The Best Way to Manage Files, Folders, and Documents On Your Computer

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your computer is a mess. You’ve got files all over your desktop, the Downloads folder is crammed with installer apps from two years ago, and who knows where the files Jason from Billing needed yesterday. Let’s see how to fix it.

Now, before we dive deep, we need to address the biggest problem with any file organization system: yours. There’s no point in setting up a complicated file system where each folder is color coded, tagged, and cross-referenced with every other folder. It will last about three minutes.

Manage Files

Your first priority is to implement a system that you can actually follow. I want you to go and look in your closet; if everything is neatly organized, nice, you can start with other sophisticated stuff. On the other hand, if you can’t even separate your shirt and socks, then you should start with a very simple arrangement that you can follow. Remember, as with any goal — and we have a comprehensive guide to goal setting that you should check — consistency is what matters most. You can add more complexity later.

With all that in mind, are you ready to learn about organizing folders? Let’s get started.

There are three main ways you can structure your file system: project or client based, date based, and file type based. There are pros and cons to each method of organizing folders and 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 by client.

Let’s take a look at each way to manage computer files. You should choose the method that best suits your workflow and stick with it.

1. Client Based Project or File Organization System

A project (project) or client (client) based structure is probably the simplest to maintain. Each project or client — how you split things up really depends on the type of work you’re doing — gets its own dedicated folder. Inside each project or client folder, you store all relevant files and documents.

What makes project or client setups work so well is that these methods are not too confusing. If file A has something to do with client X, it goes to folder X. If file B has something to do with client Y, then, surprisingly, it goes to folder Y.

If you have multiple projects for the same client, you can give each project its own top-level folder or have a separate project folder within each client folder.

Where a project or client based file system starts to fall apart is when you are dealing with a lot of common files that have to do with multiple projects or the organization as a whole. You can get around the “General” project file folder, but that can quickly create more problems than it solves. Similarly, the problem of duplicate files is almost never answered.

A time you might run into trouble with project or client setup is when there are so many different files that each folder is a total mess. The solution is to use one of these two settings in your project or client folder.

In general, I would recommend going to the project or client settings that are set by default. It’s easy to follow and it will give your computer some much-needed organization. Even if every client project or folder is a little messy, things will be much better than before.

2. Date Based File Organization System

With a date-based structure, you usually have a folder for each year with subfolders for each month. Depending on how many files you use, you can also have further subfolders for each week although that might be too much.

The nice thing about the date-based structure is that it makes it really easy to find files from a certain period, for example, to look at last year’s financials for January.

A date-based structure is best when you perform some of the same tasks or work with similar files on a regular basis. If you get weekly financial or marketing reports which are the same document only with different numbers then that is ideal. You can’t really group files like that by project because you’ll quickly have 200 reports in each folder — and they’re all the same project — so you’re back to square one.

The date-based structure problem is related to its strength. Unless you have a lot of similar files, then it’s a lot of work and you shouldn’t bother using it. Also, this method doesn’t work well if you work on the same file for a long period of time. Did you save your marketing presentation in the month folder when the file was created? Which month did you complete it? The last month you used it?

Think about what kind of work you do. It will probably be pretty obvious if a date based system is right for you or not.

3. File Type-Based File Organization System

The file type based system groups everything into folders based on what type of file it is. This method doesn’t have to be based on the computer’s file type, but can instead use a folder with a name like:

  • marketing
  • presentations
  • financials
  • and its kind

In each folder, you put all such files.

File-type-based structures usually don’t work as well as your best-of-breed structure unless you only work for one company — or yourself — and don’t have too many files to work with. I actually use this method because my work is mostly grouped into writing, photographing, and invoicing.

For most people, file type based structures work best when implemented in client or project or date based strictures. If your client folders are becoming cluttered, adding file-type-based subfolders is a great way to solve the problem.

Again, think about what work you do. If it’s just some repetitive stuff, then this method of organizing file types might be for you. Otherwise, stick to this method for subfolders.

Now that you’ve decided how you’re going to manage your files and folders, we need to talk about something very important: backups. Hard drives can — and can — fail. When you walk into your office one morning, you hear a strange crackling sound coming from your PC, and you can never access the files on it again. Or your laptop could be snatched from your hands on the train platform while you are sipping your morning coffee. Managing files well is not enough, you have to keep them safe.

We have comprehensive guides on how to create a super easy backup plan as well as dedicated articles on backing up for your PC or Mac, using Time Machine, so check them out for specific instructions. I will only give an overview here.

When it comes to good backups, you need multiple layers of security. It’s all well and good to back up your computer to an external hard drive, but what happens if your house catches fire with the computer and backup drive inside? All your data is lost. This is where offsite backups and cloud backups come in.

