Managing Electronic Files

Efficient File Management

Learn how to manage your files effectively.

© iStockphoto/PashaIgnatov

Have you ever sat with your boss looking over your shoulder, while you search for a missing email that she needs right now? Or have you kept a client waiting on the phone for several minutes, while you hunted for a status report?

If you have, it doesn't matter how organized and effective you are in your day-to-day work; your boss and your client will not be impressed. And, if it's your job to help people, how much of other people's time are you wasting if you can't find the information they need, when they need it?

These are just a few reasons why it's so important to manage your files effectively. This article looks at how you can do this.

The Problem with Poor File Management

On a typical workday, you probably deal with many different files. Data can pour in from all directions, some of which you'll need to store to use at a later point in time.

All too often, though, you can waste your own and other people's time hunting for data that's right there, on your computer, smartphone, or tablet. This causes stress, and makes you look unprofessional.

Also, if you use a shared server or drive, it's essential to organize electronic files well. If you don't label and store files sensibly, you'll confuse other people, and you'll waste their time as well as your own.

Using Hierarchical Directory Structures

Let's start by looking at using hierarchical directory structures to manage your electronic files efficiently and effectively.

With this approach, you store all documents and files related to a particular project, person or thing in a single folder – rather than having one folder for presentations for all projects, another folder for all of your spreadsheets, and so forth. This way, it's much quicker to find, open, and use all of the files for that project.

For instance, if you're working on a key project, the project's name could be the root folder (let's call it Project X). Think of this folder like a drawer in a file cabinet where you'll keep all of the information relating to that project.

The next layer of folders could contain your topic folders. These can have major heading titles, such as "Status Reports," "Expenses," "Invoices," "Communications," and "Progress." These broad folders are like the major sections within the Project X file drawer.

Within the topic folders are more specific, function folders. These allow you to sort information in a more granular way. For instance, within the "Communications" file, you could create function files for "Manager Communications," "Team Communications," and "Client Communications."

The last layer of folders are your activity folders. These folders can relate to a specific activity or time frame within each function folder. For example, for the "Boss Communications" folder, you could create "Week 1 Communications," "Week 2 Communications," and so forth. You could also organize these folders by date, by topic, by urgency, or by any other system that makes sense to you.

Depending on your role and the nature of your work, you may need more or fewer levels of folders.

Tip 1:

There is often little point in creating a folder for fewer than, say, five documents. If you do, the time you spend clicking through sub-folders may outweigh the time you save by not having to scan the contents of a folder.

Tip 2:

The file structure you use will depend on the type of work that you do. For example, if you work in sales, you may want separate folders for each client; or if you're in product development, you may want separate folders for each product. Take a few minutes to think about the approach that best suits you and your work.

Tip 3:

Try to avoid relying on search functions if you need to access documents quickly and reliably – sometimes they help you find information quickly, but sometimes they don't. If you must rely on search tools, use intelligent, easily recognized filenames, and embed keywords that will help you find documents quickly.

Further Tips for Managing Files Effectively

Once you've organized your files, use these strategies for managing them more effectively:

Use a Consistent Method of Naming Your Files and Folders

For instance, divide a main folder into sub-folders for customers, vendors, and co-workers. Use descriptive names to identify what or whom the folders relate to.

For instance, you could divide a folder called "Business Plan" into sub-folders called "Business Plan 2010," "Business Plan 2011," and "Business Plan 2012."

You may even be able to give a different appearance or look to different categories of folders – this can make it easy to tell them apart quickly.

Avoid Saving Unnecessary Documents

Don't save everything that finds its way into your inbox. Take a few seconds to glance through the content, and save files only if they're relevant to your work activity. If you have too much data on your computer, it makes it harder to find things in the future.

Back Files Up

This is a bit tedious, but it's important, as anyone whose hard disk has crashed will testify!

You can back up your electronic files in several ways. One is to use a Web-based file-hosting/storage service such as Dropbox, SugarSync, iCloud, or Mozy. The advantage of using these is that you can then access your documents from multiple devices (PC, tablet, smartphone, and so on), as long as you have access to the Web. Also, these back your files up automatically, so you don't need to remember to do manual back-ups, and your files are always safe.

A more traditional approach is to use an external hard drive. You can either set this up to back up your files continually, or you can commit to doing a regular manual backup.

Tip 1:

Speak with your organization's IT department before you choose a method for backing up your files. Some organizations won't allow you to use outside services to store company files, and some may already have a backup policy or disaster recovery plan in place. You may also run into security issues if you save files on external hard drives.

