“Now where did I save that file…?” It’s a thought we’ve all had, typically followed by minutes if not hours of frustration searching through files and folders trying to find the document you’re looking for.
With disorganized files, finding anything specific can be like finding a needle in a haystack. A haystack that you have to keep coming back to day after day.
Stop wasting hours of time searching for information by creating an organized file and folder structure.
Why Create a Folder Structure?
Imagine walking into a grocery store. Now imagine that there are no sections, no aisles and no organization. There’s apples next to the pasta sauce, frozen pizza in front of the cereal, and you’re just trying to buy some bread and milk… chaos!
That’s what your computer files are like with no organization.
Like the sections and aisles in a grocery store, an effective file and folder structure helps you keep your documents organized, so you’re not constantly wasting time searching for something when you need it. Not only does this reduce frustration, but it also boosts your productivity and efficiency.
What’s the best way to organize my files?
There is no magical formula for the perfect folder structure. Each business is different, so your file structure should reflect how your specific business and employees work.
The most effective folders structures are easy to use, so everyone can intuitively find the files they’re looking for. If it’s too complicated, it will become a chore to organize, and no one will want to do it.
Keep in mind that a good file structure should work for everyone in your organization, not just you. Other people may not search for a file the way you do, and you don’t want to frustrate everyone else in your company.
Your ultimate goal is to create a logical hierarchy that gives every file a home, making things easy to find and impossible to lose.
Here are a few tips and best practices to help you do this:
1. Store documents in a shared location, NOT on your personal computer
It’s tempting to just save everything to “My Documents,” but that creates two big problems. First, other people in your company won’t be able to access those documents. You need to make sure you’re saving files on a server, network drive or other shared location. Shared cloud storage can be a good option too.
Second, your IT people back up servers and network drives; they DON’T typically back up everyone’s personal computer. So if you save that critical proposal on your hard drive and your computer crashes, you’ll be out of luck.
2. Don’t mix business and personal files
Keep your business folders for business. You probably don’t need everyone in the company seeing photos from your family vacation. Plus, you’re costing the business more to store and backup your personal files.
3. Group by category
One of the most effective ways to organize your files is by category. Again, think of the grocery store. Foods are organized into sections like produce, diary, packaged foods, etc. The trick is figuring out exactly what categories to use that make sense for your business’s size, industry or how it’s organized.
Here are a few different categories to consider:
- Departments – organize your folders by department or business function, such as Marketing, Finance, HR, IT, etc.
- Clients – create separate folders named for each client with subfolders for all project details
- Products – if your business focuses on products instead of individual clients, you may want to organize your folders by product
- Users – if you need to keep some information private, you may want to create separate folders for each user. However, this probably isn’t the best top-level category, because it can lead to “tribal knowledge.” Imagine if five people are working on a project together, and you have to dig through all five of their individual folders to find details on the project.
4. Group by date
Many business activities (think reports or events) are reoccurring, so organizing by year or month makes it easy to identify the most current files and find past versions.
For example, you might structure a financial folder like this:
5. Don’t be afraid of subfolders
Once you organize your files into categories, you’ll want to add additional layers that help you narrow down even more. That’s where subfolders come in.
Subfolders help create logical groups within your larger categories. For example, within a client folder, you might have separate subfolder for each project. Then within the project, you may have further subfolders for correspondence and contracts.
Of course, you don’t want to go overboard, but most people tend to suffer from too few subfolders, not too many. If you find yourself dumping 50+ files in a single folder, you might want to add a subfolder. If you only have a handful of files, you probably don’t need one.
6. Use Final, Draft and Archive folders
Even if you know the right folder to look in, finding the correct version of a file can be hard. One way to help is to create subfolders for the stages of a task.
Use the Final folder for any documents that are completed and approved. For example, if you were doing a print brochure, you would put the final press-ready version in this folder.
Save work in progress, or any revisions along the way in the Draft folder.
Then use the Archive folder to store old materials for reference, like notes, research, scrapped ideas, etc.
7. Use good file naming conventions
How frustrating is it when you’re slogging through a mess of files with vague names like “presentation” or “notes.” Use clear, descriptive file names that make it easy to identify what’s in the file, no matter where it is. Here are a few best practices from Stanford:
- Be concise; some software doesn’t work well with long file names
- Use descriptive information
- For dates, use a YYYYMMDD or YYMMDD format, so dates stay in chronological order
- Use sequential numbering (01, 02, etc instead of 1, 2, etc)
- Avoid special characters (like ~ ! @ # $ %, etc)
- Use underscores (file_name) or dashes (file-name) instead of spaces (file name)
8. Create folder templates
Once you’ve designed your folder structure, create empty folders as a template so you can keep it consistent.
For example, if you organize your files based on client name, you’ll probably want to use the same file structure over and over again for each client.
9. Use shortcuts
Ideally, your folder structure should create a single “home” for each file. But sometimes there’s overlap and it’s hard to figure out where a file should go.
Rather than duplicating the file, create a shortcut. You can then move that shortcut to another location, but your original file stays in the same place. That way, you avoid the danger of having different versions of the same file.
10. Don’t float folders
This one’s tough. When you’re working on a big project, it’s too easy to create a folder with a 1 or _ in front so that it “floats” to the top of your folder list. Resist the temptation!
Floating folders are the easy way out, rather than committing to using an effective file structure. Furthermore, if others are looking for folders alphabetically, they could easily miss a floating folder and duplicate information.
11. Stick to it
No folder structure or file organization system is going to be perfect. But in order to be effective, you have to use it all the time, every time. Don’t save everything to your desktop or My Documents and tell yourself “I’ll move it later.” Otherwise, the only thing you’ll end up with is a half-finished organizational system.