If you're using hangers, you put the content into a manilla folder, label it and put that in the hanger - one folder per hanger. You put the hanger into the file drawer in the usual way. There is usually no slider in this case. The reference to side-opening refers to the drawer, not the hanger or the folder.

We have found it impossible to source file cabinets of the non-hanger type in Europe. Many people in Europe have no real choice, so it's just a case of deciding on the best stationery to use with drawers made for hangers. In the USA, people do have a real choice, unless the furniture belongs to their employers.

So much for the "what" - now for the "why". Perhaps I should start with the design goals that we're trying to meet:

1. Radical ease of making a new file / adding to existing files
2. Feeling good about how the system looks
3. Radical ease of finding things in your filing system

The point about goal 1. is that we'll be filing in real time, not in batch mode. So you need to be able to create a new file, or add stuff to an existing file, as easily as possible.  We recommend less than 1 minute should be the goal to create and insert a new file. That's why you should have a buffer stock of stationery near to hand. Also it's not just about speed. We want to keep the level of emotional resistance to filing as low as possible, to keep it real-time. The best way to do this is to trick your brain into thinking filing is fun - read on.

There are two aspects to implementing goal 2. First, we obviously may want to be able to take the stuff out of the file system some time and transfer it to the place where we need to use it. If that's your desk top, then there are not too many constraints about that. If it's putting it in a briefcase and taking it to a sales presentation with a client, then that tells us a bit more about how things need to be.

You don't want to be putting the "raw" contents into your briecase, cos it'll get mixed up with all sorts of other stuff in there. You don't want to be putting the hanger in your briefcase cos the metal hanger bits will shred the inside of the case, your clothes, and anything else they touch. Also, when you get to the other end, you may feel like a dork pulling out a hanger and plonking it on the client's boardroom table. In short, a hanger does not double as a folder for a "wide enough" range of purposes to be generally recommended as best practice.

We recommend you use folders, whether you also use hangers or not, because they protect your stuff when it's not in the file drawer and because they look nice, and we recommend that the folder labels be machine-written rather than hand-written for the same reason.

The second aspect is that you know, consciously or otherwise, how easy and rewarding it is going to be (or not) to retrieve things from your filing system, even as you are putting the stuff in. The only practical point of a filing system at all is the retrieval, and the ease of retrieval stems directly from the standards you apply when putting the stuff in. So adhering to higher standards up front gives you more confidence that you will get the pay-off from the system at the other end. We have found, time and time again, that the extra effort of labelling and so forth on the front end pays off in terms of adhering to standards which make for a well-functioning filing system over a long period of time. Lower standards, even though they take less effort to maintain (and you might think would give us a bigger payoff in terms of goal 1), actually tend to result in higher levels of "filing resistance".

The world is a highly non-linear place, and small differences in input can make large differences in output. There are several aspects of GTD where we find that people either feel "yuk" about something or they feel "yum" about something, and there is no middle ground. Filing is one of them.

As for goal 3 - there seems to be no issue with the alpha sort recommendation, so I'll skip that. I will say that you'll have trouble finding things again if the labels don't stick up above the level of the hangers. Riffling the files so that you can read the labels is not quick or cool, esp if you catch your thumb on a sharp bit of metal as you pass.

The plastic clip-on thingies are horrid, so let's forget about them. Putting folders in the hangers allows you to label the folders, and if the folders stick up a bit above the top of the hangers, then that's job done. Even then, hangers can tend to scratch your fingers and nails as you put things in and take them out even if you're reasonably careful, so that's another reason we would rather be without them.

As an aside, using hangers does take up more space than not using them. The metal bits are quite thick. The hanger overhead (as a % of the available space) is higher when you have lots of slim files than when you have lots of thick files. Remember that David recommends that you be prepared to file ANYTHING - even a single piece of paper, so he's expecting you to be in "slim file" territory. The number of drawers you have is fixed in the short run, so make sure this doesn't push you into stuffing the drawers too full. Get enough drawers so that they don't need to be more than 75% full. Use temporary boxes if needs be -  we can get plastic ones from Staples that have hanger rails moulded into them.

Side-opening drawers present you with the folders and their labels side-on, forcing you to turn your head through an odd angle so that you can read the labels. You may have to leave your seat unnecessarily because of this. We don't recommend using gear that makes you jump through unnecessary hoops, so side-opening drawers are disfavoured for that reason.

Because I live in London, I have to use file drawers that are built to take hangers. I use hangers, because the drawers have no sliders, and no option to have them fitted. I don't use manilla folders - I use A4 wallets that close at the top and down the sides. The gravity in my study works sideways as well as downwards, so I like the closed sides because it stops stuff from falling out sideways. It's usually smaller stuff like cheque books and PIN advices that fall out for some reason. I find that the wallets are slightly slower than folders to use in some circumstances, but the extra security more than pays for that because I don't have to be so careful when handling them. I label the wallets with a Dymo thermal labeller. The wallets stick up enough for the labels to be visible without riffling.

Hope this helps.

Above all, remember that GTD isn't really about filing, lists, or anything else of that sort. It's about how to keep in a good productive state as you go through the day. Eliminating irritants that break your state is important for that reason. If using your filing system can break your state, you need to do some more work on it. If using it doesn't break your state, it's just fine as it is.

The best filing system is one you can use quickly and without really noticing that you're doing it. It'll probably need quite a high "yum" factor to pass that test.

James Daniel
Wednesday, August 25, 2004

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