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How to Organize Computer Files and Folders

One of the simplest and most overlooked aspects of being organized is getting your computer files organized. Every time you have to explore a document you can't find or have to do unnecessary clicks to access a folder, this is a waste of time. Organize computer files and folders would help you move forward with your goals.

If you haven't been organizing and discarding files as you go, it means your hard drive is stuffed with downloads, unwanted photos, file copies, and other digital dust bunnies. This can reveal itself in slower performance, that unsettling humming noise, and Mac's dreaded spinning wheel or Windows' spinning circle.

Deep cleaning your computer of unwanted files and streamlining your folder system can not only free up storage space but improve your computer's performance.

How to Organize Computer Files and Folders

A folder structure is the way folders are organized on your computer. As folders are added over time, you can either keep them at the same level or nest them within each other for a hierarchy. Nested folders generally make it easier to find specific files later because you don't have to sift through all your files at once.

How to Make Folder Structure?

Here are some tricks that help you to make a good file structure, such as:

  • Create a template: Copy and paste it every time you start a new project or task. Or, save yourself from the bother of manually re-creating your structure over and over again by setting up a Zap to do it for you.
  • Think of folder names as keywords: Keep in mind that you can search for files using folder names to find what you're looking for quickly.
  • Keep folders unique: Make sure there's no overlap in what goes into your folders. And there shouldn't be two places you're keeping invoices for the same project.
  • Make a cheat sheet: It's OK if you don't have every single folder memorized. Then you can save a flow chart for quick reference.

Ways to Organize Files and Folders

There are three main ways to structure your file systems: project or client-based, date-based, and file type-based. There are pros and cons to each method of organizing folders. You can use a combination, for example, grouping everything by project but within each project grouping things by file type or grouping everything by year but within each year grouping it by the client. You should pick the method that seems to fit your workflow best and stick to it.

  1. Project or Client-Based File Organization System
    A project or client-based structure is perhaps the simplest one to use. Within each project or client folder, you keep all the relevant files and documents.
    How to Organize Computer Files and Folders
    For example, if file A is to do with client X, it goes in folder X. If file B is to do with client Y, it goes in folder Y.
    If you've got multiple projects for the same clients, you can either give each project its own top-level folder or have individual project folders within each client folder.
  2. Date-Based File Organization System
    With a date-based structure, you normally have a folder for each year with a subfolder for each month. Depending on how many files you work with, you can also have further subfolders for each week. The nice thing about a date-based structure is it makes it very easy to find files from a certain period, for example, to look at last year's profit report for January.
    How to Organize Computer Files and Folders
    A date-based structure is best when you work with similar files regularly. If you get weekly financial or marketing reports that are the same document, just with different numbers, then it's best. You can't group that sort of files by the project since you'll quickly have 200 reports sitting in each folder, and everything is the same project anyway.
    A date-based structure's problems are related to its strengths. Unless you've got a large number of similar files, then it's overload. Also, it doesn't work very well if you're working on the same file for an extended time.
  3. File Type-Based File Organization System
    A file type-based system groups everything into folders based on what kind of file it is. File type-based structures don't normally work great as your top-level structure unless you only work for one company or yourself and don't have too many files to handle.
    For most people, a file type-based structure works best when it's within a client or project-based or date-based structure. If your client folders get messy, adding file type-based subfolders is a great way to sort things out.
    Again, think about what kind of work you do. If it's just a few things over and over again, then a file-type method of organizing folders might be right for you. Otherwise, stick to using it for subfolders.

Rules to Organizing Computer Files

The most important thing is creating an organized file structure as described above. Here are some simple rules for how to manage your computer files and folders.

  1. Avoid the Desktop: Never store files on your Desktop. It just looks messy and cluttered. You can drag a file from a USB key to your Desktop, but then it should be filed away immediately.
  2. Skip Download folder: Don't let files sit in your Downloads folder. Either replace the files where they belong or delete them.
  3. File things immediately: If you wait to file things, they'll get out of hand. As soon as you create or receive a file, put it in its proper place.
  4. Sort everything once a week: Sort all the files and folders once in a week, look through the files you've worked on that week and make sure they're in the right place. Delete any unnecessary files, and generally stop things from getting messy before they are stuck to the computer. If you use a Mac, there are apps like Hazel that can automate it for you.
  5. Name files and folders strategically: When you give names to your files, give them descriptive names. For example, "Marketing plan" is bad, but "Marketing Plan - Client X - January" is much better and easy to find.
  6. Search is powerful: The Search feature within modern operating systems is really powerful. If you can't find a file by looking, try searching for it. If you've named your files and folders correctly, they will be easy to find.
  7. Don't use too many folders: Having too many nested folders gets annoying. Each folder should have a minimum of about 10 files in it. If you only have two or three files in each folder, you need to reconsider your structure.

