Imagine that you’re getting ready for work in the morning. You need to find something to wear, so you open your dresser drawer and discover three socks, a hat, and a sweater. You open another drawer to find an old holiday costume. It takes so long to find an outfit that you’re stressed out and running late.
Your clothes are probably more organized than that, but your files might not be. It’s just as frustrating and time-consuming to find the documents you need, when you need them. In fact, 57 percent of U.S. office workers say one of their top three problems is quickly finding files and documents, according to a recent survey.
Good news: You can save time and learn how to organize digital files with a few best practices. The key is to decide on a system, communicate it clearly to everyone in your organization, and be consistent.
Here’s your guide to organizing digital files.
#1. Set goals for digital file organization
Organizing digital files can take over your life if you let it, so start by getting specific about what you want to accomplish. That way, you’ll prevent the project from taking more time and resources than you want.
Start by asking who, when, and how:
- Who needs to understand your digital file organization system? The obvious answer is “everyone,” but consider the needs of people who aren’t very tech-savvy and those who will only be accessing your files occasionally.
- When will you start this, and how much time can you spend?
- How will you know you’ve succeeded?
Here’s an example: “All 22 employees need to understand our new digital file organization, but especially the writers and graphic designers, since they create the files. The office manager will start by spending one Friday afternoon on this, followed by an hour or so each week. We’ll know if it worked if it’s faster and easier for project managers to find the latest files for client projects.”
#2. Prepare and get input
Talk to the leadership team at your organization so you understand their priorities. If you have time, get input from everyone. Here are a few questions to start with:
- What do they like and dislike about the current computer file organization system?
- What’s confusing or difficult to find?
- What are their suggestions for how to organize digital files? What’s worked well for them in the past?
Along with their input, here’s what else you need:
- Tools: Your computer and online file-sharing software. It’s best to store files on a cloud-based server, rather than on-premises, because it’s easier for everyone to access.
- Supplies: Paper and pen for jotting down notes or reminders (optional).
- Time: At least two hours, unless you have very few files. You don’t have to do it all in one sitting, though—break it into chunks so it’s more manageable.
#3. Delete and archive first
There’s definitely an argument for saving everything just in case, especially tax-related documents. But if you have duplicate files or documents you’ll never reference again, delete them. Delete files before you start filing so you don’t waste time organizing them, just to delete them later. If you’re not sure whether to keep them, put them in a folder titled Archive.
#4. Organize digital files by name, date, project, or department
Now you’re ready to start organizing, but how? The best way to organize files on a computer will vary based on your organization and its needs. Decide whether it makes sense to organize files by name, date, project, or department. After that, shared drive folder structure best practice is to start with your broadest categories for your main folders, and then get more specific with subfolders. Here’s what that could look like.
Organizing by name
Best for: Organizations that mainly identify projects by the client’s or organization’s name, such as a marketing or advertising agency.
Pros: Names are less ambiguous than other categories, such as industry or product type. It’s easy to find the right folder when the client contacts you.
Cons: It can be confusing if the client or company changes their name. It can be difficult to remember when you worked on a certain project at a glance.
Organizing by date
Best for: Organizations with large amounts of files tied to time periods, like a financial services business.
Pros: It’s easy to focus on a specific time period, such as the quarter or fiscal year.
Cons: It’s harder to find projects based on other categories, such as the type of project.
Organizing by project
Best for: Organizations with lots of cross-departmental collaboration—for example, a project manager, writer, and graphic designer work together on every project.
Pros: It’s easy to find everything related to a project, including a variety of file types, because it’s all in one place.
Cons: It can be hard to find related projects unless you include that in the file naming structure. For example, an ad agency could include the client’s industry in file names, along with the project name, so searching is easier.
Organizing by department
Best for: Organizations where departments are fairly siloed—for example, there’s little interaction across finance, sales, and customer service.
Pros: Each team knows where to find their files, so searching is faster.
Cons: When departments do collaborate, it can be confusing deciding where to save files.
#5. Choose a file naming convention
After you’ve decided how to organize digital files, decide how to name them. Avoid vague file names like “draft1.doc”—the more specific you are, the easier searching will be. Ideally, your file names should be detailed enough that you know exactly what they are at a glance.
