How to Organize Your Computer Files

Hi my name is I’ve been a web and graphic designer for 15 years, and a perfectionist since birth. Because there are dozens of variations of one single file saved to my computer at any given time, I’ve had to refine a process over the years that keeps me from being featured on the digital edition of Hoarders. As I mentioned in my Tips and Tools for Working From Home article, physical clutter will prevent you from focusing, and same goes with your digital workspace. Feel like your computer is a mess? There’s hope! This process will help you create a system you’ll actually be able to stick with, thereby preventing files from piling up and becoming overwhelming. Like laundry, but that’s a post for another day. *runs to restart the dryer and swears I’ll lay the clothes out this time so they don’t wrinkle*

How to Organize Your Computer Files

Alright, so where to start? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my masters from Trial and Error University. With files dating back to 2005 on multiple devices, I’ve organized, then reorganized, and organized everything again over the years. I finally created the ultimate system, and I’m going to walk you through it step by step. If you think something should be done differently so that it works for you, tweak it. Take one step at a time. I recommend reading through this entire article start to finish, then going back through the steps one by one to organize your computer files. Alright.. grab something to drink, and let’s do this!

1. Close every program and file on your computer. Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Yep, in order to declutter your digital space, you start with a physical piece of paper. We aren’t creating any new files to sort through, and you need a visual hierarchy to reference. Draw a line down the middle of your paper vertically. Write Work on the left, and Personal on the right. Now look at your desktop. If you have a ton of files there, that’s a big fat no. In fact, your goal is going to be zero files saved to your desktop. For now, glance at everything there and see which types of files you have the most of. For me, it’s design files. So the first thing I’m writing beneath Work is a “Design Files” heading. Underneath that, I’ll create subfolders with “Illustrator Files” “Photoshop Files” “Indesign Files” etc. If yours are Word documents for instance, do the same and label them “Spreadsheets” “Family Stuff” etc. You get the picture. Do this until you’ve got a general idea of the hierarchy you’ll use when it comes time to organize all of your files. You won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty until you’ve begun to sort through them one by one. You just want your top 5-10 major file groups.

2. Create a folder on your desktop and name it “Desktop April 2020” or whatever month it is when you’re reading this. Now hit command+a to select all of the files on your desktop, then deselect (shift+click) the “Desktop April 2020” folder, and drag all of those files into this folder so that nothing is left on your desktop, but the new “Desktop April 2020” folder.

3. Open two finder windows on Mac, or Explorer windows on Windows so that you now have two windows side by side. Drag your “Desktop April 2020” folder into your Documents folder. (From here on out sub Finder for Windows Explorer Window if you’re not using a Mac.)

Tip: Save everything into the cloud so you can access it on any device. If you’re using iCloud, you’ll see “Documents” under the iCloud title in your finder window. 

4. In your finder, go to wherever your Downloads are currently saved and move that folder to your Documents folder. Rename it “Downloads April 2020”. Now your Desktop should be completely clear. Take a deep breath and enjoy that for a second before we get to work.

5. Now we’re going to open both of our finder windows to the Documents windows. Drag them so they’re side by side again. On the left, navigate to your Desktop April 2020 folder. On the right, keep your Documents window open. 

6. The Documents window is going to be where you keep every little thing from here on out. Even downloads. Let’s set that now. Create a folder in your Documents window titled “Chrome Downloads” or whatever browser it is you’re using. Next, If you’re using Google Chrome, navigate to the Chrome Menu > Preferences > Advanced > Downloads. Select “Change” next to Location. Select that new folder you just created. 

7. Now you’re going to create 2 new folders in your Documents window. A Work folder, and a Personal folder. Go ahead and file anything you currently have in your Documents window into one of those two folders. Once that’s complete and your Documents window shows only the Work, Personal, Desktop and Downloads folders we can begin to sort through the other files and create subfolders along the way. Don’t get too crazy, and don’t be too broad. Think in terms of how you would search for each item. If there are a gazillion of something, break it down a bit further.

Tip: If you think there are things you might need, but aren’t sure? Put them in a folder titled “Trash In A Month”, set a reminder on your calendar to go back in a month and check the last time each file was opened. If there are still files there, file them under Work or Personal at that point.

How to Organize Your Computer Files

 8. Now you’re going to go file by file sorting until everything has a place. This can be a tedious process, but if you do it correctly now, and keep your system in place by always taking that extra step to file things properly in real time, you’ll be set. Start with your Desktop folder open on the left, and Documents folder open on the right. When you’re finished with that folder, and it’s empty, delete it. Next, open your Downloads folder on the left, and Documents folder on the right until you finish sorting through those files. Make sure you’re creating subfolders that make sense as you organize these files under either Work or Personal. For example, Under Work I have “Illustrator Files”, “Photoshop Files”, “Business Documents”, etc. And under personal, I have “Taxes”, “Family Documents” etc. Most importantly, do not be afraid to get rid of things you no longer need. Much like physical clutter, these things will have to be dealt with at one point or another and take up even more of your time. Deal with them now. Need or don’t need. Do I need a water bill PDF from last year? Nope. Trash. 

9. There will inevitably be days you’re in a hurry and things are left on your desktop. Set a weekly reminder to go back and organize your files. 

10. Don’t be afraid to change things up. If you feel like adding a separate folder for something would be beneficial, do it. You have to make this system work for you. The general idea is that you keep everything in one place, your Documents window. And only the broadest of folder titles there. Then you’ll break things down into your smaller subfolders, as small as you feel necessary. Although, from experience, I’d say less is more with folder titles. It’s much easier to search through a folder you know contains what you’re looking for, than it is to search through 20 that might contain your file. Yes you can spotlight search your entire computer for a file, if you remember what you named it (hardly ever in my case), but knowing it’s in a specific folder will save you far more time than you realize in the long run. 

Helpful Tips:

Take the extra step and have screenshots saved to a specific folder. I also placed this in my Documents window. On a mac, you can find this option under Utilities > Screenshot > Options > Save to “Other Location” > New Folder > Create the screenshot folder under your Documents window there then select “choose”. 

Wait about a week before you empty your trashcan just in case you were a bit overzealous with deleting files.  

If you start to feel like you just want to delete everything and be done with it, take a break and come back. It’s worth putting a solid system in place, and making sure you’ve truly sorted through everything.

Use command + a to select all of your files at once, and drag to the other window.

Hold down the shift key to select multiple files at once, then drag to the other window.

Choose “Sort by Name” in your Finder window as your default, so everything is in alphabetical order. Right click “Show View Options”.

Navigate to Finder > Preferences > General > “New Finder Window Shows” and select “Documents” so that it’s the first window you see.

It’s my hope that this process helps you get better organized, and maybe even eliminate some underlying stress. I know I feel so much more relaxed and optimistic when I wake up in a clean home, and I definitely feel the same about sitting down to work at an organized computer. If you have any questions as you organize, or tips you think might be helpful for others, please leave ’em in the comments below.


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