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How to organize files and folders

Find important files faster with these file management tips.

By Jessica Lau · June 8, 2023
Hero image with an icon of a desktop folder

Once upon a time, my system of clothes organization was simply to throw everything into the closet. Then, when I needed to get dressed, I'd dig around aimlessly and cross my fingers that the top I needed would magically appear. (I never said it was a great system.)

This was the same approach I used to organize files on my computer. And as a surprise to no one, it resulted in me wasting a lot of time trying to find specific files that I'd arbitrarily named and tucked away. 

I've come a long way since those haphazard years. My clothes are now arranged by color and style, and I use a simple folder structure to organize my digital files—both of which make it easy to find what I need, when I need it.

If you're looking to bring order to digital chaos, here are five effective ways to organize files and folders.

What is a folder structure?

A folder structure is a hierarchical system you use to organize your files. The goal is to have every file (document, photos, etc.) neatly stored in a designated folder—steering clear of standalone files floating around—for faster access. 

Let's say you're a lawyer, and you need a systematic way to organize your clients' files. A basic folder hierarchy might look like this: 

Portion of a Mac Finder window which shows a top-level folder named, "Active clients," and its two subfolders.

If the contents of each of the nested subfolders (Client documents and OC documents) warrant further grouping, you could take it one step further.

Portion of a Mac Finder window which shows a top-level folder named, "Active clients," along with expanded views of the two layers of nested subfolders.

Nested folders generally make it easier to find specific files later, because you don't have to sift through all your files at once.

Tip: Folders are great for organization, but having too many nested folders can make finding files cumbersome. If you regularly find yourself clicking through four or five layers of folders to access what you need, that's a sign you may need to simplify your structure.

How to organize files and folders on your computer 

Browsing through folders should be an intuitive process. Continuing with our lawyer example, let's say you need to find out when your client paid their retainer. The obvious folder to look in would be Client invoices—not Client comms.

If you find yourself doing mental gymnastics to figure out where you stored something, update your organization system with these file management tips. 

1. Establish a clear hierarchical folder structure

Start organizing your files by creating a logical, hierarchical folder structure. The best folder structure will mimic the way you work.

For example, if you're a freelance writer, your top-level folder may be Freelance projects, and within that folder, you have subfolders for the clients you write for, like Zapier, WIRED, and so on. 

2. Use a consistent naming convention 

Give your folders and files specific, logical names—and be consistent. The goal is to use names that clearly indicate what's inside without having to open it. While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to naming conventions, here are some tips to keep in mind. 

  • Include keywords. Consider what terms you might search for to retrieve the file. For example, Invoice_2301 or Receipt_2301. And if you're sharing the file with a client, consider using words that make it clear what's inside.  

  • Use Pascal case. If using compound words, capitalize the first letter of each word to make it easier to read. For example, Lau_AmendedContract (vs. Lau_Amendedcontract). 

  • Add a date. By putting a date (e.g., yymmdd) at the beginning of your file name, it'll automatically be listed in chronological order. 

  • Include the version. If you're working with multiple versions of a file, include the version number (e.g., V3). This will make it easier to identify the most recent version and avoid any costly mixups if there are multiple iterations of the same file.

  • Sequential numbers. To arrange your files in a specific order, add leading zeros (e.g., 01, 02, and 03) instead of 1, 2, and 3

  • Add "AA." By adding "AA" at the beginning of your file name, it'll automatically stack it at the top of your list, making it easily accessible. 

  • Keep it concise. Some software programs have character limits on file names, or don't allow certain special characters (e.g., #@, and &). To keep your file and folder names consistent—regardless of the program you're using—include only necessary information and cut anything superfluous (e.g., words like "a," "and," and "the").

Tip: To keep naming conventions consistent across your organization, create a naming convention cheat sheet that everyone can reference, as needed. 

3. Add tags

Depending on the number of files you need to organize, you can use a tagging system instead of, or in addition to, folder structures. For example, if you're a food photographer, you might tag your photos based on type (e.g., soups, desserts, and salads). Then, whether you've grouped all your photos into one main folder or multiple subfolders, you can quickly pull up every dessert photo simply by searching for the Desserts tag. 

Portion of a Mac Finder window which all files tagged with a "Desserts" label.

Tip: If you store files directly on your desktop, here's how to tag and search for files on Mac and Windows

4. Delete and archive unnecessary files

By the end of any given month, my computer's Downloads folder is filled with screenshots I use for Zapier articles. This is intentional because I prefer to organize my folders in batches instead of filing as I go (more on that later). At the start of every month, I reserve 30 minutes to organize my folders—deleting files I don't need anymore and re-homing the ones I do need. And for the files I don't need right away, I archive those in the cloud.

