How to organize computer files

Have you every wondered how to organize computer files? I have thought and tweaked my computer files for years, as projects and life's demands keep on changing. On this page, I won't give you "the" way to organize your computer files as I am not a big fan of stating that there is only one way to do anything but hope this page will give you some very useful pointers. And possibly some good practices you might want to try for yourself.

A few years ago I had several lessons from a record management consultant and in all honesty, this changed my life, as this lady thought me how to file and retrieve all my electronic  files. Since then all most all of my digital information is quick and easy to find. I would estimate that more than 80% of my “paper based work” is on the computer, so having a sense of where documents are, is useful as well as saves me hours of time searching for files. 

How to organize computer files – start with some folders

There are many ways to go about setting up your digital system. There are in fact books written on the topic. I refrain from stating that one system is the best. It really depends on how you think and work.

Having said that here are two ways you can organize computer files:

  1. Make an exact replica of your paper based systems
  2. Think what categories your life and all your digital paperwork will fall under

I use option two, because my thinking on the computer is different from that when I am filling paper based items.

In terms of the categories, here is my example:

I have 8 categories:

  1. Finance
  2. Important documentation most of my scanned official documents go in here, as do my health files and my databases. 
  3. Work (for me this includes all the study I do - as I will clock this as work time, the reason why I study is mostly to get better at my job).
  4. Diary this is one of my favorite folders as all these random ideas, projects, journal articles or other things are placed in my diary folder which has children categories for each year. If things evolve in bigger projects they will be moved out of the diary folder and placed in their own spot within the overall folder structure.
  5. Children since I have two adorable primary aged children, who are both doing homework and art projects, I have set up a file for both of them. My folders are all stored on drop box meaning that they can work on their computer and I still have a copy, as their files sync to my files via drop box.
  6. Relaxation this is a folder in which I place books, interesting things and more elaborate personal projects in. 
  7. Digital photos, this is an important category as all my photos of the last ten years are saved here by year and category
  8. Archive – archive is important when say you finish your studies, a major project or when you start a new system.

Point 8 is important;

Rather than going through years of data, create what I call a line-in-the-sand and start with an Archive folder. 

If you need documents from before you got organized on the computer, simply take them out of the ARCHIVE folder and place them into one of the newly set up folders as described above. The only rule is, that if you need a file from the archive folder you take it out of there and place it in the new structure. This will allow the new system to take effect and as time goes on, you will dive less and less into your archive folder and are left with a lean clean, up to date and working folder structure. 

How to organize computer files, basic structure

Your folder structure will most likely be slightly different from mine as you will think about your files differently, this is fine. Simply figure out mother and child categories (as described on this page). As a general rule you don’t want to create more than three folders deep (a sub-folder or sub-sub-folder) unless you have a clear reason. A lot of my child folders are on year and potentially have some sub-folders to structure the information. If you have less than 50 documents and a clear naming strategy for your files, sub-folders become less of a need.

How to organize computer files - create some form of naming conventions

Creating naming conventions sounds scary and very serious, but once you get used to it, it will be second nature and makes that your documents are easy to find.

If you set up a good folder structure a lot of your naming of documents is made redundant. For example; I know that whatever is in the finance folder relates to money, so all I need to do is place a date and some additional information for example stating that it is a bank statement and the date range of this statement. 

How to organize computer files - my personal preference

All my files start with the date; international naming conventions suggest you start with the year, month and day (which does your head in originally if you live in Australia, but becomes easier over time)

A written example: If I have a credit cards statement received on 1 April 2015 covering the months Jan – March I would use the following naming convention:

 <YEAR><MONTH><DAY>_<document info>_<Additional doc Info>

Which would look like this written out: 20150104_CreditCardStatement_Jan_March2015

Several documents with some form of naming convention, look like the sample above. If they are already placed in a logical folder (FINANCE in the example above), it means that documents tend to be easy to find. They are also on date order oldest to the newest. When a new year comes around, I simply place all the documents in a folder called for example 2015 and I can start the new year with a clean slate. This also means that your system is pretty much self-organizing. If you kept this up, you will know in 2025 that the 2015 file with finance can probably go, especially if they are simple bank statements.  

This page hopefully gave you some food for thought in regards to how to organize computer files. However, before you start to organize computer files I would strongly recommend you firstly do your paper based information. Once you have organized your home office, your home filling system, your paper based projects, finances and personal information, you will almost inevitably be left staring at your computer screen. You will know when you are ready to tackle this.

Once you have organized your desk, papers and learned how to organize computer files, the world is your oyster - I expect your productivity will soar to new heights.

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