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Hide and Seek for Adults–Help! My Digital Files Are Everywhere and I Can't Find Any of Them!

Image of a desk top with devices on it

We all have seen it… some of us may even live it day to day.

Our desktops, ‘C’ drives, ‘D’ drives, flash drives, online cloud storage or really any digital container we use to store our electronic lives can just become a mess of random files. There is the PowerPoint for the big project you worked on two years ago. Over yonder, there is a photo of your two cats playing. Right next to that is a resume for someone you never hired and another with a different format of someone you did. There are budget spreadsheets. Random text files that have no discernible name, and only reveal their secrets when you open them. A video you recorded of your daughter’s graduation, and that funny Facebook photo you downloaded from the last night of your first vacation to a tropical island.

We all live this reality.

If our digital lives were to become our physical homes, none of us would want visitors. Allow us to take you on a journey as we try to turn this little game of hide and seek into a journey of visible and found for our digital lives.

The first stop on our journey of discovery….Folder Structure!

Creating universal folder structure will allow you to store files in an organized and consistent way. A structure that is excessively complicated will cost more time in filing, sorting and exploring then it will save in finding what you need down the road. Conversely, the “all files in one bucket” method (and remember, IT has seen some of your desktops) may save a lot of filing time to just lump everything together, but whoa the retrieval time of trying to remember what you named it, and when you did it.

A good folder structure will be expandable to allow you to have a place to store almost any thing including all your old, un-organized files. A good folder structure will also allow you to visually locate your files by browsing as well as help identify your files when searching.

Nuts and Bolts... the foundation of the organization…

Be general; a good place to start is with a single folder, which for the purpose of our journey we will affectionately call “Files” (alternatively, “Happy bytes” or “Digital Den” work well, too). If your file storage is primarily for business use, create a “Personal Files” folder, and vice versa if you are primarily storing personal files. This allows you to create a foundational structure, which can be given more nuisance as content inside and around the folder grow.

Next, create a couple general topic folders under the main folder. These can be employer names, employee names, client names, project names, activity names, hobby names… the sky is the limit here as to what works best for you. The only rule is that the folder names should be general enough to cover a number of files, relevant to the files contained within the folder (including subfolders), and descriptive of their contents. Unlike with paper files, if you find you need to get more granular with folder names you can always add folders both hierarchically higher and lower, this will allow you to adjust and grow your folder structure as it evolves. 

File and Folder Naming…The Next Generation…

Use full, descriptive, meaningful file and folder names. Adjectives are your closest and best allies on this leg of our journey together!

Be brief but descriptive, computers, unlike our inferior human memories, don’t mind long file and folder names so we may as well take advantage of it, BUT… not too long as that can create problems. <FUN FACT: Windows operating systems have a 257 character path length limitation; the path is the electronic address of your file in the computers filing system, so an example of bad usage of too long a folder name would be C:\Folder1\257 Characters is too long and your computer will hate you for it so keep it short\Taxes>. It is important while choosing the name for a file or folder to first think about why in the future you might need to find those file(s) and how can you help future you find it easier. Think of yourself as John Conner sending a Terminator back in time to help past you organize your digital content!

So. Help me. How do I really think about name selection?

What few words describe the file or folder contents well?
Will there be more files or folders similar to this one (weekly, monthly, yearly reports, family photos from different trips, a personal hobby you often do, TPS reports)?
If there will be a series of these files will I want to be able to sort them for easy retrieval; will you want to sort by date, version, name, etc?

OK, so I sorta get this…
Have any naming tips oh wise digital ones?
Yes. Yes we do.

Add a version Number to the end of the file name.

Add a version Number to the end the of the file name.v2

Add a version Number to the end of the file name.v2.1a

If you are working on a file and keeping older revisions, or if you are sending the file to someone to review, include a version number at the end of your file name (v1, v2, v3, etc). This will ensure everyone knows which revision they are working on as and cut down on miscommunications and redundant work. Someone may love you for this.

Dates, use them… keep them…memorialize them…

If you are keeping files that are generated on a routine basis it is handy to add a date into the file name to allow you to instantly know which file in the cycle you are looking at. When using a date in a file name it works best for sorting if you use a YYYY-MM-DD format.
For example, it is easier to find and sort your weekly reports using dates and consistent naming, such as “My weekly report 2013-02-28”, “My weekly report 2008-02-29”, “My weekly report 2010-02-26”, etc. This will allow you to sort your files by name and easily find all the “My Weekly Reports” and enable to your scroll to the desired report date.

Use Keywords or codes (secret codes, but not too secret)

One of the oldest ways to sort the files on your computer is to sort them by alphabet; you can super charge this common feature by using a keyword or code to start your file name. For example, you can use “DOCS” to start all notes for Continuing Studies business units, “DOCS-P” for major long term projects, and “Per” for personal folders. This makes finding work a snap when using note tools such as Evernote or OneNote which provide indexing and search functions.

Where oh where to file…

So you may ask yourself where should all this go?

While choosing the location in your folder structure for a file it is important to first think about why future you might need access to the file. Common questions that may help you on this leg of our journey are:

What topic is the file in regards to, are there many topics similar?
What entity (client, unit, school, vendor, faction, team, clan, etc) is this file related to, are their multiple entities?

Under what circumstances can you see yourself needing to access this file again in the future?
What does this file have in common with other files I already have, what group does it belong to? What folder does it fit inside, perhaps a new folder?

PRO tips from Pros!

Be consistent.

Make your filing method a habit, at first it will be hard to break your old habits but once you are ready the change can make all the difference. Use the same file naming conventions for your paper files as with your electronic files to avoid confusion, match up your digital and physical worlds.

Putting it into practice, today and every day.

Pick a time to start. Make that time not be tomorrow, do it today.

Can you hear that voice saying I don’t have time to get organized, do you know how many files I have? It will take forever to get them all in order! We have all been, so don’t be your own biggest obstacle to start your own journey. Declare today is the day to start your new organized way of computing. From this day on and every day after any files you receive, access, work on, create, etc (and need to retain) file according into your new file and folder structure. The loose bits may even find a home in your newly organized digital life, someday too.

Singing the old file blues

Wait, what about those old loose bits and bytes? They are all still right where you left them; Good advice is to create a folder in the top level of your new, clean and organized structure called Archive or Old Files and place all that old clutter there. This also allows your files to be easily accessed via a cloud file storage provider for legacy retention. When you have time, you may go back to this messy folder and slow and steadily pull pieces out and file them into your shiny new structure, too.

Got a question? Need more advice for your journey? Reach out to any IT staff member or put a ticket in the online Helpdesk! We will be happy to help you keep adventuring along your digital journey as you win this new game for all those visible and found files you use today, tomorrow and into the future.