GTD Reference: The Best Filing System for Busy Lives

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What is the best filing system? Is a good filing system really the right way to stay organized?

The best filing system is vital for success, according to David Allen in Getting Things Done. The GTD reference filing system is the best filing system if you want to keep your to-do list short, and make sure you’re prioritizing tasks.

GTD Reference: The Best Filing System

A well-organized, easy-to-navigate filing system is essential. The GTD reference filing system may be the best filing system for you.

The GTD Filing System Is Vital For Success

Create a filing system that’s quick and easy to use to make it as easy as possible for you to clear your in-tray and keep your whole organization system running smoothly. If it’s clunky and unappealing, you’re likely to put it off and end up with papers stacked in the wrong places, clogging up your workflow. 

Keep a functional general-reference file, which can hold instruction manuals, brochures, articles, membership cards, flash drives, even foreign currency you want to keep for your next trip. If you don’t have a place for documents that aren’t actionable but that contain information you might need later, they’ll clutter up your workspace and your mind, making it hard to keep up with the system. 

If you prefer, you can also digitize just about everything in your files (except the currency) to make it accessible from anywhere. But allow some time to figure out the scanning, organizing, and digital storage workflow that works best for you. 

Here are some tips to create the best filing system and make your filing system a success: 

  • Keep your general-reference files within arm’s reach. An easy and accessible system encourages you to keep up with it and file documents away before they pile up in your in-tray. 
  • Keep extra file folders on hand. Eliminate any roadblocks to filing, so if you have something that doesn’t fit in an existing file, make a file on the spot and keep things moving. 
  • Use your labeler to label files. The uniformity is aesthetically pleasing and makes the GTD reference filing system easier to use. 
  • Alphabetize your files. Instead of organizing files by subject or project, keep them in alphabetical order for simplicity and to minimize the chance that you won’t remember where something is when you’re looking for it. 
  • Don’t overstuff your filing cabinet. Try to keep your file drawer from getting more than three-quarters full. You’ll be less inclined to file if it’s overflowing. If you have to buy another filing cabinet, first see if you have any files you can purge and then accept that if things are worth keeping, they’re worth keeping organized. 
  • Comb through files and purge once a year. Regularly purging your files has two benefits: First, it keeps things clean, current, and organized. Second, you can feel comfortable keeping and filing documents that you’re not sure you’ll need, because you’ll have the chance to reassess during your annual purge. (It may be helpful to put a reminder for your yearly purge day on your calendar or in your tickler file.)


When you’re working on creating the best filing system, you’ll have reference materials. Reference materials don’t require any specific action but might be useful to have on hand in the future—whether it’s menus from your favorite food delivery spot or a list of contacts for members of the committee you chair. You can use the GTD reference system for these files.

Reference materials can be stored physically in filing drawers and cabinets or digitally in computer files. If you have emails that you want to keep for reference, you can print them out for your physical office filing system or create folders in your email server so they don’t clog up your inbox. For other digital documents, experiment with different methods of organizing (e.g. digital folders, the cloud, or organizing apps and software) to find what works best for you. 

There are two types of GTD reference systems: 

  1. Subject-specific, which means you’ll have one folder or one filing cabinet dedicated to one type of document (e.g. past contracts you may need for future reference). 
  2. General reference, which is the catch-all for anything that doesn’t fall into a specific category. It’s critical that you have an easily accessible, well-organized general reference file so that those random notes and documents don’t end up in a pile that overwhelms you—undermining the whole system—or you inadvertently bury actionable items. 

Projects List and Project Support Materials File

The GTD program defines projects as anything that takes more than one step and can be completed within a year. That includes everything from enrolling your kid in school to planting your garden to learning new software at work. The GTD reference system is the best filing system to help you keep track of projects and lists.

Since projects require multiple steps to complete, the Projects list helps you keep track of the outcomes or finish lines for each one so that you can:

  • Regularly determine the appropriate next action 
  • Know when you’ve completed a project

You’ll probably accumulate support materials—such as research, invoices, and other documents—for many projects. Organize these by project or topic and keep them in separate files; your Projects list merely serves as an index of these files. 

You can keep your files of support materials with your reference files in the GTD reference system or in a more accessible location if you’re working on a project that calls for you to consult your support materials several times a day. Whatever your system, keep it as simple as possible in your office filing system.

Waiting For List

Many of your projects will include steps that require someone else’s input or action before you can take your next action. Any time you’re waiting on someone, add the item to your Waiting For list so you can keep track of everything and follow up when necessary in your office filing system.

Additionally, if you’re invested in the outcome of an item you’ve delegated to someone else, add that item to your Waiting For list. 

The best filing system is subjective, but the GTD reference filing system offers order, organization, and mental clarity. What’s important is finding the best filing system for you.

GTD Reference: The Best Filing System for Busy Lives

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" at Shortform .

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  • Why you're disorganized and your to-do list is a mess
  • The simple workflow you can do everyday to be more productive than ever
  • How to take complicated projects and simplify them

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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