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How to Organize Your Digital Files

organize computer files

The dream of a paperless society hasn’t quite happened, but most of us are keeping more information than ever before in digital format. While this is great for reducing the amount of paper we need to manage, it’s created the new problem of digital clutter. I get asked a lot about best practices for organizing digital files, so here are some tips for setting up a system that works:

1. Store everything in your Documents folder - Is your computer desktop cluttered with files? Keeping things there is similar to storing your books scattered all over the floor. There is a Documents folder on your computer, so use it! This should be where all your digital files reside. If you don’t want to go hunting for it, create a shortcut on your desktop to access it quickly.

You might instead be storing your documents in a cloud/online location like Dropbox or Google Drive. If that’s the case you can apply these tips to your home page where your files are stored.

2. Name your files appropriately - The key to finding the information you need is to properly name your files. This means making them specific enough to distinguish them from other similar files and including the information you will likely use to search for them. Aim for file names that are just descriptive enough to indicate what they are without being overly long.

I often download client invoices to my desktop, so I end up with lots of documents that are named “invoice_date”. Having only the date is not enough information for me to find them later, so I rename my invoices to include the client’s last name (they then read “Smith_invoice_date”) and file them in the client’s folder.

3. Use a few big-picture categories - Organizing digital files is not that different from organizing paper files. Start with a few big categories, such as HOME, FINANCE, PERSONAL, MEDICAL, etc. The categories you use will be dictated by the types of files you need to organize. If you use your computer for both personal and professional work, you might want to create one initial division of files to keep these separate and then big categories within each. A desktop shortcut to your work and personal documents can also help you quickly get to the files you need.

4. Create subfolders where needed - Once you have your big-picture folders set up, start moving files into them. You will likely notice groupings of similar files piling up in each, and that is a good place to create a subfolder. For example, you may have a RECIPES folder, and as you start moving files in you have a bunch of dessert recipes that could become their own category. Create a DESSERT subfolder to keep RECIPES uncluttered.

I find that once a folder contains more than 15 files it becomes difficult to find what I need at a glance and some of the documents can be placed in a subfolder. Don’t get too crazy adding subfolders within subfolders, however, as that can make it more confusing to navigate.

5. Tweak the system - Do you find you’re always looking for a file in one folder when it’s stored somewhere else? That’s a cue that you’re storing it in the wrong spot. Filing is a very personal thing, and it’s all about what makes sense to you. It will take some trial and error to figure out the best location for your digital items, so move things around if you are not finding them easily.

There is the option to use the search function on your computer or application when locating a file. I don’t think this is the most efficient way to find things so I only use it as a last-ditch effort. If I am always using search for a particular file, that indicates I haven’t filed it in the right spot for me and I try to relocate it.

6. Clean out and archive old files regularly - The less information you have to organize, the easier it will be, so mark a date in your calendar every 6 or 12 months to review your digital files and delete the ones no longer needed. You can also create an ARCHIVE folder to store files you might want to access later but don’t want clogging up your current folders.

7. Backup (and then backup again) - I can’t stress enough the importance of backing up files that you store locally on your computer! Hardware will fail at some point and you want your important information protected from such an event. There are a number of cloud-based storage options such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud where you can purchase the amount of space you need. Other popular backup services include Backblaze, Carbonite, or Crashplan. Whatever you use, make sure you can automate backups so you will have peace of mind without having to remember to do it manually.

If you found these tips helpful be sure to subscribe to the Pretty Neat weekly email! You'll get a short and sweet message each week with my best advice for a more beautiful and functional home. Click here to sign up, and you'll also receive my FREE guide: How to Get Rid of Stuff!

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