Stop Losing Important Documents: A How to on File Organization

How to guide on file organization - stop losing important documents
Cynthia Bartz • July 28, 2016

As a graphic designer I deal with a lot of files on a regular basis. On any given day I will touch dozens of files. In addition to the files I use on a regular basis I frequently need to go back into my archive to find files that are years old. If I didn’t have a file organization system I would be frustrated on a daily basis.

Maintaining a good file organization may not seem important when it is just you, or if you are early on in your business. But, I believe that you are building something truly awesome. When you hire your first employee, or decide to move files off your computer, or simply grow larger it will be infinitely more complicated and difficult if you don’t have a system for organizing your files. If you don’t have a system, you will have created a nightmare for yourself or for your employees.

But I probably don’t have to tell you any of this. Likely you have had this experience of not being able to locate a crucial document, and you spend hours searching your computer, email, Dropbox, Google Drive, and a drawer full of USB drives to save you from having to recreate a document. It’s the worst.

Stop losing important files by following my five basic rules for file organization.

Five Basic File Organization Rules

Rule 1: Organize Files by Project

If you don’t have any hierarchy in your folder system you should. Create some basic hierarchy by separating your personal files from your business files. Keep all the files related to one project together, rather than grouping files by type. It is a lot easier to find what you are looking for if you have a folder for each client project or each marketing ad project.

Create a hierarchy system that works for your business and stick to it. Don’t go rogue and drop files in random places or in your top level folders.

Rule 2: Every file has to have a searchable name

Even if you have an awesome system, every once in a while you will have a file that you just can’t remember where you put it. If you give your files clear, descriptive and searchable names then they will be a Spotlight search away.

If you are saving a file off into a folder take two seconds to change the name from the default file name. Default file names reek havoc on an otherwise beautiful file organization system. You are never going to find that expense report if the file name is gcc02930204.csv or if your contract is labeled untitled-203.doc.

You are never going to find that expense report if the file name is gcc02930204.csv

Do your future-self a favor and always name your files.

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Rule 3: Versioned Files Always have Dates in the Name

A versioned file is any document that will have multiple versions such as a contract with revisions, or a blog post with multiple variations. Let’s say that you and a client are going back and forth on a contract. If you are like most people, you will open the file, make a change, save it, then send the updated file to the client. By making two small changes in that process you can make it easier to revert to an old version and track your changes to the contract.

First: add a date to the end of your file name. So instead of client-contract.doc, your file would be client-contract-07252016.doc. The dates that your computer saves do not always reflect when you modified the file.



Second: When you save the file, save a new file with a new date. Yes, that does mean that you might end up with five files for the same document. But, you never know when you’ll need to go back to that first version.

Adding a date to your file name means that you will always know which version of the file it is, even if it is separated from your file organization in an email. This rule has saved me lots of heartache in the past.

Rule 4: Any Temporary Files Get Delete Dates added to the File Name

Everyone has temporary files: documents you downloaded to copy a section of text, images you cropped for a webinar, text documents that were used as paste boards. If you create a document that you know that you will only need for a couple of days or weeks, add a delete date onto the end. Example:


If you run across the file after the “delete by” date you will know that it is safe to delete that file. I never want my computer and hard drive to be cluttered up by files that are the equivalent to a balled up straw wrapper in my pocket. I also don’t want to have to spend a whole day purging my folders every year.

Note: just because it’s a temporary file, it doesn’t mean that you can violate rule number one of file organization.

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Rule 5: Always Treat Your Desktop as Temporary Storage

Occasionally it makes more sense to drop a file onto the desktop then into a folder. You should always treat your desktop as temp storage. Pretend that it will get cleaned at the end of every night automatically. Do not store important files on your Desktop. You are just asking for them to get lost. If it’s important enough to keep it should always go into a folder.

A clean desktop will give you a calm peace of mind. As a small business owner, there is nothing more stressful the starting up your computer to a cluttered desktop, especially when you are already freaking out about your long list of tasks.



If you aren’t sure where to save a file, take two minutes to think through your organization and where it makes the most sense to save it so that you can find it later. If you make it a regular habit to name your files consistently and specifically then you can search for them. Following these five rules for file organization will help to simplify your business life and make you less stressed when you sit down to work.

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