Find Files Faster: How to Organize Files and Folders

Chelsea Beck
Chelsea Beck / Published March 1, 2016

You're sitting at your desk, putting the finishing touches on today’s big project, when ding! a message comes in from your boss: “Can you find that project we scrapped three years ago? You and John from UX worked on it, I think? We are thinking about picking it back up again.”

For me, requests like this always used to result in a moment of dread followed by a wasted day searching through old files. That is, until I learned how to avoid all that stress and wasted time. How? With organized file and folder structures.

An Intro to Folder Structures

Organizing files on your computer is just like organizing anything else. Say you want to organize your clothes. You might sort each type of clothes into separate stacks. Then you might pair the socks or group all the shirts by color.

Or, you could throw everything into one drawer and hope you can find the right pair of socks when you need it. And that's how we typically treat our files: we save files randomly to our Desktop and Documents folders, then waste time searching for files every day.

Folder structures can help, just like drawers and dividers can keep your clothes organized. A folder structure is the way folders are organized on your computer. As folders are added over time, you can either keep them at the same level—like Folders 1, 2, and 3 in the chart below—or nest them within each other for a hierarchy—like Subfolders 1B and 1B-1 below. Nested folders generally make it easier to find specific files later, because you don’t have to sift through all your files at once.

example folder structure flow chart

Picture a file cabinet, with three drawers, and several folders in each one—that's how this folder structure would look in real life. Here’s how that same folder structure would look on a computer if you view your files and folders in List mode:

folder structure on a computer

Folders and subfolders like these can keep your files organized in a logical way. It’s easy to get into a trap of creating a subfolder for everything. If you have 15 subfolders under every folder, though, you might want to reconsider your strategy. At this point, subfolders stop being helpful and start causing workflow problems.

What Makes a Good Folder Structure?

The best folder structure is the one that mimics the way you work. Do you plan important tasks by quarter? A new folder for each quarter's work might be good. Or do you work around projects? Consider new folders for each project.

Browsing through your folders and finding files should be intuitive. If your method of organization is tedious, it’s going to be tough for the rest of your team to follow along. For company projects, pick something that works well for everyone in the team, since everyone may not search for a file or folder in the same way you do. If you want to maintain your folder structure long-term, you’ll want to make sure everyone understands (and hopefully likes!) the system.

There’s no file management silver bullet, but there are a few tricks to help your file structure be successful. Here are some tips from digital asset management expert Edward Smith:

  • Create a template: Copy and paste it every time you start a new project or task. Or, even better: save yourself from the hassle of manually re-creating your structure over and over again by setting up a Zap to do it for you.
  • Think of folder names as keywords: Keep in mind that you can search for files using folder names; the more specific, the more quickly you’ll find what you’re looking for.
  • Keep folders unique: Make sure there’s no overlap in what goes into your folders (e.g., there shouldn’t be two places you’re keeping invoices for the same project).
  • Make a cheat sheet: It’s OK if you don’t have every single folder memorized. There’s no shame in saving a flow chart for quick reference.

4 Effective Folder Structures to Organize Files

The first step to building an effective folder structure is figuring out your top-level folder. Do you want to simply make a new folder for every new project? Or perhaps you could organize by time, with folders and subfolders for each year and month? Maybe you work on a couple different types of projects, and could organize based on those types (e.g., copywriters might work on advertisements, blogs, emails, and landing pages, while graphic designers may divide tasks by medium, like print or digital)?

Once you’ve worked out your top-level folder, it’s time to organize your subfolders. Here are some strategies I’ve used in the past:

1. “Working,” “final,” and “archive” subfolders

For this example, let’s assume the top-level folders have already been organized by year then project type. You can see from the screenshot that we’re looking at the year 2016, and the main projects are advertisements, blog posts, customer emails, and landing pages. Those are the four categories in which you’ll put your different projects or tasks.

File folders organized by project

Inside the "advertisements" folder, I have three tasks listed. Here’s where I put Edward Smith’s tips to use. For each task, I used the folder name to describe the due date (mmyy), type of project (pay per click or PPC, in this case), and which product the task is focused on. These folder names act as both keyword tags and add an extra level of organization. If you sort the folders by name, they’ll automatically be ordered by date due then project type. If you search by product name or ad type, your folders should pop up easily.

Folders organized by date

Inside the “0116 PPC product x” folder is where you’ll find all the working, final, and archive files that have to do with January 2016 pay per click ads focused on product X.

Working, final, and archive folders

Here’s how the working/final/archive system should work:

  • Working: Anything you’re currently working on. In this example, this folder might contain any ad copy, banner designs, or targeting information for the January PPC campaign that hasn’t yet been finalized. This is also a good place to keep native or source files.
  • Final: Anything ready for public consumption. Don’t put files into the final folder until they’ve been completely approved and no more changes will be made to them. In this example, the final folder would only contain ads ready to be posted live.
  • Archive: Anything that doesn’t fit into your working or final folder. Put your notes, brainstorms, research, and other miscellaneous info in here. Any false starts can be dropped in here too if you change direction mid-project. A false start, in this case, might be an ad concept you started working on but later got scrapped completely. Don’t clutter up your working folders with files that will never be considered “final;” throw them in the archive instead.

