In this article I will share the way I have chosen to organize computer files based on decades of trial and error experience. I will offer easy and convenient ways to organize computer files and folders tailored for a home office scale scenario.
Whether you are a professional, homeworker, or enthusiast working from home, you are probably heavily dependent on your data. On top of that, keeping it usable and safe is usually your own responsibility when working in your home office.
Setting yourself up with an effective file structure and backup system can easily have a positive effect on your efficiency and your earnings if you own a business. Having your digital work life in order radiates professionalism.
Elements of Data Management
I believe that data management consists of roughly four elements.
1: Folder structure. This is what keeps your system from falling apart. You could say it is the skeleton of your file system. This is where files are categorized and organized hierarchically.
2: File name convention. The file name is basically the index card in a file cabinet. A naming convention enables you to quickly identify the nature and content of the file. Implementing a structured way to name computer files is one of your most important tasks in your data management.
3: Safeguarding. By this I mean your efforts to avoid loosing your data and to keep the content private. In other words; keeping your data backed up and perhaps even encrypted.
4: Discipline. Without a disciplined consistent work flow you will not have an organized file system for long. It takes a high level of commitment to organize computer files consistantly and especially if you are working from your home office where no one are looking over your shoulder.
Folder naming criteria
Folder names share some criteria with file names but are more forgiving in some aspects. Folder names should be:
A: Descriptive and easily identifiable. This part is definitely a common trade. Ideally, the content of the folder can be identified from reading the folder name only.
B: Unique. Whereas a file name should/must be unique on a system wide basis, the folder name is a bit different. You can certainly choose not to have folder names be repeated but in the folder structures that I will suggest in the following, this is neither practical nor necessary.
In the upper levels of your hierarchy folder names should be unique so that you know where files and folders belong in the big picture of things. Once you go deeper you can start repeating folder names and, as I will suggest, you should. The system will not fall apart no matter what you do. Neither files nor folders can share a name on the same hierarchical level, the system will simply modify the name for you if you don´t do it yourself.
C: Ordered naturally by number or date. Folder chronology is highly effective in environments where content is created in a regularly over time, such as newspapers or other publications. In other lines of work, having dates in folder names is often pointless and even hampering. It really depends on the context, but most of all whether creation time is a factor.
D: Consistent. Consistency is another point of major importance. If you have a consistent folder structure you never have to think twice about where things belong.
Intuitive way to organize computer files and folders
What does “intuitive and solid” mean? To me personally it means; “Data You Can Find and Keep”. In other words, well organized and secured files.
Choosing a good way to manage files and folders in a logical and consistent way will enable you to return to your work files years down the road and decipher what belongs where with little effort.
Before you try out new things it is a good idea to backup your files.
The basic structure
The top level of the folder structure can be set up in a number of ways which can be boiled down into two basic structures:
- One single top folder
- More self contained folders on the same hierarchical level
In a home office environment you don´t need a highly complicated way to organize computer files. What I am suggesting is in fact extremely simple.
I have chosen the “one folder” system because I want an easily selectable entity that contains all my work files. I want to be able to select my work files with one click for the easiest possible backup routine. It is incredibly convenient to be able to select one single folder in your backup software. I use Acronis true image for my regular backups where it is really easy to select particular elements in your file system.
Within this one folder you can still build whatever structure you might prefer while keeping your work files easy to identify from every corner of your operating system.
Elements of a one folder system
Please refer to the image below while you continue reading.
1: As indicated, this method is based on one single top folder, which you can name as you wish. If your work folder is placed among other folders, a nice trick is to add an underscore in front of the name. That way the folder will always be the first folder from the top. My personal work folder is named: _work
I recommend that you avoid placing your file system on your main hard drive. Mixing your data with your operating system and program data is not practical. If you are on a laptop you can create a work partition. If you are on a workstation you can dedicate a full drive to your work files, but I will return to this topic in upcoming articles.
2: One of the core elements of my suggested setup is the main project folder. Within this folder you create the actual job folders which then contains everything connected to that particular job or project. This way you have an easy way to backup and move entire jobs to external storage once the job is finished and some time has passed.
3: Not all files belong in a project of course. You are going to need a space for generic data that concerns your business or your hobby on a general level. Hence the “General” folder.
4: Archive folder for your old file system. (Depending on preference and available storage, this could easily be located on another disk)
5: Theoretically you could also include a personal folder in the setup if you want to keep parts of your private files in a place where they will be backed up regularly. This could be things like: Photos, e-mails, documents etc.
Take your time and plan your layout well
Before you do anything you should take a step back and look at the big picture and what kind of folders you will need in your structure. Make a detailed plan with lists of standard elements that you need before you start making changes on the computer. You can choose to try out my suggestions in an empty test structure by creating the main structure and insert some dummy projects and files. This way you can feel it out before making any decisions about which is the best way to manage files and folders for you.
Suggesting all these new things is easy. The difficult part now is how to handle the old files and folders and what to take with you into the new file system.
Keep old file names
First of all I think you should incorporate changes without re-naming any old files. Changing the naming convention on a full file system can be a considerable amount of work. Apart from the workload, you also risk breaking connections between files and projects. Putting time and effort into a full structural transformation and re-naming everything is neither practical nor justifiable in a home office situation.
Keep the goal in mind
Whether or not to bring the old files into the new file system is the arguable part of all these steps. Nevertheless, I feel it is a valid choice because you may still have to do some work in the old structure and this way the files are still an integrated part of your backup routine.
You need to keep the goal in mind though. Working in the old folder structure will be very tempting and also all right at times. But the objective is to free yourself of those strings and eventually get the old stuff backed up and moved to external storage.
Getting files from the archive
Pull things out of the archive and into your new setup along the way when you need them. You may want to move all of your administrative work files such as text files, spreadsheets, book keeping and such right away though.
Remember: Do not copy the files without renaming them. You don´t want 1:1 copies messing up your system. Move the necessary files into the new structure or copy and rename them if you want to re-use them in a new project.
Gradually you will need the archive less and less. You could give yourself a fixed time frame for the migration. After a period of 4-6 months you will probably never miss what is still in there. Backup the rest, remove it, and never look back.
Keep an empty project folder ready
A great way to ensure a standardized work flow is to maintain an empty and fully named project folder structure which is always ready to be copied into your job structure when you begin a new project.
My advice is to always use this structure, even if you only plan to use a few folders. You never know when you need the rest. You may feel that the empty folders are clutter, but it is much faster to delete the folders you don´t want, than constantly having to create new ones.
My bet is that once you try this a couple of times you will enjoy always knowing where to put and find different file categories.
This ready made package could look something like the simplified layout below.
Out of category
Lets face it. Sometimes we are just too tired or stressed out to bother with file names. Surely that will happen from time to time no matter how you build your file system. By realizing this up front, you might as well try to control those outbursts of naming frenzies.
You may have noticed the “sandbox” folders in the image above. This is a term often used in software terminology as a place to test and keep things that are not quite finished. You can call this folder whatever you like of course. I have simply gotten used to this term and many of you will recognize it as well.
I love having a playground like that where I can simply dump stuff temporarily without consequences. Choose the place and amount of sandboxes as you please. You can have just one or several in order to keep the clutter close to where it belongs contextually.
Another similar concept I use is a “deleteMe” file. I use this when I need to move something between programs or little temporary saves. Quite often I even use this within the actual file streams. The only rule is that this file can be deleted or over written at any moment. This can be a real time saver!
Before I move on to file naming conventions
I hope this article has inspired you to do find a good way to organize computer files and do some digital house cleaning. I hope you were able to pick up a few things you didn´t know and that the information has helped you improve your file system.