Organizing Electronic Files

by Ramona Creel

Mirror Your Paper Files

What does your computer's file structure look like? A lot of people dump every document they own into one location (completely misunderstanding the “My Documents” feature) — and then wonder why they can't find anything when they need it. Would you do the same with your paper files — throw them all into one big drawer, without any folders or categories, no labels or sub-divisions? Of course not! But we get often lazy with electronic files because we're overly dependent on the “search” feature. However, computer programmers also gave you the ability to create customized folders — so take advantage of it!

When working with paper files, the rule is to start with a broad category that you can break into sub-categories — and the same is true for electronic files. Each main “folder” is like a file drawer containing a single major category. You're going to fill that folder with sub-folders (each representing a sub-category), and place individual documents in the appropriate sub-category. For example, let's say that you engage in online banking, receiving your statements as PDF files each month. Set up a main folder called “Finances,” then create sub-folders for each account. In your business, you can pull up customer information in seconds if you have a main folder called “Clients,” sub-folders for each person, then individual files for billing statements, project notes, and email communications. It's that simple!

Another issue to consider is how you name your documents. In the electronic world, you can waste a lot of time open random files trying to figure out what each one is — attempting to find a lost letter or spreadsheet or memo. A clear naming convention will prevent a lot of frustration — and frankly, you shouldn't have to look any farther than the title. A file name like “Checking — Suntrust 1-2010” (for January) or “Checking — Suntrust 2-2010” (for February) not only tells you exactly what information the document contains, it also groups your statements together alphabetically and then chronologically for quick retrieval (an added bonus!)  And with multiple drafts of the same document, including the date in your file name helps clarify which version you are looking at. Instead of calling the file “Johnson Proposal,” name it “Johnson Proposal 6-8-08,” signifying the date of the last edit. If several people are working on the same document, include a name or initials at the end so you know who made those updates — “Johnson Proposal 6-8-08 RFC.” Pretty darned clever, huh?

Back Up Regularly

It goes without saying that when you store important information on your computer, you need a back-up. At least once a week, save all of your files to an external hard drive, CD-Rom, or online backup service. Don't forget the files in your contact manager, bookkeeping program, internet bookmarks, and any other software you use regularly! This way, if your computer crashes or something happens to your physical equipment, you always have a copy to fall back on.

And I'm here to offer a personal testimony for the power of backing up regularly — we recently experienced a theft (someone stole both my husband's and my laptops), and the ONLY thing that saved us was the back-up drive. There is no way that we could have rebuilt our lives and our businesses without it. If you need help creating a back-up plan, talk to my Matt — he's an absolute wiz with Beyond Compare!

On one final note — don't forget to clean out every once in a while, too. It's easy to keep saving and storing and backing up until your hard drive is full and your computer moves at half the normal speed. Just like paper files, electronic folders can get overstuffed. Once or twice a year, go through your computer files and purge anything that has become outdated, obsolete, or irrelevant to your life. Better yet, ask yourself “why” before you save it in the first place (the same way you would when filing paper.) You don't need to keep every listserve notice and solicitation and attachment that comes your way — just save those emails and documents that you will refer back to in the future.

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.