How to Organize Your Files…and Remember Where Everything Is, Part 1

filesI don’t keep many hard copy files for my business. The paper files I have go right in my filing cabinet, and there are so few that organization is pretty easy. Most of my data — I’d say 95% — is electronic, and from what I hear this is true for many entrepreneurs.

So for this post, I’m going to focus on organizing computer files. It’s these files we access, add to and dig through every day. It’s these files that can become a huge mess if we don’t have some sort of system in place.

Everyone has different preferences and tendencies when it comes to organization. These tips are just my own tried-and-true solutions to a messy computer and time wasted searching for that misplaced file. In this post I plan to focus on setting up an organized system on your computer. The next post will cover ongoing management of your organized files.

Start With What You Have

Unless you are working with a brand new computer (lucky you!), you probably already have thousands of files that may or may not be organized in some way on your computer. Sure, you can certainly take a few hours (days??) and do a massive reorganization so you can start with a clean slate, but most of us don’t have the time or the patience to tackle that.

Instead, look at how your files are setup and devise a plan that uses this setup as the foundation for your new system. In most cases, you probably have a file structure that works in some capacity, one that you’re already familiar with, so it makes the most sense to start there.

In extreme cases of file clutter, my suggestion is to create a “dump” folder, throw everything in there and start fresh. It goes against everything in my type-A personality to do this, but I have found that sometimes you have to start from square one, create a new system, and then migrate your files into the system as you work with them over time. In the meantime, take advantage of search functionality to find what you need (see the second part of this series for more on this).

Manage Downloads and Temp Files

I probably download and/or create about 100 temporary files a day, give or take – downloaded image files, on-the-fly lists, and working files that I have no intention of saving forever. I save all of my downloads and temp files – EVERYTHING – to my desktop.

I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t that go against the whole organized computer idea? No, actually it doesn’t. My goal is to keep my computer organized and free of clutter, so by saving everything to my desktop (unless it can immediately be filed away), I can’t forget about it. At the end of every day (or every couple of days), I clean off my desktop by either deleting or filing everything.

You can follow this same idea by keeping the Downloads folder as your temp folder, or any folder you prefer. Just make sure you set your folder of choice as your default download folder.

Categorize Everything

This step is where personal preference comes into play because if you don’t set up your files in a way that makes sense to you, you’ll end up wasting time shuffling through them.

I have my files organized as categories and subcategories under Documents. So, for example:

Documents > Writing > SitePoint > 2010

Documents > Clients > Joe Schmoe > Some Project

Documents > avertua > Financials > Bookkeeping > 2010 > February

Documents > Kids > Childcare > howtokeepthekidsalivewhileweareaway.doc

Generally, my file structure goes from broad to specific with categories that make sense to me. You can setup your file structure in a way that works for you with categories, numbers or the alphabet.

One thing I also do to make filing and accessing files quicker is modify the folder names of my most accessed folder so they rise to the top when the Documents directory is sorted alphabetically. I typically use a hyphen as my prefix, i.e. -Important Docs, but a space, punctuation or symbol would also work.

Pick a Naming Structure

Once you have your categories created, you need to pick a standard descriptive file naming structure for all of your documents. The two factors to consider here are: 1) choosing a name that gives you a good idea of what each file is by looking at the file name, and 2) version control.

If you create different versions of the same document, or collaborate on documents with others, then item #2 is especially vital. Ideally, if document-focused collaboration is a standard part of your business, you will have some kind of project management app or online workspace where you can share and track documents. This is the best way to handle version control.

If you tend to send files back and forth via email and then save them to your hard drive, the file names should reflect the version, date or other identifying information so you can easily pick out the most recent file. I tend to use dates in my naming structure, i.e. xyz_proposal_021910.doc. You can also use v1, v2, etc. or your initials to signify revisions.

That wraps up the first part of this two-part series on setting up your organized computer filing system. Read the next post, which outlines how to use and manage your system so it does what you need it to do.

Image credit: Gastonmag

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  • Anca

    Funny and helpfull article :)

  • Anonymous

    From someone with way too many files that are never organized enough, I really appreciate the tips here, Alyssa. One I would add has to do with the naming of individual files. I make a habit of appending the date to files, especially if it is a file that will go through several iterations (e.g., a document I am drafting or other significant deliverable). Rather than the common MM/DD/YY format or even the international DD/MM/YY format, I use the format YYMMDD. This way, when sorted by name within a directory, the most recent version of the document will show up at the top (or bottom) of the sort list. If I save more than one version of the document in a given day, I further append “a”, “b”, etc. to the file name. So for example, a directory might contain the files:

    Report_100217b.doc
    Report_100217a.doc
    Report_100125.doc
    Report_091217.doc

    I find this approach makes it easy to make sure I am always working on the most recent version of a file, while at the same time creating an archive that allows me to revert to or reference an earlier version if needed.
    Joe Brown
    http://www.twitter.com/joe_brown

  • hallodom

    Great idea with the dates and version. Will try that myself! Thanks

  • Iris

    I work on a Mac and I can reccomment Devon Think for the filing task, it works with tags and categories and has a suberb search engine!

  • cookj128371

    I do exactly the same thing—download or copy everything to the desktop. I know that I’m particular about keeping my desktop tidy, so if I put something there, I’m bound to move it to its correct filing place pretty quickly. Since I don’t see my downloads folder in front of me all day, the impulse to clean it is not nearly so strong.

  • Nic

    @Joe Brown – international date format is yyyy/mm/dd, and as far as I am concerned that is the only correct way to format a date so that it cannot be misunderstood. When last did you write the minutes before the hours when you wrote the time? My (version controlled) files are all in the format “filename v0 yyyymmdd.ext”

  • Doug

    I adapted a file naming convention that addresses the points made above and allows you to mange your file system info base.

    http://dougist.com/2009/08/file-system-infobase-manager/

    Doug