Start with the broadest category at the beginning of the file name, like the year or department, and then get more specific.
- If you’re organizing by date, your file name structure might be YYYY-MM-DD (year month day), followed by any other details you might search for (for example, 2021-06-26_Contoso-Suites_social-media-ads).
- If you’re organizing by name, project, or department, start with that, again followed by anything you might type in to search for it (for example, Contoso-Suites_social-media-ads_2021).
Those file name examples use underscores (_) and hyphens (-), but you don’t have to. It’s OK to use spaces in file names, but some organizations don’t, because you can’t have a space in a URL—you’ll get an error message. If you’re naming files that will go on your organization’s website, such as your logo, avoid spaces and special characters. Whatever you decide, just be consistent.
#6. Establish a system for version control
We’ve all been there: “Do I use final_reallyfinal_2.doc or THISONE.doc?”
The easiest way is to only use one file, saved on a shared server (instead of someone’s local computer), so everyone can collaborate in real time and there’s no confusion about which file is the latest one. Use word processing software with tracked changes, so you have a record of everyone’s edits.
Another option is to establish a clear order of file name endings and ask the whole organization to stick to it. This is useful if you want a separate file to mark each stage of a process, but it does lead to more files. Here’s an example:
- First draft: client_project_draft.doc
- Revisions from client: client_project_clientedits.doc
- After incorporating revisions: client_project_revision1.doc, revision2, etc.
- After client signs off on edits: client_project_final.doc
The trick is to not label a file “final” until it really is. Give the client a time limit on revisions, if possible, to avoid a never-ending revision cycle.
#7. Organize images
There are several ways to organize images, such as by year, event, project, or department. It might help to use the same digital file organization system for your photos, but you don’t have to. If your business attends a lot of events, consider creating folders for each event type, such as each conference. That way, if an event is annual, it’s easy to see what images you used in previous years all in one place.
Here’s an example:
Just like with your other files, decide on an image naming convention and stick to it. Be specific and descriptive, so searching for images is easier. Include the year, month, and day in the file name (for example, 2021-06-26_spring-tradeshow-booth-backdrop.png). And it’s worth repeating: save images to the cloud or make a backup copy on a flash drive.
#8. Manage leadership-only or confidential files
Build data protection into your digital file organization strategy. Set sharing settings on files and folders so that people outside your organization (like clients and contractors) can only access what they need.
Some software gives you granular control over file sharing settings so you can:
- Set passwords for files and folders.
- Give read-only access.
- Prevent people from downloading files.
Establish a system for which sharing settings to use on which files. Share those guidelines with your team and post them somewhere convenient for future reference. For folders with leadership-only access, remember to revoke access as soon as an employee leaves.
#9. Organize large amounts of files by years or quarters
It can be overwhelming to organize thousands of files, but there are tools to help you. To sort files, open the folder containing all the files you’d like to organize, right-click within the folder, select Sort by, and then select how you want to sort the files: by name, date, type, size, or tags.
Then it’s easier to organize computer files from a certain time range. Move all of them from one year into their own folder. If you like, create subfolders for each month or quarter.
If you need to rename a lot of files, there are apps for bulk file renaming, some of which are free. Then you can add details to file names, such as the year.
If you have too many year folders, you can always create a folder titled Archive for folders from more than a few years ago.
#10. Tell your organization how to organize digital files
Make it easy for your coworkers to name files correctly and save them in the right place. Here’s how:
- Have a quick meeting about the new computer file organization guidelines, with time for questions at the end, or send an email with instructions.
- Post the guidelines to your organization’s group chat app.
- Create a template folder and subfolders that people can refer to as an example.
Make sure everyone knows to back up their files regularly. Save files to the cloud so they’re accessible anywhere. If people must save files on their computers, make sure they save a backup copy.
#11. Maintain your system
You might excel at organizing digital files, but others might not, so try not to stress about it. Schedule recurring file maintenance time to move misplaced files—and gently explain to people what the correct location is. Or designate someone on your team as the go-to person for all file-organizing questions. Encourage people to ask first, rather than possibly saving something in the wrong place.
Check in with your team by to see whether your organization system is working and adjust as necessary. Finally, congratulate yourself on finishing a daunting project that will save your organization a lot of time!