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Monday Master Class: The Wonders of Bare Naked Filing

FilingFiling Sucks

To the novice undergraduate, the need for a filing system reeks of overkill. “I’m a student, not a business executive,” smugly chirps the oddly matter-of-fact hypothetical freshman I’m currently imagining. “Folders suck ass!”

Oh, poor, naive, hypothetical freshman. How little you understand. Every class is going to give you paper to handle — lots of it. You are going to print hundreds of pages of readings. You will have syllabi and notes and articles you xeroxed and study guides. They are all important. They all need to be saved and accessed later.

You will constantly find yourself in situations in which you are late to class and desperate to find that one crucial handout that you absolutely need but know you will never find amidst the post-apocalyptic rubble that defines the area formerly known as your desk. Yes, my unnecessarily profane hypothetical friend, though folders may, indeed, “suck ass,” without some filing system you will face constant organzational headaches.

A Non-Sucky Solution to Your Filing Woes

In this post I describe a system I call bare naked filing. It is the absolute simplest possible way to keep track of paper. It requires minimal time. Almost no thinking. And is incredibly easy to maintain. It is what I use at MIT (after several failed attempts to make peace with labelled hanging folders) and it’s saved my ass numerous times. I swear by it.

Bare Naked Filing

The bare naked filing system works as follows:

  1. Buy a box of 100 plain manila file folders. Put it near your desk.
  2. When you come back from class with something important, jam it in a new folder and drop it on a pile.
  3. Bonus points for scribbling a name on the folder.

Assuming you were able to follow the intricacies of this scheme, let me add two super advanced tips:

  1. If you think an existing folder will work for a piece of paper, stick that paper in the existing folder.
  2. At the end of the term, dump out the folders, cross out the labels, and put them back in the box. You can now use them again during the next term.

That’s it. Though you’re free to customize. (Once, in a fit of organizational mania, I switched to using two piles. One for classes. One for other stuff. Those were heady times.)

The Magic of Nude Filing

Yes, it’s simple. But trust me, anything more complicated and you won’t make it past midterms without resorting to your somewhat less rigorous “toss randomly on floor” method. Every time I’m late to class and am able to just grab a folder from that pile near my desk, and know that it contains everything I need, I give thanks for the wonders of bare naked filing.

It’s so dumb that it actually works…

24 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Wonders of Bare Naked Filing”

  1. @Martin:

    You laugh now. But I’m tell you, the innovation of having an endless supply of folders next to my desk and not having to make filing decisions — just jam and stack — changed my student life!

  2. Sorry, I wasn’t mocking. Just agreeing with the simplicity of the system.

    I’m guessing you didn’t need to use too many folders in the end. Did you end up going back to the same folders after the initial spurt of creation?

    It’s still funny that you said ‘naked’…

  3. My filing system has degenerated into something resembling this in the past two months, but I have to say, I’ve never had an easier time finding the papers I’m looking for!

    I just have to start allowing myself to use more folders, rather than stuffing three or four folders full. I still carry around a lot of paper that I don’t look at.

    In undergrad, when I was taking a full course load, I had an accordion folio that I used for classes and readings. The plastic folios aren’t much thicker than paper folders, but they are much sturdier and far more waterproof.

  4. @Martin:

    I too was being self-mocking. It is a pretty stupidly simple system. But, as you note, and excuse to say “naked!”


    That’s where the magic comes in. More folders than you can ever use. Once I figure that out…

  5. (Not a hypothetical or matter-of-fact freshman) I’m not sure if I get it. Perhaps this concept is a bit too watered down for me/ We put it in a folder and then put the folder where? I’m confused as to how this keeps us more organized. Furthermore, I’m not sure how this is better than keeping an accordion file with everything just randomly put in it. Clarification please?

  6. @Amy:

    The main idea is that you have *lots* of folders handy. The amount of paper generated can easily swamp your attempts to keep things in accordion files or filing cabinets. If instead you always have a new folder in which to jam something that doesn’t fit an existing category, and you keep the folders all in one stack, it allows paper to stay separated and labeled without swamping you.

  7. I’m a junior and I’ve never taken less than 18 credits. I do everything with a three-ring binder divided by tabs. When I get handouts, I stuff them in the side pocket, and every couple of days I punch holes in them and stick them into the right places. When the binder gets too thick, I remove useless papers and put them in a manila folder – one folder per class. I get any *really* big documents spiral bound for a couple of dollars at the library.

    At the end of the term, I move all the remaining stuff from the binder to the folders and stick them in a file cabinet for records. It works great, and prevents both the dreaded before-class mix-ups and the day-long end-of-term sorting session that I’ve done when less organized.

  8. I get it now. When I got swamped at work at Xmas, I dumped a bunch of my agents’ work (that I needed to review) in file folders with their names on it, mainly just to get it off of my desk, so I could work on the vital stuff as it came in.

  9. Hi Cal, sorry if I’m missing something big, but how do we search for something if it isn’t in the topmost files? I seem to see in my mind’s eye a frantic rummage through 98 folders with one sheet of paper in each. And how much roughly is a 100 set of manila folders, just so I can budget?

    Also, thanks for replying to my previous comment about volunteer work! It was great to see how accessible and friendly you are.

  10. @Matthew:

    I’m impressed you keep it up. I start with those big ambitions and end up after a few weeks with a swamp of processed pulp.


    It doesn’t take that long. Humans are great searchers. (My philosophy, I’m always happy to trade minor inconveniences for a system that won’t fall apart.)

  11. The systen I use is similar, and one I’m proud of.
    Each course get a color (usually based on the textbook color). And all paper from or about that course go into a folder of that color. Then I use a clip and put together the folders and notebook(s) for that course. When I’m going to work with a specific course I grab the clipped bundle, and the assiciated books.

  12. I hate this system. I am messy enough as it is. I really do not need 100 manila folders on the floor when I could just buy a binder and put tabs in it…

  13. This is almost exactly what I do to file.

    Inifite manilla folders dropped into suspended files sorted by subject. At the end of each semester I ringbind classes. And every month I do papers, sorted alphabetically with an index page(or three) of abstracts.

  14. Initially, I thought this system would be too messy and needed much more modification to work, but I went for it and wow, it really does work. It took me less than 15 minutes to move everything over to this system. I keep all the folders in a box by my desk. It’s easy to find things and it actually tidied up my work space.

    I absolutely abhor binders (they don’t fit well in backpacks, are expensive, paper always rips out of them, I never know how many tabs to put in them, I constantly need to look for a hole puncher, etc.). This is the perfect solution. I will never have to use a binder again, thank goodness. Even better, when I am done, I plan on filing all my work into a box so that all those hours of studying don’t go to waste!

  15. I have definitely experienced trying a complex method of organization that rapidly filters back into chaos. I love this “Bare Naked Filing Method.” Keeping it simple is key. A couple manilla folders all labeled for different subjects only filled with necessary or important material. It makes it easier to sift through and determine what is important and what is trash. Also the Manilla folders shouldn’t be too full or overwhelming seeing that a lot of class material in accessible online now days. Online databases take up less space and probably less time to sort.

  16. @Study Hacks,
    I’m not quite getting the idea here…
    How do I differentiate between classes/courses/subjects when stuffing papers into folders


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