This folder structure is particularly useful if you’re working on a project with multiple pieces. In this example, you’d most likely be creating more than one PPC ad at once. This system also works well for teams working on a project where several people are working on the same deliverable. The person who writes and designs the ads, in this instance, likely won't also post the ads. If that’s the case, the person posting the ad will know when files are ready to go live by checking the final folder. They won’t have to ask the ad creator whether they’re ready or not, saving everyone time.

Putting it all together, here’s what you’re full structure should look like:

Finished file folder structure

2. “To review” and “from review” subfolders

This strategy starts with the same top-level folders as the example above, but instead focuses on keeping all the versions of a file intact. For example, in the "blog posts" folder, I saved three different posts. These posts are arranged by publish date (mmyy) and named by post topic, rather than by blog post title since titles often change.

Blog post organization in folders

Within the “0216 topic a” folder, the “to review/from review” folder structure comes into play. This structure works really well with files that will be going through many rounds of edits. I used this folder structure while working in publishing to keep track of all the rounds of editing, typesetting, and proofing that goes into a finished book.

Folders for versions of files

I keep track of each draft of the blog post by saving it to either a “to review” or “from review” folder, meaning that the draft was last edited by me (“to review”) or by my editor (“from review”). This helps eliminate confusion around the draft number (I edited the blog post three times, but my editor edited twice). I’ve also named every file in this folder with “v1” or “v2” according to version.

Versioned files in folders

Here’s how this structure works:

  • 01 - draft (to review): By default, your first draft won’t have been reviewed by anyone yet. Whatever you’re working on (blog post, graphic design project, documentation, etc.), put your first draft in this folder. Name your file with a v1 at the end, so anyone who comes across the file later will be able to tell it’s a first draft. When you’re ready, send that draft to whoever has to review it.
  • 02 - first edit (from review): When your editors send their feedback on that draft, put it in this folder. Keep the file name the same, but add the initials of the editor onto the end. In this example, I’m using my own initials: topic-a-blog-text-v1-CNB means that CNB has edited version 1 of this draft. Don’t do anything else with the file; leave it as is, with every edit intact. By doing this, you’ll always have a record of what edits were requested, by whom, and you’ll be able to cross reference to make sure every edit was incorporated into the second draft.
  • 03 - second draft (to review): Copy and paste the file from the “02 - first edit (from review)” folder into this folder. Change the file name to include v2 on the end and remove the initials. This will become your second draft. Open the file, make your edits, and send your file back out for review.
  • 04 - second edit (from review): This folder functions the same way as the “02 - first edit (from review)” folder. Because the number of reviews and drafts your file goes through can vary, repeat this folder structure as many times as necessary.
  • 05 - final version (sent to publish): When edits are complete, put your final draft here. Looking back on your folders later, this will help quickly find the final version of the file.
  • z - archive: You can put all the files that didn’t fit into the above subfolders here.

3. “Year” or “client” folders

If your Desktop houses hundreds of files, all related to work for just a few clients, creating folders for each client might be your best bet. Or if you have an overwhelming number of receipts for business expenses, sorting them in folders by year or month could be the simple structure you need. More folders aren’t always 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.

4. Tagging

Instead of—or in addition to—folder structures, try tagging files. The benefit of tagging is the ability to add multiple tags to a file, such as tagging an invoice for Client XYZ with an "invoice" tag and a “Client XYZ” tag. Then you can see all invoices together or all files related to “Client XYZ” together, depending on your query.

Academic and researcher William Gunn points out the convenience of tagging on the Mendeley blog: "With tags, you don’t have to pick an organization scheme up front." Answering questions such as “Will year go underneath or on top of department?” become unnecessary because you can add both “year” and “department” tags to the file, and still easily find it. For example, if you’re working on a report for the logistics department that covers all orders made in May 2015. You could store the report within a folder structure like this:

Folder structure

Or you could simply add “department,” “report type,” and “date” tags to the file and avoid folders altogether, like this:

Add tags in Finder

So when you want to find this file again, you can search for it by tags:

Search for tag in Finder

The key to tagging is to tag every new file immediately and consistently. Without a folder structure to fall back on, tags are all that’s keeping your files from getting lost in chaos.

Automatically Make Folder Structures for New Projects

Multi-Step Zap

Once you've decided on a folder (or tagging) structure, it's time to start using it. Eventually, you might want to go back and organize your old files according to your new structure, but for now, start fresh with the files you are working on today.

If you sync your files with OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive, you can use Zapier to automatically creating your folder structure. The first step to using Zapier, in this case, is deciding when you will need new folders created. If you make them every time new projects start, set up a Zap to watch your project management app for a new project. Or, if you want new folders created every month or week, use Zapier's Schedule tool to create folders on a certain date.

Then, connect your file sync app, and have Zapier make a new folder. You can then add more steps to your Zap, and have it make as many subfolders as you need—and can even have it copy default files into the folders.

