How I eliminated unconscious resistance using folders to organize papers

Picture of a stack of neatly-organized papers, arranged in groups, clipped together with different-colored binder clips.

Despite our digital age, I still use paper every day.

After all, it has some real advantages over digital:

  • Paper is tactile, which helps me remember what I’ve collected and written
  • The physical filing creates spatial memory, which helps me find what I have
  • Paper is far more versatile for capturing visual information — diagrams, doodles, flags, and more — right alongside text

But digital and paper have something in common: they can easily make a big mess.

Paper: how I don’t make a mess

The point of a good filing system is that you can find things quickly. The more effort it takes to find things, the less you want to use the system. This is one form of unconscious resistance, or friction — terms David Allen coined to describe resistance to using one’s own systems.

Thinking about this, I’ve found ways to reduce the friction in my paper system. I have a U-shaped desk that wraps around on both sides. I’m right-handed, so I have a shelf just under my right desk surface. This way, I can reach essential paper (and related supplies) without looking at/for them.

Here’s my view as I look to the right and down:

A picture of what I see when I'm sitting at my desk and I turned to my right and looked down: my tape, stapler, labelers, and folders on a shelf under the top surface of my desk, all neatly aligned and ready for me to use.

And here’s a look at the shelf from the front view.

Picture of the shelf directly under the right-hand top surface of my desk. This holds my tape, stapler, labelers, and folders on — all neatly arranged and ready for me to use quickly and easily.

This is the front view of the shelves I added below my desk surface. When I let my arm hang from my chair, the lower shelf is right at the height of my hand. This makes it quick and easy for me to grab a labeler or folder!

To further reduce friction, I have three labelers. This lets me quickly and easily create labels in whatever size I need (most often ½”).

The three label printers are also wireless, so I don’t even have to pick them up — I can print a label right from my computer or iPhone!

And of course, I keep a fresh stack of 1/3-cut folders, pre-sorted, and ready to use. I’ve cut off the end of the box so I can slide the next folder right out without looking for it.

The cost and the payoff

Box-cutting, labeler-arranging, wireless printing setup — did all this take time and thought to set up? It certainly did! But that time has come back to me at least 10 times over as I’ve used this super-easy system.

These are just a few of many small work friction-reducing improvements I’ve built into my desk over the years. As a result, I find my workspace very inviting 😊 — and in it, I get things done.

How did I do it?

How did I make over my workspace? Simple. I asked myself:

  1. What do I typically do at my desk?
  2. How do I typically do it?
  3. How could this take fewer steps?

You can do it too!

Re-see your workspace

Look at your workspace. Do you find it repulsive? Or inviting?

I hope this post gives you some ideas how to move towards the latter!