My system of choice is to store all my important files in my Dropbox — although you can also use Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive — so that as soon as I save them, they are saved to the cloud. It’s not an actual backup as there’s no version and limited restore options, but it’s a great first layer. If you have a fast internet connection, permitted by company policy, and don’t work with terabytes of data, then storing all the files you work on in a cloud service is the best way to keep them safe. This method also has the benefit of making your files accessible from anywhere.

Apart from using Dropbox to keep my data safe, I also use a dedicated cloud backup service. I suggest you check Backblaze. Not only does this mean I have two offsite copies of all my files, but I have the option to restore the previous version and restore everything if necessary.

Finally, when I do something where there’s a chance I might lose a lot of data — like update my computer — I make local backups so I can quickly restore things without having to wait for them to download from the internet.

You don’t need to copy files in the cloud, but you really should have one offsite backup, automatically all your important files are there. Otherwise, you risk losing all your data.

Best Practices For Managing Computer Files

As I emphasized at the top of this article, the most important thing about creating an organized file structure is that you stick to it. Here are some best practices for doing just that as well as using your new neat setup of course.

  • Skip the Desktop. Never save files on your Desktop. It will just look messy and messy. It’s fine to drag files from the USB to your Desktop, but then it should be managed immediately.
  • Skip Downloads. Don’t let files sit in your Downloads folder. The choice is to keep them somewhere or delete them.
    Immediately send files. If you wait for things to get out of hand. As soon as you create or receive a file, place it where it belongs.
  • Sort everything once a week. With that said, every Monday morning or Friday night, take a look at the files you’ve worked on that week and make sure they’re all in the right place. Tidy things up, delete all unnecessary files, and it usually stops being a mess before it gets too bad.
  • If you’re on a Mac, there are apps like Hazel that can automate it for you.
  • Use descriptive names. When you name your files, give them descriptive names. The “marketing plan” is bad. “Marketing Plan – Client X – January” is much better.
  • The search was very useful. The Search feature in modern operating systems is very useful. If you can’t find the file by looking at it, try searching for it. If you name your files and folders correctly, they will be easy to find.
  • Don’t use too many folders. Having too many nested folders is 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.
  • Stay consistent. Don’t give up after a few days. It always takes a little time to adapt to something new. Commit to using your file structure for a few weeks before canceling it.
  • Keep tinkering. The top down system is stupid; they rarely work well. Start with one of the structures I recommend and then tweak it to your liking. Adapt to your workflow rather than trying to force your workflow to adapt to a rigid file structure.

Conclusion

An organized computer is much more fun to use. If you know where each file is stored then it’s no longer a nightmare when someone comes along and asks for this-and-so file from two years ago; this file is in a folder and subfolder called 2016 > Marketing Materials or something similar.

And once you have a file organization system, it’s really not that hard to stick with. Just take a few hours one afternoon to set it up and you’ll be fine.

Keeping Your Computer Safe and Protected During Travel

If you are on a business trip (or work while traveling) you should be extra careful with your computer and other electronic devices.

If a traveler loses his cell phone, it’s annoying and it might cost a lot of money to replace it, but that’s about it. If you lose your computer, you also lose valuable work time and, potentially, confidential information. It will quickly go from a vacation-destroying event to a life-destroying event.

Whether you’re a digital nomad, a traveling writer, a small business owner hoping to answer a few emails on the go, or a full-time traveler, there are steps you should take to keep your critical gear safe while traveling. In this tutorial we’ll look at how to secure your computer to try and stop the worst from happening.

Save your computer when traveling

What Happens If You Work While Traveling

While on the move, there are three main threats to your computer:

  • accidental damage
  • theft or loss
  • and data loss.

When you move from one place to another, there is a chance that your device will be bumped or lost. You may also be using an unsecured wireless network which opens up the possibility of your data and personal information being stolen.

Problems like this can happen anywhere. Whether you’re traveling in Texas or Thailand, your device is far more risky than when placed in your home or office.

In fact, some of the precautions I’d recommend should be used even when you’re just working at a local coffee shop. Let’s explore some best practices on how to keep your computer safe and protected when working on the road.

1. Accidental Damage

Accidental damage is one of the most common problems when you travel with your computer. Practically there are very many possibilities of damage that occurs. You could accidentally spill coffee on your keyboard, drop your phone, sit on your computer, have a dog eat your charger, and many more common and ridiculous things. Protecting against accidental events is the simplest way to make your device more secure.

First, cases are very important—and not just for phones. Everything from your computer to your Kindle should have its own protective case. It is very possible for the device to fall accidentally or a collision occurs.

The extent to which your case is capable of protecting depends on how likely it is that your device is damaged. I have a hardshell Incipio case for my iPhone, similar to the one recommended by The Wirecutter, and soft padding for my MacBook and iPad.

I’m pretty good at maintaining those devices so I don’t feel the need to do anything with Otterbox or other over the top cases. You should assess your own personal risk and to what extent you can tolerate it. If you drop your phone often, then what you need is a thicker and more springy case.