For example, if customers sign up for your service with a Wufoo form, Zapier will add their data to Pipedrive CRM, then create a new project folder in Box along with any subfolders you use in your folder structure. If you need to save contracts, templates, or other documents to that folder, Zapier will copy them to the folder, too.

Or if you want to make new monthly folders in Dropbox. Start your Zap with the Schedule app, choosing the day and time for it to run. Then, set up the folder structure you need for your month's work.

Here are some other Zaps to help you get started. Then you can add extra steps to the Zap for each additional folder your structure needs.

How to Make Great File Names

Organizing your folder structure is only half the battle. Keeping your computer organized will also require tidying up your file names.

Files are made up of two components: the name (whatever you decide to call it) and the file extension (the type of file, like .mp3 or .docx). You typically don't need to worry about file extensions; they're set by the programs you use, and typically hidden by default on most computers. But you should take control of the file name. The best file name is one that explains what’s in the file, without you having to open it.

For that reason, writer and editor Jill Duffy recommends making sure each file name is:

  • Unique: It’s impossible to tell what’s in a file if you have many with the same name.
  • Indicative of what the file contains: Is your file an annual report? Research? A to-do list? Put that information in the file name. Consider what recipients’ first reactions will be if you email a file to them; best to keep all the identifying information right in the file name, so anyone receiving the file is clear about what’s in it.
  • In line with your business structure: This goes right along with your folder structure. Does your business think of tasks based on which client they’re for or what month something is due?
  • Scannable: Make sure anyone who quickly glances at the file will understand its name. Don’t use any abbreviations that aren’t common knowledge or long streams of letters and numbers without any delineation between them. Including spaces doesn’t always work, but you can use underscores, hyphens, or camel case to make your file names easier on the eyes. Here's an example:
File name examples

Beyond making your file names unique, scannable, and easily understood, the Stanford University Libraries recommends these tips for good file names:

  • Dates: Always write dates in yyyymmdd or yymmdd format, so your files will naturally fall in chronological order. This rule is useful, but it’s not hard and fast. In my examples above, I used mmyy because the folders were already organized by year making month the most important descriptor.
  • Length: Be aware that some software programs have character limits on file names. Include only necessary information in your names, and cut anything superfluous (e.g., words like “a,” “and,” or “the”).
  • Special characters: Not every program will accept or understand special characters, so avoid using any of these in file names: ~ ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) ` ; < > ? , [ ] { } ' " | .
  • Sequential files: If you’re naming files that go in an order, use leading zeros (01, 02, 03 instead of 1, 2, 3). This ensures your files (or folders) will stay lined up how you want them too.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to use all of these rules. Purdue University Libraries has a few tips to make sure you’re getting the most of whatever file naming convention you ultimately decide on:

  • Find balance: Only you can decide what’s too much or too little in a name.
  • Document your system: Create a cheat sheet of any abbreviations you’ll often use or any rules you may forget.
  • Start general then get specific: Since your filenames will naturally be sorted from whatever you type first, start with the most general components (year, department, client, etc.) then move onto the specifics (project title, ID, version, etc.). A general rule of thumb is whatever you want to see first, write first.

How to Quickly Find Files

Spotlight search
Spotlight in OS X can find files, emails, web searches and more

Finding files is much easier with a folder structure. Plus, with well-named files and folders, your computer's search will be an even better tool for finding files. Your new names and folders should be easy to find in seconds.

On a Mac, Spotlight lets you search through your files and emails and preview them to make sure you found what you are looking for. Click the search button in your menu bar (or press CMD+Space), then type in the file or folder name you're looking for. On an iPad or iPhone, just pull down on your homescreen for a simplified Spotlight search to look through emails, notes, and apps on the go—or use the search tool inside the Dropbox or Google Drive app on any phone to find synced files.

On a PC running Windows Vista, 7, or 8.1, there's a search box in the Start Menu to look for files and folders. In Windows 10, there's a Cortana search button next to the Start button, which can search for files and folders—and can also look up the weather or search the web.

If you want more tools to dig deeper in your folders or launch specific programs automatically, there's also third-party search apps. Alfred is a popular and powerful search tool for Mac, while Launchy is a common pick for Windows searching.

Zapier find files in Box
Zapier can search for files and folders in Box automatically

You can also search for files inside apps themselves. Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box let you search through synced files and folders, while Zapier can search inside many of your productivity apps. Zaps can search for specific files and folders in Box—perhaps to find a client's folder—and then save files from other apps into that folder to help keep everything organized automatically.

Get Your Files Organized Today

If your files and folders are already disorganized—it will take forever to clean up. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your new file structure. So start out with this month's files, for example. Then save every new file according to that folder structure.

Consider archiving all old files by moving them into an "Old Files" or "Archive" folder. Anything you can’t see yourself needing again, throw it in there. When you have time, you can go through this “Archive” folder and store files using the same folder structure you've already started using for new files.

What folder structure do you use to keep your files organized? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below!

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