We asked a number of bloggers to share their tips for keeping their computer organized. The answers fall into two camps. One group prefers a good folder hierarchy while the other prefers no hierarchy and just uses search. I use the latter method for my email, but I’m still getting a lot of benefit from my file folder structure.
What is your most important tip for keeping your computer hard drive organized? (837)
A folder structure that makes sense is essential. I’ve seen people with a folder called “Work” and a folder called “Personal” and nothing more, each containing hundreds or thousands of files without any semblance of organization. I’ve also seen structures with more folders than there are files.
It’s important to find a way to separate data into folders that tell you where things are intuitively without going overboard to the point where it gets confusing and takes ten minutes to find a spot to save your file!
http://www.joelfalconer.com from Joel Falconer (rss)
Joel’s answer was by far the highest rated. It is easy to start out with a two folder system like what Joel describes and then never get around to creating anything more organized. I’ve seen a lot of people who just have a Documents folder with hundreds of items.
Just like with a filing system, set up some major categories. For items that relate to more than 1 category, use file naming conventions that include searchable key words and then use a great search tool like X1 to always be able to find the documents you need. Someday we’ll be able to “tag” our documents. But for now, I find it helpful to use “tags” in my file names.
Ariane Benefit from Neat & Simple Living (rss)
I haven’t used X1, but Ariane has some good suggestions here. If you use Spotlight or Google Search it can make it a lot easier to find documents, but don’t let that be an excuse to not create a sane folder hierarchy.
For me, it’s mostly all about keeping the Documents folder organized. About once a week, I’ll go through my Documents folder and sort everything that’s not sorted into the places where the things should be.
Trent Hamm from The Simple Dollar (rss)
Trent’s approach will help make sure you create new folders as they are needed. I’ve found that it is easier to keep things organized when I can create a document directly from my file system. That way I first go to the folder where I want to put something, create the file and then start working on it instead of first working on the file and then trying to figure out where to keep it.
Store like items together and purge regularly.
I make sure that all program files are stored in Program Files; not all programs pick this as a default. In My Documents, I have the following structure:
- Current Projects: everything I am working on at the moment
- Reference: everything I have worked on, or need for future reference
- Inbox: where things end up before being filed in one of the above folders
- My Pictures: I keep this separate because I back it up separately
- Code: my programming projects, past and present
- Webs: my web solutions, past and present
Keeping everything together has its advantage in I know where everything is, plus it makes for easy backups.
Purging is necessary to keep everything under control. When I am done with a project in the Current Projects folder, I go through its project folder and remove all junk. Then I move it over to the Reference folder. Once a year, I clean out my reference folder (after doing a backup).
LJ from simpleproductivityblog (rss)
I don’t tend to purge much as far as deleting items. However, I will move stuff that I don’t expect to use into its own folder. That way it is there when I need it, but doesn’t clutter up my main work folders. I like LJ’s InBox idea, but whenever I have tried to use it it just becomes a catch all for me.
Don’t use your desktop for filing! Not only does it make it difficult to find anything it also creates distractions
Use you documents folder to categories items by context, project or client – whatever works for you.
Also, regularly defragment your hard drive and clean off all the old rubbish that you’re not using anymore.
Katy Whitton from Flipping Heck! Productivity, Project Management & Motivation Blog (rss)
I tend to use my desktop as a work space for my current project. When I’m finished I simply delete anything that was just temporary and move all the important files into a project folder. This works well as long as I don’t forget and end up with multiple projects on the desktop.
Well defined folders and sub folders. I personally don’t like desktop search from Google or Microsoft as they tend to slow the machine down and they are always sourcing the hard drive.
John Richardson from Success Begins Today (rss)
I have had good luck with Spotlight on OS X. Also I think the search can sometimes work better if you limit it just to your documents folder. Still search is no excuse for not having well defined folders or subfolders. This is especially important if you start working with an assistant as it is much easier to figure out a good hierarchy than guess the right search terms.
Be sure to put files in their proper location right away, don’t build an “Inbox” folder on the desktop as you’ll never do an “Inbox to Zero” because you can’t see the files. Everything looks clean to you, but it’s really a mess.
