If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your computer is a mess. You’ve got files all over your desktop, a Downloads folder crammed with app installers from two years ago, and who knows where the file that Jason from Billings needed yesterday is. Let’s look at how to fix it.
Now, before diving in we need to address the biggest problem with any file organization system: you. There’s no point setting up an intricate file system where every folder is colour coded, tagged, and cross referenced with every other folder. It'll last about three minutes.
Your first priority, then, is to implement a system you can actually stick to. I want you to go and look in your closet; if everything is neatly organized, great, you can start with the advanced stuff. On the other hand, if you can’t even keep your shirts and your socks separate, then you need to start with a really simple set up that you'll be able to stick to. Remember, like with any goal—and we've got a full guide to goal setting you should check out—consistency is the most important thing. You can add more complexity later.
With that out of the way, are you ready to learn about organizing folders? Let’s get started.
How to Organize Computer Files: Decide on a Structure
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 it by client.
Let’s look each way to organize computer files. 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 to stick to. Every project or client—how you split things up really depends on what sort of work you do—gets its own dedicated folder. Within each project or client folder, you keep all the relevant files and documents.
What makes a project or client set up work so well is that it’s brainless. If file A is to do with client X, it goes in folder X. If file B is to do with client Y, then, shockingly, 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.
Where a project or client-based file system starts to fall apart is when you deal with a lot of general files that have to do with multiple projects or the organization as a whole. You can shave a “General” project file folder, but that can quickly create more problems than it solves. Similarly, duplicate files are almost never the answer.
The other time you might run into difficulties with a project or client set up is when there are lots of different files so each folder is a total mess. The solution there is to use one of the two following set ups within your project or client folders.
In general, I’d recommend going with a project or client set up by default. It’s so simple to stick to and it'll give your computer a bit of much needed organization. Even if each project or client folder is a little bit messy, things will be a lot better than they were.
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 although it’s probably over kill.
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 financials for January.
A date-based structure is at its best when you do the same few tasks or work with similar files on a regular basis. If you get weekly financial or marketing reports that are the same document just with different numbers then it’s ideal. You can’t really group that sort of files by project since you’ll quickly have 200 reports sitting in each folder—and everything is the same project anyway—so you’re back to square one.
A date-based structure’s problems are related to its strengths. Unless you've got a large number of similar files then it’s overkill and you won’t be bothered to stick with it. Also, it doesn’t work very well if you’re working on the same file for an extended period of time. Do you leave the marketing presentation in the folder for the month it was created in? The month you finished it in? The month you last used it in?
Think over what kind of work you do. It'll probably be very obvious if a date-based system is right for you or not.
3. File Type-Based File Organization System
A file type-based system groups everything into folders based on what kind of file it is. This doesn’t strictly have to be by computer file type, but instead can use folders with names like:
- and the like
Within each folder, you put all the files of that kind.
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. I actually use one since my work is largely grouped into writing, photographing, and invoicing.
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 are getting 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.
One Is None and Two Is One: Backups
Now that you’ve decided how you’re going to organize your files and folders, we need to talk about something very important: backups. Hard drives can—and do—fail. You can walk into your office one morning, hear a strange crunching sound from your PC, and never be able to access the files on it again. Or you could get your laptop snatched from your hand on a train platform while you take a sip of your morning coffee. Just having your files well organized isn’t enough, you need to keep them safe.
We've got a full guide on how to create a foolproof back up plan as well as specific articles on backing up your PC or Mac, using Time Machine, so check those articles out for specific instructions. I’m just going to give a general overview here.
When it comes to good backups, you need multiple layers of security. It’s all well and good to back your computer up to an external hard drive, but what happens if your house burns down with both your computer and backup drive inside? All your data is gone. This is where offsite backups and cloud backups come in.
My preferred system is to keep 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’re saved to the cloud. This isn’t a true backup since there’s no versioning and limited recovery options, but it’s a great first layer. If you've got a fast internet connection, are allowed by corporate policy, and don’t work with terabytes of data, then just keeping all the files you work on in a cloud service is a great way to keep it safe. It also has the benefit of making your files accessible from anywhere.
As well as using Dropbox to keep my data secure, I also use a dedicated cloud backup service. I’d recommend you check out Backblaze. Not only does this mean I've got two offsite copies of all my files, but I've got the option to restore previous versions and restore everything if needs be.
Finally, when I’m doing something where there’s a chance I might lose a lot of data—like updating my computer—I create a local backup so I can quickly restore things without having to wait for them to download from the internet.
You don’t have to copy my exact backup plan but you really should have one offsite, automatic backup of all your important files in place. If you don’t, you risk losing all your data.
Best Practices For Organizing Computer Files
As I stressed 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 and also using your new, neat set up.
- Skip the Desktop. Never ever store files on your Desktop. It just looks messy and cluttered. It’s okay to drag a file from a USB key to your Desktop, but then it should be filed away immediately.
- Skip Downloads. Don’t let files sit in your Downloads folder. Either file them where they belong or delete them.
- 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.
- Sort everything once a week. With that said, either every Monday morning or Friday evening, look through the files you’ve worked on that week and make sure they’re in the right place. Tidy things up, delete any unnecessary files, and generally stop things getting messy before they get too bad. If you use a Mac, there are apps like Hazel that can automate it for you.
- Use descriptive names. When you’re naming your files, give them descriptive names. “Marketing plan” is bad. “Marketing Plan - Client X - January” is much better.
- 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, it will be easy to find.
- 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.
- Stick with it. Don’t just 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 couple of weeks before scrapping it.
- Keep tweaking. Top down systems are stupid; they rarely work. Start with one of the structures I recommend and then tweak it as you go. Adapt it to your workflow rather than trying to force your workflow to adapt to a rigid file structure.
An organized computer is much more pleasant to use. If you know where every file is stored then it’s no longer a nightmare when someone comes and asks for such-and-such file from two years ago; it’s sitting in a folder and subfolder called 2016 > Marketing Materials or the like.
And once you've got a file organization system in place it’s really not that hard to stick to. Just take a few hours one afternoon to set it up and you’ll be good to go.