An In-Depth Guide To File Organization For Freelancers

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If you’re a freelancer, it’s likely that you’ve got piles of papers scattered across your desk, various folders stuffed into drawers, and a digital desktop cluttered with so many icons that you can’t even see your background photo anymore. Sound familiar? A little re-organization might be in order.

Staying organized is important for anyone, no matter what field you’re working in. Not only does it discourage clutter and keep your space clean, but it actually contributes to your overall peace of mind as well. Think about it — even if you only have a few tasks to complete in one day, wouldn’t you feel more overwhelmed by them if you were trying to get them done a messy work space?

A clear desk leads to a clear mind, so if you’re feeling swamped at work, it might be worthwhile to take a few hours to get your space together. Here’s the best way to tackle file organization for freelancers:

Handle The Hard Copies First

Figuring out an at-home filing system is a necessary evil that everyone — no matter what profession — has to go through. However, if you’re a freelancer, that necessity skyrockets. Keeping track of everyday items like medical forms, bills, bank statements, and more is easy enough; file organization for freelancers gets more complicated though as you add the contracts, tax forms, project documents, and other elements that come with this lifestyle that also need to be tracked and organized.

So first things first — start with the hard copies. This means taking everything out of your desk drawers, bookshelves, and anywhere else you might’ve stuffed important documents over the years. (Do you have a closet or den? A partner or roommate’s desk? Check everywhere — you’ll be surprised where things turn up!)

Once everything is out, the real fun starts. It’s time to sort! Here’s a general guideline of the categories you might want to organize your documents into:

Work-related Documents

This group includes time cards, pay stubs, printed project paperwork, etc. Try to file your pay stubs in order of date received. This way, it will be faster to reference during tax season.

Tax Forms

After you’ve submitted your tax forms in April, it’s a good idea to file old documents year-to-year so that you build up a catalog for personal reference. This file system can be tucked away in your basement or closet — somewhere secure but out of the way. This will keep your daily office space from accumulating piles of paperwork that you don’t use on a regular basis.

Housing Expenses

Think apartment lease information, utility bills, car and gas payments, grocery receipts, credit card statements, and whatever else you track that has to do with everyday lifestyle payments.

Client Information

Anything from old business cards to current contracts can be kept in this pile. I have a small box on my desk where I keep business cards. Though it may seem archaic in the digital age, I’ve found myself frequently referencing this stash when trying to remember a potential client I’ve met in passing or trying to recall the name of a new colleague from a networking event. It may be useful to organize these by date, too, so that your current clients’ info is right where you can find it.

Medical Documents

This is important to keep in its own category because the medical field is its own ballpark. Keep bills, referrals, insurance information, prescriptions, and any other important medical documents together here.

After you’ve piled everything into stacks of related paperwork, you can embark on the intensely satisfying journey of actually filing everything away and out of sight. Depending on how many papers you have in each stack, give each one folder, binder, or its own storage bin. Label them, and then neatly file them away in your desk or closet. Feel better yet?

Don’t stop now. There’s still work to do on your digital desktop.

Tackling The Home Screen

Your computer can become incredibly cluttered once you start freelancing. You may not even realize it if you always have a project document or internet window open. But if you take a quick look at your desktop screen, it might be overcrowded with tabs, folders, files, and other miscellaneous elements that could use some organizing.

It’s important to note that we’re only talking about your desktop here — not the internal hard drive. If you notice your computer running slower than usual, you may want to consider going through the internal drive and getting rid of old, large files, or moving them to an external hard drive in order to free up some space and allow the computer to run faster. But for now, let’s just dive into the desktop.

Personally, as a freelancer, I have three main goals when decluttering my computer:

  1. Keep all personal files and client contracts organized.
  2. Make old client projects simple to find.
  3. Allow for easy resume updates.

Because I have three main goals, I use a basic three-folder system:

Folder 1

This is a master folder that houses everything I currently need. This includes all forms, information, and other files and documents that I’m working on or using on a daily to monthly basis. It contains a sub-folder for every client I’m working with. These personalized folders hold contracts, start paperwork, payment confirmations, and project files.

This folder is also a place for personal digital documents like electronic medical forms, digital tax forms, etc., all of which I break up by year (i.e. Medical 2016, Medical 2015, Taxes 2016, Taxes 2015, and so on). These are important to have easy access to.

Folder 2

A second master folder holds past project files. Similar to Folder 1, there are sub-folders; however, instead of labeling them based on client name, I get more specific. I label these based on individual project. This way, if a client comes back to me asking for a logo similar to one I’ve made for them in a previous project, I know exactly where to find it. Overall, the goal of Folder 2 is to avoid stress if a client has a follow-up question after the project has been completed.

Note: When it comes to past video projects, I do not store large video files in these desktop folders. That can really slow down your system. Instead, I only keep the project file (i.e. Premiere project, Photoshop project, etc.) and a low-resolution export of the final video on my desktop. The rest goes onto an external hard drive (that is also labeled accordingly!). As a general tip for video editors, always come to a very clear agreement with your client as to who will hold onto the raw footage after a project is over. Having the final project files only helps if one of the parties still has access to the original video and audio.

Folder 3

Finally, depending on what type of freelancer you are, you may find yourself gathering a plethora of resumes and cover letters over time, especially if you are not a client-based freelancer and/or if you work in many different fields. It’s surprisingly easy to end up with 50+ similar yet slightly different resumes, so it’s important to keep them all organized.

That’s where Folder 3 comes in. Here, I suggest having four sub-folders labeled “Word Document Resumes,” “PDF Resumes,” “Cover Letters,” and “OLD.” The “OLD” sub-folder is key to the efficiency of this system. Whether you get the job or not, throw all applicable documents into this folder. You can even make more sub-folders labeled “[Job or Company] Application.” That way, you’ll always be able to look back at them but won’t be creating unnecessary clutter in your active resume folders.

Kick Clutter And Foster Productivity

Bottom line: As a freelancer, it’s imperative to keep your active work spaces, both physical and digital, clutter-free. The best way to do this is by keeping your documents organized and getting an efficient filing system going. There is no right or wrong way to do this, as long as you have a system in place that works for you — and you keep using it.

I’ve been using the same system for the last five years. Looking back, I’m thankful that I put an organizational structure in place early on in my freelancing career. Of course, I’ve altered and optimized elements of that structure over the years, but keeping the same general system has made it easy for me to reference projects years later, which fosters great relationships with my clients and higher productivity for my business. For the sake of your peace of mind and the success of your freelancing career, taking a few hours to organize your work space is a worthwhile investment.

Trying to keep your day-to-day organized? Try these 10 tips. Looking to update your work space a budget? Check out this Refinery29 video about desk organization.

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