Putting your file in the proper location will take you a matter of seconds, don’t delay.
Neil Kelty from Political Equinox (rss)
Another tip along these lines is to immediately save any document before adding any content. That way you put it in the proper place and it also makes sure that saving the contents is only a keystroke away so you are less likely to lose anything.
Folders, folders, folders. Put everything in a folder and it’ll be very easy to find anything.
Anne from Writers Cabal Blog (rss)
I suggest that your top level Documents folder contain only other folders. If you let yourself start putting documents in your top level folder it all goes downhill from there.
Use the Delete key more often. If I haven’t opened a file or program in a year, it’s toast.
MIke Sansone from ConverStations (rss)
This can be great advice, but I tend to keep things around a bit longer. At the very least, I’ll archive things off before deleting them.
Get a good desktop search tool. My favourite is Copernic Desktop Search (CDS). This lets me have a shallow folder structure with several key folders. Sure, I sort things by project (e.g., Paper X, Review Y, etc.), but for a lot of stuff, I just dump it somewhere and depend on CDS to find it for me. Kind of like gmail for your files.
GTD Wannabe from GTD Wannabe (rss)
I haven’t ever used Copernic. I kind of use a system like this for my email though. For files I prefer a bit more structure. That way I can grab and archive a group of files all at once. I can also do things like move all my client folders off my computer when I’m going to be traveling and there is a chance that my laptop might get stolen.
Combine a typical hierarchical system (a directory tree that makes sense to your specific situation) with powerful auto-indexing and searching capabilities of, for instance, Copernic Desktop Search.
gtdfrk from Getting Things Done (rss)
Another vote for Copernic. I’ll have to check it out sometime when I’m using a Windows machine.
Short and simple: reduce the amount of folders you have. Rely on the search capabilities of todays software and don’t spend too much time on deciding where to put files and finding out where you put them.
Fokke Kooistra from Productivity 101 (rss)
Fokke’s advice runs counter to some of the other suggestions, but depending on your particular work style it could be just the thing for you.
I have a sort of “annex” system like the library system that my university (U of Guelph) and two others use (WLU and U of Waterloo). When a book is not being checked out a lot, they send it to the Annex. You can request books from the Annex, but it takes about a day. The universities use this system for space-saving reasons. I use it for efficiency reasons. I want to be able to get to my key files quickly By “annexing” the files that I use infrequently (at best), I de-clutter my directory tree.
Ian Newby-Clark from My Bad Habits (rss)
Interesting idea. Do you move them off to a different drive or just to a different folder?
Three main folders. Inbox, Archive, and In Progress. Everything downloads to the Inbox, current projects go to In Progress, and everything else is Archived. Within the Archive folder I have folders for the major responsibilities in my life (i.e. School, Work, Extracurriculars etc.). Being diligent about putting files where they belong goes a long way in keeping things organized.
This is an interesting setup. I think Sam’s point about being diligent putting files where they belong is probably the most important aspect of keeping things organized.
Keeping things off the desktop. Icon blight feels to me something like an overflowing inbox—all these items that I need to deal with, at some point. On a Mac, Spotlight and Quicksilver make it easy to work without desktop shortcuts (aliases). Windows users might like Launchy.
Michael Leddy from Orange Crate Art (rss)
I haven’t worked with Quicksilver yet, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. Regarding the desktop, it seems like a lot of wasted space if you don’t use it for anything. At the same time it can become a catch all full of junk. Setting your web browser to download to a specific directory usually makes a drastic improvement in your desktop management.
First: I suck at it.
Only recently I have organized them again and deleted all duplicates. The main thing I was thinking was:
“Why didn’t I spend 5 seconds thinking about where to correctly file this?”
It took me over 4 hours to get organized again, and I had to really put effort into not getting distracted. There’s hardly anything more boring as organizing your computer’s file system!
Lodewijk van den Broek from How to be an Original (rss)
This exercise has a potential advantage of being so boring that you’ll always place a file correctly when you save it in the future. :)
I am a MAC user, so strict drive organization has less relevance. With Spotlight and third party tools like Quick silver it really doesn’t matter where the files are located. With these tools, I can search my local drives or dot Mac in a matter of seconds.
