4 Steps for Developing a File Organization System that Actually Works

We all have what I refer as the “if only…” list: a list of very specific projects that we know would make our work (or lives) easier if only we had the time or energy to get around to actually doing them.

 One of the most common if only list items I help clients tackle is organizing their electronic folders and files -– whether on a cloud storage system, office shared drive, or individual hard drive. Like the dreaded exploding email box, many people quickly amass an insane number and variety of individual files they have created or received from others and saved to various locations. But unless you’ve taken time to figure out a good system for where you save these files and how you name them, it can get very hard to find them again when you need them. This problem leads to wasted time, increased stressed, missed deadlines, version control issues, and more.

Have no fear, though -- this problem is solvable. Check out my 4 steps to creating a system that works for you!

Organized desktop computer

Step 1: Put Everything in One Place

There are tons of great file sharing platforms out there, and you’ve probably tried several. But now is time to pick one and stick with it: you don’t have time to waste trying to remember which files are on which platform. I personally love Dropbox.

Note: If more than one person needs regular access to these files, you’ll need to upgrade to a paid, business-level subscription. Doing so will give you more control over who can access and modify contents.

 Step 2: Decide on a Folder Structure

Do you want folders to be organized by contract? By year? By department or team? Create a folder structure and rules for what goes where, and organize all of your files based on those rules.  Create an index or matrix defining these rules to use as a reference.

Step 3: Set a File Naming Convention

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you do need to tell a lot about a file from its name. A good file name will tell you the document’s content, what project or team it relates to, and which version or revision is saved. Create rules for including the date and time of the most recent update in the file name, as well a standard naming system that everyone can replicate. You may also want to include the initials from most recent contributor. Create an instruction sheet defining these rules to use as a reference, and make sure to send this to everyone on your team.

 Step 4: Schedule Regular Upkeep

Sadly, systems don’t maintain themselves. Designate a shared-drive maintenance point person to set aside an hour a month or a quarter to clean out old files, create new folders to house content that doesn’t fit in the existing scheme, and archive old items.