How To Organize Your Computer’s Files for Maximum Efficiency

How does one petition the local government, the world, or the organization-that-decides-what-becomes-a-holiday to have International Everyday Is Productivity Day become a real thing? It needs to be a real thing. I want to celebrate what should clearly already be a holiday.

You know what? Let’s just say that we don’t need to wait for some slow moving governmental body to enact such an obvious thing. Let’s take matters into our own hands and make it a thing.

Put on your party hats and let’s get organizing! 🥳

There’s never been as much of an interest in organization as there is now. Thanks to wonderful people like Marie Kondo, we’re all more aware than ever that we need to get a handle on the messy parts of our lives. Throwing out our junk and making sure we only allow meaningful items into our world has made us cleaner and happier.

I’ve got a question for you, though. Why should we stop at our closets and pantries?

We take such great strides to throw away our physical junk but then neglect to tackle the digital junk we’ve accumulated. Most of us probably have years worth of stuff hanging out on our hard drives. Our devices have never been more capable, but they’re still full of clutter.

It all translates into mental baggage that none of us should have to carry.

Let’s spend some time in this post and in our lives clearing the cobwebs and piles of nonsense out of our devices so we can be even happier and more productive. Why stop at our closets when we can continue with our computers?

What’s your bad digital habit?

Let me kick things off by letting you in on my worst digital habit. I have a tendency to have too many unused applications sitting around on my computer and iPad. I download those things because they look appealing, but then I forget about them.

They take up space and I have to spend more time than I want cleaning up the self-made mess.

I do make it a point to clean out the rubbish regularly, but between those days stuff can pile up. It begins to feel oppressive. It’s become a routine fact of my life that I’ll end up feeling like a weight’s been lifted off me when I clean up those apps. I’ll invariably think to myself, “That feels better. I’ll be sure not to let that happen again.”

What’s your bad computer habit? Do you have too many old documents hanging out on your hard drive, taking up space, instead of uploading them to a cloud someplace? Do you have a single folder where everything lives? Is your desktop so cluttered and unorganized that it’s a pain to look at?

Whatever the case may actually be, I can assure you that…

  1. You’re not alone with this. There are many people who need to organize their computers.
  2. Organizing your computer and keeping it that way doesn’t have to be difficult. It’ll just take time.

There’s no real magic to creating a more organized and productive computer experience. Much like losing weight, it just takes some vigilance. You can have a cleaner computer and, best of all, it shouldn’t take nearly as much time as it can to lose a few pounds.

Let’s stop talking about getting to it and just get to it.

The three folder method

Well, three top-level folders anyway. We’re probably going to have a lot more than three folders by the time we’re finished.

The three folders we’re going to start with — and stick with — will be the following:

  1. Incoming (or Inbox)
  2. Working
  3. Archive

Can you already see what we’re trying to accomplish here?

The Incoming folder

The first folder, Incoming, is where new folders and files are going to be placed. This is only a staging area for our items and absolutely should not have anything in it most of the time. Your incoming folder is not your new desktop. Here is where things will wait until you work on them and place them into a more appropriate location.

On my computer, I’ve set this folder as the destination for all my imported and exported files and any browser downloads. Forget the “Downloads” folder. Put everything here and act on what’s in there. The Downloads folder just ends up getting messy anyway.

Aim to have this folder cleaned out, meaning empty, at least every week. Extra points to you if you clean it out daily.

The Working folder

The second folder, Working, is where all of your in-progress files, folders, and projects are going to live. This space can be a little less strict than the other two, but it still needs to be monitored.

The items in your working folder should be reserved only for the work you’re currently doing. If there’s something in there that’s both more than a few months old and hasn’t been touched in that time, then it needs to be moved out of there.

Why have it take up important working space when you have more important things to focus on? That would be like leaving a big box of clothes you’ve been meaning to donate in the middle of your garage. That area should be reserved for more pressing needs.

Aim to look through this folder and clean it out every few months. Extra points again if you organize this folder monthly.

The Archive folder

The third folder, Archive, is for your long-term storage. I tend to keep the files in this folder on a separate, external hard drive and in cloud storage (as a backup). Why have much older and probably unneeded things on my main hard drive? I save so much space by storing them elsewhere.

Just because this folder is mostly for things that you may only need to access on rare occasions doesn’t mean that you can just throw things in here without any thought. There should also be an organizational method here.

Check in on this folder at least once a year. Hopefully, you’re storing this stuff on a hard drive with a lot of free space, so you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of room. If you find stuff in here that is many years old and you’re certain you don’t need, then feel free to delete it.

Let’s organize these folders!

Let’s peek in on what my folders look like. Here’s my Incoming folder, as empty as it should be most of the time.

Here’s my Working folder. I have this divided up into two other major folders here, Business and Personal. Within those two folders live additional subfolders with all the stuff I need and use on a frequent basis.

And here’s my Archive folder. There are several folders in here. Most of this stuff are old projects, backups of important files, or just things that I’ll eventually be removing permanently. As you can see, despite not using this main folder very often, it’s still clean and orderly.

That’s about all the structure I ever need and use. It’s been working very well for me for many years. In fact, it does such a good job that I don’t think I could ever use any other system.

Here’s my recommendation for how to structure your folders:

The organizational structure shown above is going to vary a bit depending on your files and needs, but the upper level folders should remain the same.

Here’s the most important part in all this: this is going to take work and it will take time. I would encourage you not to do this all in a single day, especially if you have a lot to organize. You also must make this a habit, otherwise you’ll just end up with a messy computer again.

Set reminders for yourself to tidy the folders. Make them daily, weekly, monthly, or whatever interval of time you need. Use a weekly reminder for your Incoming folder and do what the reminder says. Make a monthly reminder for your Working folder and do what the reminder says. Create an annual reminder for your Archive folder and, you guessed it, do what the reminder says.

An organized computer will only stay organized if you actively make sure it stays that way.

I want to suggest a couple of programs you can use to help you stay organized. I won’t be giving full walkthroughs of them here because this post is already long enough.

The first app, this one for the Mac, is called Hazel. With it, you can set rules for specific folders and have it actively run in the background. For instance, I’ve got a rule that watches my Downloads folder. Whenever anything shows up in that folder, Hazel will automatically give the file an appropriate tag and then move it into my Incoming folder.

It’s powerful and completely wonderful.

The other app(s) is a file viewer app called Disk Map. This one is a Mac app, but there’s also a similar app for Windows called WinDirStat that works the same way.

What these apps do is give you a visual representation of all the files on your hard drive. This way you can get a more “birds-eye” view of what you have, how it’s being organized, and how much space a file is taking up. I use Disk Map frequently and recommend something like it to everyone.

Organizing the files on your computer can be a big ask for many people. It’s a time-consuming and tiresome project.

However, the time you’ll spend cleaning up and organizing your computer will soon be outpaced by the incredible amount of time you’ll save trying to find an errant file or folder. You shouldn’t waste any more of your life hunting for the things you need because of a messy computer.

You should spend that time doing the things you love. Like perhaps petting some cute animals.

Clean it like you mean it, cats.

Always chasing that cozy feeling of being snuggled under a heap of warm blankets in a cold room. Also trying to find cats to pet 😻

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