This means I only have to maintain a high level tree structure.
So my tip is– Get a MAC
M Nassal from Stress Free Productivity 101 (rss)
I’m pretty happy with Spotlight, but I wouldn’t go so far as to abandon folders entirely. :)
Joel Falconer says
Thanks Mark – here’s to good folder organization!
Great to see all the other fantastic answers here.
Arjun Muralidharan says
Great set of answers, Mark!
Personally I think purging is the most important on the list. There’s so much crap we’ll never use again but keep.
As you said, you keep things in an own folder for a while. Personally, I got a 500gig external drive and ave Time Machine turned on. Now I’m a lot more liberal with deleting files, and always have peace of mind that some file from last january is still around… somewhere :-)
The important thing is to keep a folder structure and stick with it, or your backups won’t make much sense as you’ll be faced with the task of drilling down in your old systems.
Ariane Benefit says
Thanks for including me! When I started using x1 a few years ago, Copernic was just not as easy to use. But I just took another look and I’m very impressed with the new redesign of Copernic. I’m going to switch and see how it goes. x1’s latest client is not free any more and I was actually thinking about buying it today – Copernic is still free so thanks for saving me money! : )
p.s. I also recommend using a file structure for backing up, but as a writer on so many topics, it’s really hard to file content that relates to many topics. Some I file by project, some by topic, some by media type – like photos and audio.
The neat thing about a super powerful search tool is that even if you forget how you filed something, you can find it very fast. Also, you can search by date and look for duplicates etc. so it’s also very helpful for cleanup and identifying stuff to delete.
x1 is a thousand times better and faster than Google Desktop at finding things. I suspect Copernic is too!
Dean Johnson says
The best trick for organizing my mac laptop has been a harddrive failure. For years I have been migrating from old mac to new mac and taking all my cruft along for the ride. Disk space was getting nearly exponentially bigger, so what the hay. Then I had my drive go bad, all of a sudden. Thankfully replaced cheerfully and quickly, and for free, by the Genius Bar guys. I backed up my directory with rsync and had a two week old version, so I wasn’t too bad off. Rather than just copy everything back, saved the rsync copy off to the side and only brought over stuff that I actually used. As I fill up this drive, I am taking more time and organizing things *much* more. It has worked beautifully! Think of it as “Harddrive Bankruptcy”.
This is rarely mentioned in organization tips. Maybe there are some other ways(?), but I use shortcuts to cut down on confusions and avoid multiple copies of files.
For example, I organize my photos by date following the name of events. Let’s say I’m doing a scrapbook of my baby, which uses photos from various folders from various events. I would open a project folder somewhere else, make shortcut folders from photos and put them in the project folder. That way, files are in their categories but I can easily find them in related places. (If you play Super Mario, that is like putting a pile between chapters. lol)
Mark Shead says
@Dean – Well I don’t know that I’d want my hard drive to fail, but your method of starting fresh and just bringing things over is a really good idea.
@Adora – I’ve used shortcuts like you describe and it works well. In OSX, there is a way to create something like a shortcut, but it looks just like an original folder. This is done by using the ln command from the terminal window. You can use it to keep the same files in more than one place at once without taking up double the space. I’ve played around with this a bit on my servers, but haven’t used it on my desktop yet.
Dean Johnson says
@Mark_Shead – While I didn’t want it to happen, especially when it happened, but it definitely adds underlines and exclamation points to the word “Backup”. It’s sorta like the empirical reinforcement of why males wear cups in contact sports like lacrosse and hockey. In one split second their value becomes crystal clear.
I have a folder structure. I did what Arjun did except my A-Z structure is holding files; not other folders. I am very satisfied with Spotlight .The A-Z structure if for holding general stuff. I have specialized folders to keep business,banking and journal. I am backing up with Time Machine. Music is kept in iTunes. I also use keywords to allow better searches.
I cant stand disorganization either, like all my stuff to be in folders. Same goes for my HDD maintenance, i run CCleaner religiously and also installed an automatic defragmenter that runs real time to tackle fragmentation as it occurs.