Dropbox and File Sync Services

Before we get into the details of directory organization, we have some very useful services to manage the files, such as Dropbox, file sync, and other similar services.

  • Sync services are amazing tools for accessing your important documents between different devices and being productive wherever you are. They're also great for sharing digital files with others.
  • We use Dropbox extensively, but many people use iCloud Drive or OneDrive, and Google Drive. These are also popular and easy to use.

The structures and strategies can be used on your local file system or synced to the cloud if you place the folder structure in the special folder for your service of choice.

Organize Document Folder

Whether you use Windows or Mac, you will likely use the /username/Documents folder on your computer. If you use Windows, the slash is a \ instead of a /.

If you happen to do both work and personal tasks on your computer, you should create two folders to separate your personal and business items. It could look like this:

  • /Dropbox/Business
  • /Dropbox/Personal

1. Personal

A very basic split could be Education, Family, Finance, Health, and travel. There could then be a moderate amount of subfolders under these. For example, if you are managing information for both your children and your parents, you may want to split up Family:

  • /Documents/Family/parents
  • /Documents/Family/Kids

The general rule to follow is to pick a folder structure that matches how you mentally organize things. If you use a task management system, it's probably not a bad idea to mimic the structure you use there.

2. Business

Your business documents and how you organize them will largely depend on your occupation, industry, company, and job position.

If you are in a large organization, you will likely be working from a shared drive, in which case the directory structure will usually be pretty set, so you don't have to worry about it too much.

If you are a small team or organization, it can be helpful to work together to create the file structure. You'd be more likely to have buy-in if the people on the team were a part of the decision-making process.

3. Local Storage

If you decide to store some files locally or if you're not working from a shared drive, it largely comes down to what you do. For example, say you're a business analyst doing project work. Your directory structure could be organized like this:

  • /project name 1
  • /project name 1/wip
  • /project name 1/brainstorming
  • /project name 1/output
  • /project name 2
  • /project name 3
  • /archive

4. Save Time Searching by Using Sub-Folders

Each project would then have subfolders related to logical units of organization, like the type of work, stakeholders, or who you're reporting to. /archive is where you would move your completed projects when they're done. In contrast, say you're an online marketer working from your laptop, you may have something more like this set up:

  • /finances
  • /legal
  • /marketing
  • /products
  • /projects
  • /planning
  • /systems
  • /technology

How you organize your business-related directories comes down to how you decide to divide up your business or job into logical units. An easy way to do this is to grab a sheet of paper or a whiteboard and map out your company/enterprise in detail, based on what you do day-to-day. Then group related activities into logical groupings.

Folder Templates

Once you start analyzing how you work with files and folders, you may notice that you have certain folders and subfolders that you use repeatedly. This is especially true for financial documents, client work, and project work.

It can be very helpful to pre-create a folder template with the structure you want to use. Then every time you come to a new financial period, onboard a new client, or start a new project, you can copy over that folder template. Here are the two advantages for organizing with templates:

  • It saves time. With a few mouse clicks or keystrokes, you have your whole folder tree created.
  • It enforces consistency. You know your folders will be named the same way every time, which means it is more likely that you will save things in the right place, and it makes it much easier to find things with search quickly.

To create a folder template, just set up your sample folder structure. Then when you need it, you can copy it in Finder on macOS or File Explorer on Windows and paste it into your new client or project folder.

Automated Organizing

Once your folder structure is set up, you can gain a huge productivity boost by setting up an automated organization tool like Hazel on Mac or DropIt on Windows.

If you have to organize recurring files and build rules for them, you can use these tools to auto-file the documents for you.

All you need to do is scan or download the document, and your tool will rename it and store it in the appropriate folder.

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