Tip 2:

Online file storage services like Dropbox also allow you to share files and documents easily.

Organize Files by Dates

It's often worth incorporating a date in the document's filename. This will help you find the most recent document without opening the file.

For example, a file named "Guidelines 12Oct11" would indicate a version of the Guidelines file dated October 12, 2011. (Be aware that in some countries this date can be presented as 101211, while in other countries, this same date can be shown as 121011 – this is why its worth using 12Oct2011 instead!)

Some people also use version numbers to distinguish between documents that have been reworked or changed. Examples would be "Delta Traders Contract v1" and "Delta Traders Contract v2."

Use Version Control

If several people are going to work on a document, be careful about version control. People will naturally be annoyed if versions are mixed up and their work on a document is lost.

One way to get around this problem is by using Web-based services such as Huddle, Google Docs, and Microsoft Office Live to collaborate on documents and projects. These can help you keep track of updates to documents more easily, and can be more effective than collaborating on documents by email or on a shared server or drive.

If you aren't using these systems, make sure that you put a version number in the filename, and consider having a version control table at the beginning of the document. This shows the version number, the date of the version, the person making changes, and the nature of the changes they've made.

Key Points

When you can find the files you need quickly and easily, you save time, you work more productively, and you look more professional. This is why it's important to manage your files effectively.

File your documents intelligently, within a properly thought through directory structure. Give files names that explain their contents. And use appropriate version control where several people will be using and changing the document.

It's important to back up your electronic files regularly; so check your organization's policy regarding use of online backup sites.

Apply This to Your Life

Spend half an hour right now setting up your filing system's basic structure, and putting an effective backup system into place. Although this can seem like a tedious chore, your investment will surely pay off over the months and years ahead!

Don't worry about setting up your system in full detail right from the start; it's often enough to focus on the basic structure. If you stay aware and committed to being organized, you'll steadily evolve an effective file structure.

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Comments (8)
  • Sarah.P wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Olivier,

    Thanks for the comment and recommendation. We'll look into it and consider including it as an App Review on the site.

  • Olivier wrote Over a month ago
    Just wanted to point out there is a nice windows app that can help when your file management has been poor. It can create a sorted copy of any folder, with all files organised in intuitive subfolders. This way you can easily grab or archive the files you are interested in.

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi readingup

    A very warm welcome to the Mind Tools Club and to the forums too. It's great to hear your voice over here and we're glad that you decided to join this community of like-minded individuals.

    Thanks for sharing your tip about using the year to name directories. I'm sure it does make it a lot easier when archiving files. If you have any other ideas you'd like to share - please go ahead!

    readingup, if you need any help around the forums or if you're looking for specific information over here, please don't hesitate to let me know.

    Kind regards
  • readingup wrote Over a month ago
    I always think it is best for the root directory to be the year. This make it much easier to archive old data in 7 or so years' time. The alternative of going through each of the other directories manually moving files over a certain age is normally unworkable.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    I like that tip! Thanks Cathy. I'm in the midst of some reorganization and I will definitely use this idea.

    Did I capiche? Yes I did!

  • bikes wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you for a helpful article and comment by Vince.
    I have only one remark to add: Consider using the same root structure for naming e-files that is already in use in the filing cabinet standing in the corner of the office. By that I mean, use one set of logic for both paper filing and e-filing.
    Cathy in Namibia
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Vince

    Welcome to the Club and welcome to the forums too - we're glad to 'hear' your voice.

    Thanks for sharing your system with us - that is how we all learn from one another. It sounds like a very organised and logical way to go about dealing with documents that are still in the making. I always admire people who are by nature logical and systematic - because I'm not and it's taken me long to work out a system that makes any kind of sense to anybody but me.

    If you have any more tips & ideas, we'd love to hear about them. Also feel free to share your challenges with us...maybe a lot of other folks have the same questions/challenges and that way everybody gets help.

    Vince, please drop me a line if you need help around here - I'll be only too glad to assist you.

    Kind regards
  • rfxvgm wrote Over a month ago
    I often write reports and assignments that are weeks in the making ie the same document will be worked on every day until complete. As a means of version control I save with an appropriate name and append each days date to the title in the reverse format ie "project name yyyymmdd" that way I can follow my changes sequentially day by day and still have the previous days copy if I need it. At the end of day I email that version of the document to myself, that way if my hard disk crashes I still have a copy by logging onto my email via another computer.
    On the final completion of the document I remove the date from the title, delete all previous dated versions of the document and formally back up to my other hardrive.
    Hope this makes sense

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