Cases are just one way to protect your device from accidental damage. Your device may be great for everyday use, but when traveling by plane, train and car, you should make sure that your belongings are better protected. In general, computers are more susceptible to damage when you are traveling.

The best way to protect it is to use a bag that has a special section for a laptop. A good laptop bag will have plenty of cushioning, and maybe even a shock-resistant suspension system, to keep your computer safe while traveling. If you work online, your computer is your business so it can’t be overprotected.

2. Theft and Loss

Accidental yak damage isn’t the only threat to your computer while traveling; tourists and other travelers are always the target of thieves and pretenders.

Secure your computer from theft when you are on the go.

The safest way to protect your belongings from theft is to be aware that it can happen. Don’t leave your computer out of your sight for even a minute. It doesn’t matter what city or country you are in, there will always be someone willing to pick up your stuff.

The mistake for too many people is to assume that cities in North America or Europe are much safer than cities in Asia or South America. The chances of having your laptop stolen in Paris are the same as when you were in Bangkok. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that by being in Western cities, your device is safer.

Especially when you travel by plane, train, or bus, make sure your computer and other essentials are always nearby and within reach. Do not place it on hangers or storage under the vehicle. They are very easy to lose—whether intentional or not—if they are far from you.

While constant vigilance sounds great in theory, in reality you’ll be distracted from time to time. Also, it’s definitely difficult to carry your computer anywhere. To help protect it, you should invest in owning a computer lock.

The Blade Universal MacBook Key

A computer lock is a cable lock that you use to attach your computer to something that cannot move. You can’t remove the lock without breaking the computer. It’s definitely not a system that can’t be tricked at all but it will make your computer a harder target to take. If you leave it unguarded in a hotel room, lock it to the radiator or something similarly firm.

A number of older and larger laptops will have a cable lock ready connection. For ultrabooks, MacBooks, and other lower-profile devices, you’ll need to purchase something like the MacBook Universal Blade Key. This lock attaches to your computer and provides the connection for the cable lock.

If you work in a coffee shop or other public place, attaching a cable lock to your desk can greatly protect your device. A photographer at the Rio Olympics has $40,000 worth of equipment stolen within seconds in a public cafe. If anyone tries the same trick for you, cable lock will slow them down considerably.

3. Loss of Data and Information

Physically losing a device can be annoying, but losing important data or personal information can be more severe. A new computer can be bought for a few hundred dollars, but some files can’t be replaced.

No data should be stored only on your computer. You should keep the backup somewhere else, outside of its usual location. As you work, save the documents you create to a cloud service like Dropbox, iCloud, or OneDrive. While not strictly as a backup, what this means is that if something happens to your computer, you’ll still be able to recall all of your work.

Apart from cloud applications, you also need a proper backup plan. As I mentioned in my article about getting your Mac ready for travel, you should leave a backup of all your files at home.

But that’s not enough. What happens if your house burns down while you travel and your computer is stolen? You have nothing left. Of course the probability of such a catastrophe is quite small, but it is not zero. The rule when backing up is one equals nothing, and two equals one. You need at least two backup copies of your data, and at least one of them is stored in a safe and secure place.

One option is to perform regular backups and store them at a friend’s house or safe deposit box. An easier option is to use a service like CrashPlan or Backblaze to set up an offsite backup. With a solid backup system in one place, you should never lose important data, no matter what happens to your device or home.

You can check this article for anti-trick backup strategies for buildings to get more detailed information regarding proper backups.

Another major threat to personal information is insecure wireless connections. If you transmit unencrypted information over a wireless network that you do not know is secure, you are exposing yourself to hacking. Anything sent to your computer could be directed to an attacker.

We covered on how to protect your information on public wi-fi earlier, so check out the post (above) for more; the short version is that you have to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which encrypts and directs your web traffic through a secure server. In this article, we’ll explain VPNs in greater depth and recommend options for small business owners and other traveling workers.

If your device is stolen or lost, you must rest assured that your data will not be harmed. On macOS you can use Find My Mac to find or delete data on your computer that was stolen. Windows doesn’t have a built-in solution but there are third-party apps like Prey that have a similar feature. As long as you have a backup, you can confidently wipe your device from a distance.

You Need Insurance

Finally, if you travel a lot, the question is not whether your device will fail, but when. There are so many things you can’t control. You can be as careful as possible but other passengers may accidentally drop your bag when they pick up their bag. There is nothing you can do to prevent such a thing.

It is important to reasonably know how secure your computer is and to keep it as safe as possible while on the move. What you can do is minimize the damage.

Have backups ready, store your files in the cloud, and have insurance. Often it only takes a small fee to protect your device from accidental damage and theft. For the cost of replacing the computer, you can insure it. Unfortunately the odds remain unfavorable for you.