I have a client who has a new laptop and during this week’s training session for Word she asked “How do I find a file if it doesn’t show in my ‘recent documents’ list?”  This was a great question and I was about to show her the search function when I realized that this was the perfect time to show her how to organize and manage files so that she will rarely need to use the search function.  First I will explain how to set up your filing system, then I will share with you my own tips and tricks.

In the beginning

Windows makes your life easy to start.  It comes with 3 important pre-labelled folders called My Documents, My Pictures and My Music (For Mac users it is Library, Pictures and Music).  Start with these folders.  In the My Documents folder you would keep all your documents whether you create a spreadsheet, a letter or a PowerPoint presentation.  It goes without saying (though I am saying it anyway) that you would keep your music in the My Music and your photographs in the My Pictures.

Create folders with meaning

My Documents is similar to your filing cabinet in the office.   It is great to put all your documents in the cabinet but if there are no labelled file folders inside, you would really just be piling inside the drawer a stack of papers.  Then when you need to find that all important client contract you would have to search through the complete pile.  Your time is much more valuable to be spending looking for documents.

For this, we create folders.  I like to think of these folders like the green hanging folders in your physical file cabinet with tabs that have titles like Invoices, ABC Client, or Taxes.  When you create these main folders on your computer, you would create titles that are relevant to you and based on the documents you create or keep.  For example, on my computer I have a folder labelled Big Brothers Big Sisters (I am the Secretary on the Board of Directors).  Any documents I receive from them or that I create for them, I save in that folder.   This is great way to keep the documents organized but sometimes a folder can still have too many files.  This is where sub-folders are a must.

The all-important sub-folders

In my example about Big Brothers Big Sisters above, the green folder in my physical hanging folder would be ready to explode.  I have hundreds of documents like minutes, financial reports, policies, strategies plans etc. and now I have the same problem trying to find a document in a very huge pile.   For this, we would create sub-folders.  This would be like adding numerous paper file folders inside each green hanging folder.  For example:  In My Documents I have a folder called Big Brothers Big Sisters; In my Big Brothers Big Sisters folder I have folders labelled Minutes, Policies, and Strategies.   You can even create sub-folders with your sub-folders as much as you want but you have to be careful not to have too many nesting folders as the documents become hard to find again.

Tips and Tricks

Everyone will have their own way of organizing their files that works for them.  Here are some things I do and use to help me stay organized.

  • When I start a new document and save it for the first time, I take a minute to make sure it goes into a folder.  If it means creating a new folder, I do this right away.
  • I do not leave orphan documents – An orphan document is a file outside a sub-folder sitting directly in My Documents.  Of course, we are not perfect (even me!) and sometimes I just want to save the file quickly and keep going.  Because of this, I regularly look at my file listing and clean up the filing by putting all orphan documents in folders.
  • I have a folder called Misc. Stuff.  Sometimes I create a document that doesn’t need a whole folder because I won’t be creating any others like it (for example – creating a birthday card for dad) so I put them in Misc Stuff.

 Organizing Pictures

Pictures are especially hard to find on a computer because most of us leave the original file name from the camera which is usually just a set of numbers and letters like DSC356894.   This makes it even more important to file them properly in meaningful folders because the search function is more difficult (i.e. you can’t search by file name).  You will develop your own method, but what works really well for me is a combination of dates and subjects.

My main folders are Pictures 2011, Pictures 2012, and Pictures 2013 etc.  Within in these folders, I then organize them by event.  So within Picture 2013, I have sub folders like: Camping, George’s Birthday Party, and so on.  I even have a Misc Pictures 2013 where I store the pictures that are not relevant to an event (like that quick shot of my little sister with Nutela on her nose).

I hope this information helps get you started.   I know it sounds like it will take too much time, but in the end, you will save more when you are not spending endless time searching for documents.  I have to throw in a cliché to sum it up and I can already hear your groans, but here it goes … A stitch in time saves nine.