One of the simplest and most overlooked aspects of being organized is getting your computer files organized. It’s something that’s easy to take for granted, especially when you forget that most people don’t use their computers like us crazy systems-people do. Let’s look at some good practices for keeping your files and documents neat, in folders and easy searchable and accessible.
The advantage of the original paper-based cabinets was that you really had to think about where to put documents so that they could be easily located when they were needed. With computers, we have somewhat lost this art-form and exchanged it for an all-in-one search function instead.
My personal test for organization is this: you should be able to find the majority of your documents without using Spotlight or Windows Search. If you can’t, you’ve got some housecleaning to do.
Note: We’ll be talking about folders and directories on your hard disk in this article. You could easily replicate the directory structures into a filing application like DevonThink, or wiki/notebook-style applications like Evernote and VoodooPad.
We’ll do our best to cover both OS X and Windows in this article. For the most part, the user directory structure is the same as are where you should store your files. The article will however lean more towards the Mac side of things.
- It’s easy to keep your files and documents organized if you follow just a few simple rules.
- Dropbox may be one of the greatest inventions ever.
- There are a number of ways to categorize and organize your personal documents, but here’s a simple template.
- The same goes for your business documents, but there is a logical pattern you can use to divide up your files.
- A quick look at where your files should and should not go.
Some Simple Rules
Let’s start with some simple rules for managing your files and folders.
1. Don’t put files on the desktop
Your desktop is supposed to be clean and display that gorgeous high-resolution wallpaper you’ve got going on. It should contain your trash/recycle bin, and that’s about it.
On very rare exceptions you’re allowed to put a text file or two on your desktop if you’re referring to it regularly and don’t need to file it just yet.
2. Limit folder creation
When you’re creating folders, think minimal. Most files and documents can fit somewhere in your hierarchy if you’ve done a good job of initially mapping it out.
In general, only create new folders (especially top-level folders in /documents) if you find yourself repeatedly coming back to save similar files in the same place, only to find that it doesn’t exist yet.
3. Get used to thinking in hierarchies
Thinking in hierarchies is a learned skill. It takes time to get used to.
If you want to manage your files and documents effectively, you’ll have to learn it.
To borrow a bit of pop-psychology, there are 3 main things you have to know: chunking up, chunking down, and chunking sideways.
Start with the assumption that everything fits into a category or hierarchy of similar things. For example, let’s take Apple products.
At the top, we have a category that encompasses all Apple products.
Now let’s chunk down (move down one hierarchy level). Now we have multiple categories: portable computers, desktop computers, mobile devices, music devices, software.
Let’s chunk down again into mobile devices – you have the iPhone and the iPad. But if we chunk up from the iPhone, we can see that it could fit into both categories of “mobile devices” and “music devices”. This is entirely possible with most real-world hierarchies – things can fit in more than one place.
Now what if we chunk sideways from the iPhone? We end up with an iPad. Chunking sideways describes moving amongst the members of an existing hierarchical level.
Applied to your files and documents, the general rule is that they should always sit with other files of the same, equivalent hierarchical level. For example, application installers can sit in the same folder. Dated to-do lists can sit in the same folders. Personal letters to friends can sit in the same folder. PDF scans of receipts by month can sit in the same folder.
4. /archive is your friend
One thing we’ve adopted at AE is the idea of having a /archive folder within a lot of our folders.
The reason is this:
At present we have about 200+ folders related to posts for the blog. Each article/post/content piece gets its own folder for holding images, research, text and media related to that content piece. When you have 200 or so of these, it gets hard to find what you’re currently working on. So our solution has been that whenever a post or content piece goes live, we move the related folder into /archive. This way, all the pieces we’re currently working on can be easily found, and any older pieces that we want to refer to down the line can also be found be going into /archive.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of directory organization, I want to give a mention to Dropbox.
It is an absolutely amazing tool for backing up your documents and using them between different devices and computers. It’s also great for sharing documents with others.
If you use Dropbox and have a paid account with storage (highly recommended), whatever directory structures we mention below can sit directly in your /Dropbox folder rather than your /Documents folder. We’ll clarify below as necessary.
Let’s take a look at your personal documents.
Regardless of if you use Windows or Mac, you will likely use the /username/Documents folder on your computer to hold your personal documents.
If you happen to do both work and personal tasks on your computer (like most online marketers or solo entrepreneurs I know), then you should really create two folders to separate out your personal and business items.
If you’re using Dropbox, it looks like this:
If you’re not using Dropbox, you can similarly do:
You could also do:
With both folders sitting directly under /username – as long as you pick one method and stick to it, any will work.
If you’re interested, at Asian Efficiency we share a Dropbox folder for most of our files, so we each have:
- /Dropbox/Asian Efficiency
Now how you actually divide up your personal documents is largely a matter of how you mentally divide up your life. A very basic split would be: health, finances, relationships. These would then have subfolders, for example:
You could also do a split by OmniFocus-style areas, like:
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 that you use in there too – just don’t go about creating a /today or /inbox folder. Remember that files and documents are supposed to be for “permanent” storage with files not moving around too often, as opposed to fleeting items like tasks.
