Never Lose A File:  My Computer File Organization System

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

03 September 2017

Organization is a key component of being a productive person.

Countless books, articles and guides have been written about this artform (yes I’m calling it an art). So many, in fact, that you could decide to dedicate your entire life to it (which some people have). You may have already mastered organizing your backpack, papers, closet, and storage space using the old ways…But now that computers are the central hub of work, play, and social life, it’s important to translate the vital tenants of organization to our personal digital libraries. This article is a look at my way of doing exactly that.

Following this guide on computer file organization will:

-Increase work efficiency by locating and storing files quickly

-Lower your risk of misplacing a file or folder

-Facilitate quick and easy back-ups.

-Quickly transfer files to a new computer

-Provide a clean working environment

-Bring you zen and peace of mind

-Help you if your desktop looks like this

Messy Desktop

It will not:

-Prevent you from messing it up again

-Make your code more readable

-Solve world hunger

Step 1: Clean Out Your Computer

Before you even think about getting started on your computer file organization system, it’s imperative that you get rid of any junk and unused software from your computer. It makes no sense to waste time organizing these, so do a good cleanup before you start. Your hard drive will thank you for it. If you haven’t already, follow my guide to cleaning your hard drive for this step.

Step 2: Map It Out

That’s right, grab an old school pen and paper, and draw a tree: Starting from your root folder(s) branching off into sub-folders and sub-sub-folders. Of course this outline is tentative, but it will give you a nice overview of your system.

This process will naturally reveal the files and folders that are most important to you. By that I mean: that the most frequently visited and most important files/folders will come to mind first, and there will be many things that you overlook while drawing. Files you haven’t touched in years won’t be in your immediate memory, and hence won’t be on your list. I’m not saying those should be deleted, but maybe you’ll want to exclude them from your backup or your main archive.

I’d also like to point out that while I show my personal computer file organization system in this guide, it is by no means the perfect one for you. Everyone has different needs and preferences. This is just how I like to have it sorted out.

Also, don’t worry about application files, we’ll get to those later. Just focus on your personal files right now: documents, photos, shortcuts, etc. Anything you yourself have created.

Personally I like to have a “current” folder, and an “archive” folder as my root.

Step 3: Make a “Skeleton”

Now that you’ve got a rough layout of your file organization system, it’s time to build your new archive. Start by making a “skeleton” of your tree. On your “Desktop” directory, create the folders and sub-folders with appropriate names and leave them empty. We’ll start dumping files into here soon. You can put this wherever you want, but as a general rule, its good to have it somewhere separate from Windows and installed software’s default directories.

As an extra tip: if you put this in the bottom right corner of your Desktop, you’ll be able to see more clearly when a new shortcut or folder appears, since they default to the top-left. (This will help you know which files haven’t been archived yet.)

Step 4/5: Getting Dirty

So its finally time to start moving stuff around. As a heads up, this part gets pretty tedious, so make sure you have a good chunk of time to spare. I had 6 years of files in complete chaos, so this took me a full 8 hour day, yeah, not really how I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon.

First thing you’ll want to do is open up your skeleton in a file explorer window, and open a second one on the side like so:

File Explorers Open


Now is a good time to make an important destinction:

Application files (files from software that I mentioned above) VS data files (things you’ve made). You should try to keep things seperate, and focus mainly on data files for now.

You’ll want to work directory by directory, starting with your Desktop, clearing it out, then moving to Documents, Photos, and so on. Each time you open a directory, deal with ALL its contents and completely clear it, until you get through every directory you can find that has your files in it. You should go through each file/folder, renaming and moving to the appropriate spot in your skeleton.


Some tips for naming your files:

-Choose a system, and stick to it. ALL your files and folders should follow the same convention so that you can always find them with a simple search. I personally use YEAR_MONTH_DAY_Description.

-Date your files (and folders if appropriate), this will make them easier to find and organize.

-Use descriptive names! The better you explain what your file is when you name it, the easier it will be to find (more keywords for your file search software) and “future you” will know what it is without opening it.

How to name subfolders and files


Some tips for organizing your folders and files:

-Use the same filing system on all your machines and backup drives

-Don’t worry about how many sub-folders you have, the more categorization the better

-Avoid the default My ____ folders, (My Documents, My Photos etc). These are default directories for some of your software, and it’s better if you keep your data files seperate.

-Careful with Application Files, these are in your folders like Program Files, App Data, Windows, and other C: folders. Moving or renaming these files can interfere with build paths for your programs and they might no longer run. If you really want to move these, consider uninstalling your program, and re-installing into your desired folder.

-Have a “Current” folder where you keep all your files that haven’t been dealt with yet. You should put these in your archive as soon as possible, and if you need them to be accessible, leave shortcuts in your “Current” folder.

-Never have a file in two places. Seek and destroy all duplicate files. If you really want it to be in two places, use a shortcut. Like so:

how to create shorcuts of files

-Have the same system on all your machines and backup drives. This will make Synching and backups very easy

Step 6: Backups and Synchronizing

Perfect! Now your archive is neat and tidy! You don’t want all that work to be for nothing right? Having your files on two or more seperate physical drives is the best way to make sure you won’t lose all your precious data to a corrupted or damaged drive. 

If you don’t have an external drive already, GET ONE. A 500GB external drive goes for roughly 50$ CAD,  and they can and will save you a priceless loss. Drives fail, laptops get stolen, electronics get damaged. It’s only a matter of time before something happens to you! 

Which particular files to backup is up to you, but I like to keep anything I can’t easily replace. Priceless things like photos, documents, game save data, or projects, and anything I spent money on. Actually, these are ALL things in my “Archive” root folder. So when it comes time to backup, I can do it with one quick drag and drop. All the old backups will be overwritten, and new ones will find their proper place. I did this on purpose because I’m lazy and don’t have a super large archive. If you have an archive of more than say 200GB it’s probably better to be more selective in your backing up, to avoid wasting time overwriting files for no reason.

The same principles apply for synching files to another computer. If your filing system is the same on your other device, you can easily drag and drop files without having to manually organize much.

Note on synchronizing: Online file hosting services like DropBox or Google Drive are great for synching files across devices, but I (as always) have some privacy concerns when it comes to those services. Our old friend Edward Snowden suggests as an alternative, SpiderOak, since it supports encryption on your actual computer, not just in-transit and on company servers like DropBox and Google do.


Wrapping Up

Congratulations! Your computer is now as organized as mine! Your files are tidy, safe and happy. As a bonus, you’ve just hindered the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics! You’ve managed to decrease entropy in your life.

Let me know how you organize your files! Drop a comment or send me an email! Don’t be shy 🙂

Happy organizing!  

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