Tip: If you have a lot of files and folders that need to be sorted, it will take time to get everything organized. To make the process more manageable, consider moving all the files you won't need in the immediate future into an Archives or To be sorted folder. Then set aside 15 minutes once a week to sort through these files—again, ruthlessly deleting the files you won't need again and rehoming the ones you do need.  

5. File as you go 

If you work with a lot of files, organizing your folders once a month may result in an insurmountable pile of chaos. To prevent this, give every file an accurate name and home as soon as you create it.

Experiment with these folder structure examples

Ready to get organized, but not sure how to start? Let's take it from the top: Establish a clear hierarchical folder structure. 

First, determine your top-level folder. Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

  • By project: If you work on a lot of different projects, use the project name as your top-level folder name. 

  • By project type: If you work on different types of projects, organize your folders based on project type. For example, writers might work on blog posts, emails, and landing pages.

  • By time: If it's easier for you to reference your work by date, use the month or year for the name of your parent folder. 

Once you've established your top-level folders, it's time to organize your subfolders. Here are the two most effective folder structures I've used in the past. 

1. "Working," "final," and "archive" subfolders

Here's how to organize your files using the working/final/archive subfolder system: 

  • Working: Any projects you're currently working on. This is also a good place to keep native or source files for easy access. 

  • Final: Any files that have been approved by relevant stakeholders, and are ready for launch. 

  • Archive: Anything that doesn’t fit into your Working or Final folder. Put your notes, brainstorms, research, and other miscellaneous files here. 

This system is particularly useful if you're working on a project with multiple pieces. It's also great for teams working on a project where several people are working on the same deliverable. 

Let's use an email campaign as an example. The copywriter will store the draft copy doc for the emails in the Working folder until they're ready for approval. Once the copy's been approved, the file will move to the Final folder, which will indicate to the Email Ops team that the emails are ready to be built. 

2. "Year" or "client" folders

If your desktop houses hundreds of files that are related to work for specific clients, creating folders for each client might be your best bet. Or, if you have an overwhelming number of receipts of business expenses, sorting them into folders by year or month may be the simple folder structure you need. Remember: more folders aren't necessarily better. 

However simple, find a system that works for you, and then stick with it. Consistency is what will help you stay organized in the long run. 

How to quickly find files 

If your folders contain lots of important files, it can take a few minutes of scrolling through to find what you need—even with a clear folder hierarchy and naming convention in place. 

For cases like this, it's much faster to use your computer's built-in search tool to retrieve your file.

How to quickly find files on a Mac desktop

On a Mac, Spotlight helps you quickly find documents, images, and other files. 

To use it, click the Spotlight icon in the menu bar, which looks like a magnifying glass. Alternatively, you can use a keyboard shortcut: command + space. Then, type in the file or folder name you're looking for. 

How to quickly find files on a PC running Windows 

On a PC, there are two main ways to find your files: search from the taskbar or search File Explorer. Depending on which program you're running (Windows 10 or 11), how you use each method varies slightly

Automate your file management

With Zapier, you can connect your go-to file storage app (e.g., GoogleDrive, OneDrive, and Dropbox) with thousands of other apps, so you can take the manual work out of file management. Learn more about automating your files and document control, or check out these workflows that you can automate right away. 

Save new Gmail attachments to Google Drive

Save new Gmail attachments to Google Drive
  • Gmail logo
  • Filter by Zapier logo
  • Google Drive logo
Gmail + Filter by Zapier + Google Drive

Save new Google Docs documents to OneDrive

Save new Google Docs documents to OneDrive
  • Google Docs logo
  • OneDrive logo
Google Docs + OneDrive

Save new Gmail attachment as a file in Box [Business Gmail Accounts Only]

Save new Gmail attachment as a file in Box [Business Gmail Accounts Only]
  • Gmail logo
  • Box logo
Gmail + Box

To get started with a Zap template—what we call our pre-made workflows—just click on the button. It only takes a few minutes to set up. You can read more about setting up Zaps here.

Related reading: 

  • Advanced Dropbox features that you should start using

  • Dropbox vs. OneDrive: Which should you use?

  • How to free up space in your Google account

  • How to compare two documents in Word or Google Docs

  • The best document management software

This article was originally published in March 2016 by Chelsea Beck. The most recent update was in June 2023.

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