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.
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:
- 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.
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.