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Easy ways to be more productive by organizing your digital files

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Few of us are good at organizing our digital files in a way that makes it easy to find the files we need. It’s easy for filing systems to become cluttered and disorganized, making it difficult to quickly find what you need and share it with others.

Both a lack of organization and over-organization can hurt your productivity. It’s just as hard to find a file on a computer that has 100 sub-folders as it is to find a file on a computer where everything is saved on the desktop. You need to find the sweet spot so you can easily email that expense claim from four months ago when Bob from accounting comes looking for it.

Here are three ways you can better organize your files to be more productive and collaborative.

A.  Follow These 5 Rules When Naming Files

File naming is important. It will help you find a document Jake finished three days ago even if you’re not sure what folder he saved it in, and ensure an end to cryptic document titles.

1.     Be Descriptive

Don’t be cute with your file names – be descriptive. “DRAFT 18_MPM-edits_FINAL” is not a descriptive title, and it makes it very difficult to find via search. Given an increasing reliance on search (more on that in a second), this is not a good thing.

Rather, put the actual title of the document in the file name. So if this blog post was a document (as it once was) “Be More Productive and Collaborative by Better Organizing Your Digital Files” would be in the title. Yes, it’s long, but that’s fine. It’s better for file names to be clear and long than short and obtuse.

2.     Don’t Use Special Characters

Letters and numbers are fine, but computers and browsers don’t always know what to do with special characters like ampersands and question marks. Avoid any problems altogether by avoiding using them.

3.     Put Dates in Your File Names

Start your file names with a date in the ISO 8601 format: YYYY-MM-DD, and then add the descriptive text after. Doing this will ensure your files will be organized the same way everywhere.

4.     Use Version Numbers

You can create a paper trail with your electronic documents. Save different drafts with version numbers. Do this rather than using the word “FINAL” in your file names – we all know “final” doesn’t always mean it is the final version, but version 8 will always follow version 7.

5.     Be Consistent

Adopt these conventions consistently, across your team and your organization so everyone is on the same page. At Main Path, everyone knows to follow our naming conventions so there’s no confusion.

By following these five rules, the file name for this article saved as a document would be:

2016-04-05_be-more-productive-and-collaborative-by-better-organizing-your-files_01

It’s simple format. Date_title_version. Easy.

B. Ditch Your Filing System and Rely on Search Instead

This may seem a bold proposition, but here it is: stop filing and rely on search instead. Particularly if you’ve followed the five rules on naming files, there’s no need to dig around in sub-folders when email clients and desktop search functions can find what you’re looking for in a fraction of the time it takes you to find it.

The ability to search has become more and more prominent to the point that Google is developing a mobile keyboard with a special search icon. Search has become so important that some have speculated Google and Apple are in a war for its future.

Consider how you look for information on a historic figure, like George Washington. You would probably open your browser to a search engine and type in “George Washington”, then scan the top five or so results to see which is most relevant to what you are looking for.

You can do the same when looking for a document. Mac’s Spotlight Search and Windows’ Search are powerful tools which allow you to use natural language to search for whatever file you’re looking for, such as “images I edited last Tuesday” or “documents I worked on yesterday.”

Gmail was created by Google, the masters of search, as its powerful search function shows. It lets you search by sender, recipient, subject, and keywords. You can also specify a date range, whether you’re looking for an email with an attachment, and more.

Some programs now offer a feature where you can save a search as a folder, allowing you to both use search and create folders, if that’s important to you. Thunderbird is an email client with this feature.

If you’re working in a work environment with a central network, or you’re using an email client without the same search ability, relying on search may not work for you.

But for your home computer, or your personal email account, it may not be a bad idea. Lifehacker has great tips on making the most of Spotlight and Windows Search.

If you can’t give up your folder system, a good rule is to make no more than three sub-folders under any main folder. Here’s one system to organize all your files into six main folders, for backups, documents, archives, multimedia, and scripts. (Non-technical people can skip that last folder and make it an even more streamlined five folders.)

C. Use Tools to Organize Yourself and Your Team

There are many tools to help you keep your files organized, and to help you share them among a team.

If you’re in an office environment with the traditional Office suite of products, OneNote and Outlook integrate to make it easy to share files and create tasks from emails.

Slack is a messaging app for teams that makes it easy to share files with just one coworker or with your entire organization. Similarly, Evernote Business lets your team share files, centralize meeting notes, and more, Each has powerful search capability, so it’s easy to find what you’re looking for.

At Main Path, we use Trello, a visual collaboration tool, to share files, complete our editorial calendars, and give feedback on them. It keeps us organized and with its structure, automatically enforces the “no more than three sub-folders” rule. It’s so good Lifehacker claims you can organize your entire life with Trello.

To summarize, here’s how you can better organize your digital files and see your productivity and collaboration improve:

  • Use descriptive file names that include the date
  • Consider relying solely on search rather than folders – but if that fails, don’t organize deeper than three sub-folders
  • Use tools such as Slack and Trello to make it easier to organize your files and share them with your team

Follow these tips and in no time, finding that file Bob needs will go from a challenge to a cakewalk.

About Ilana Plumer

Ilana Plumer is a Marketing Executive at Main Path Marketing. Ilana has had a passion for marketing since the beginning, getting both her B.S. and M.B.A with an emphasis in marketing. With more than 10 years of marketing experience, Ilana loves to build holistic digital marketing campaigns for her clients. When she’s not at work, you can find her chasing after (or being chased by) her two little girls and enjoying all San Diego has to offer.

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