As an example, here’s the split of documents that I personally use:
- /bills – All regular bills, dated with company names and year/month.
- /book summaries – Book summaries, subfolders for type (business, health etc)
- /fashion – Notes, documents and media related to fashion and style.
- /finances – Subfolders for banks, countries, types (insurance vs banking vs investments), financial planning stuff.
- /health – Subfolders for dentist, doctor, gym, insurance, physical therapy, test results.
- /housing – By city.
- /identity documents – Scans of commonly used identity documents, like my passport, driver’s licence etc.
- /life management – Documents related to goals, stories, motivation.
- /personal – Various letters and documents (sorted into subfolders), notes on hobbies (e.g., boardgame tactics), miscellany.
- /processes and scripts – Various scripts or directions for things that I commonly do. Think of them as recipes for things that are not food.
- /receipts – All receipts scanned and tagged with date and vendor.
- /recipes – Kitchen recipes in text files.
- /roadmaps – Roadmaps for goals, system maps for areas of life.
- /profile photos – Some profile photos for uploading to various social media sites etc.
- /TED – TED notes.
- /travel – By year and destination. Includes itineraries, confirmation printouts etc.
Similar to your personal documents, your business documents and how they are organized will largely depend on your occupation, company and job position.
If you are in a large corporate-size outfit, you will likely be working from a shared drive, in which case the directory structure will usually be pretty good, and will usually be pre-set, so you don’t have to worry about it too much.
If you decide to store some documents 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 likely looks something like this:
- /project name 1
- /project name 2
- /project name 3
- /todo lists
Each project would then have subfolders related to logical units of organization, like the type of working being done, stakeholders or who you’re reporting to.
/todo lists is for holding your text-based todo lists, and /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 on the beaches of Bali. You may have something more like this set up:
This is actually pretty similar to what we have set up at Asian Efficiency.
How you organize your business-related directories basically 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 bit sheet of paper or a whiteboard, and map out your company/enterprise in details, based on what it is you do day-to-day. Then group related activities into logical groupings – think of it as an organization chart for your job/company, minus the positions.
The last part of directory organization that we want to cover is what files should go where on your computer.
As mentioned before, your desktop is a place to display cool wallpaper. It is NOT a place to store random files, documents and anything you can’t be bothered filing away somewhere.
If you’re on a Mac, your screen captures appear here as do your disk drives.
If you’re on Windows, you may wish to keep a small (emphasis on small) of shortcuts to programs you use regularly, as Windows is lacking a Dock.
Dock / Start Menu
For Mac, put apps that you use on a daily basis in your Dock. This is not necessarily the ones that appear by default in OS X.
You can also space out your Dock using any number of Dock-adjusting applications. I personally use Cocktail (it also does some system maintenance stuff).
For Windows, feel free to bunch your different applications into folders by category (say productivity, office, system etc), or you could just leave it – the search functionality within the Windows 7 start menu is actually quite solid.
Hard Drive vs User Folder
It’s important to make a distinction between your hard drive, which is system-wide and applicable to all users, and your user folder.
In the case of Mac, your drive by default is /Macintosh HD and for Windows it will be C:\\. You should only keep files here if you have a single-user computer, or if you want all users on your computer to have access to them.
In general, keep your documents and files in a subdirectory within your user directory (/Users/username on Mac and C:\\Users\\username on Windows)
Both Windows and OS X have a user folder system so everything below applies to both (except maybe Applications). I don’t personally use Windows all that much, so there may be some variation there.
The user folder looks something like /Users/aaron, and contains multiple other folders:
- Applications. This should be empty unless you have user-specific apps. The places link in your Finder window usually links to /Macintosh HD/Applications.
- Desktop. See above.
- Documents. By default, this is where your documents will go. Various applications (particularly those by Microsoft and Adobe) also like to create various folders here.
- Downloads. Downloads is usually where various browsers save files for you to. Think of this as your “inbox” for incoming files – files should start here, but they should not stay here. You may want to create a small folder structure here of to differentiate various types of files, e.g., /apps for application packages/installers and /system for storing your Windows drivers.
- Dropbox. If you’re using Dropbox, treat this folder the same as your documents folder. The thing to remember is that some of your Dropbox folders will be shared with other people if you set them up that way, and having a lot of them can clutter up your document tree. We suggest creating a Documents folder within your /Dropbox folder for your personal documents and starting your personal document hierarchy there.
- Movies. iMove may create some files here.
- Music. iTunes and Garageband may create some files here. This is likely where you also store your music files.
- Pictures. iPhoto will store you library here by default.
- Public. Use this folder to share files with other users on your computer.
We hope you’ve picked up some ideas from this article that will help you better organize your documents and files. As long as you follow the rules in the beginning and set up an effective hierarchy, file and directory organization is a breeze.
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Photo by: jenni from the block