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Organizing Electronic Files

As Published In Professional Organizers Blog Carnival
Organizing Electronic Files

How much of the information in your life exists in electronic format? Do you have a good system for keeping it organized? Without a method for sorting, naming, storing, and purging non-paper items — it all becomes become virtual clutter. However, electronic filing isn’t as complicated as it might seem. It’s easy to set up an organizing system on your computer with just a few simple steps.

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 — I recently experienced a theft, someone stole my laptop, and the ONLY thing that saved me was the back-up drive. There is no way that I could have rebuilt my life and business without it.

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.

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and

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4 Responses

  1. Miriam Ortiz y Pino says:

    Great simple explanation. It’s funny how folks think the computer will sort it for them and never realize that it doesn’t. One point to add, by labeling your files consistently, it is also easier to find what you are looking for in a search.

  2. Jane Cassidy says:

    Watch out too for programs that hide files in odd places. Best is a full drive image, don’t just back up My Documents.

  3. I recently streamlined my To Do List into 6 categories. That went so well that I’m now doing the same with my computer files. It’s taking a little getting used to, but I know it’s going to make things much easier going forward. (One of the things I love about a brand new computer is starting fresh with the files!)

  4. Sabrina says:

    It’s good to also have back-up files in 3 different places. The back-up file should be an external drive and if you feel comfortable with it, in the cloud. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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