How to use folders to keep your desktop organised and uncluttered

Getting and staying organised is like losing weight – short-term solutions don't work. You've got to make lifestyle changes that you and your employees or business partners can stick to in the longer term.

In this series, I'll provide tips on how to get both your business and your own personal data organised. The previous article explained the importance of understanding how your business thinks about information. Now I'll show you how to put that groundwork into practice with computer folder naming conventions and structures. Most businesses will implement these folder structures either on their servers or within a project management suite, but they are equally applicable right on your own desktop or in an email client.

What are folders, really?

Folders are the skeleton of your business. Like a building's structure, they support everything else that goes up around them, from creative design to straightforward functionality.

I've worked in seven different offices in the course of my career. The teams that had clean and common sense folder structures were always the ones best positioned for continued success and growth.

Small businesses in particular should note that fact: An organised company is one that's positioned for growth. You may think that because there are only two people in the company now, you can keep a lot of information in your head and not map it out to a folder structure. Unfortunately, when it's time to hire new employees and grow your business, you'll waste a lot of time teaching them your convoluted system. You'll waste even more time and money correcting mistakes, time and money you should be spending on growth.

Your folder structure is a reflection of your business structure. Folders are nested within other folders in a hierarchical system that needs to match the hierarchical order of your work.

In discussing how you and other people in your business think about information (which we covered in the first article), you probably started to see a hierarchy of some kind unfold. I recommend sketching out that structure. It doesn't matter if you sketch it on paper, in bullet points, or in a note-taking application like Evernote, or by using mind-mapping software. Putting it in writing will help you see if there are inconsistencies or overlaps.

An example structure

The structure of your design will be unique, but because it helps tremendously to see an example, I'll show you the basic one that I use on my desktop.

As a writer, I primarily work on product reviews. When I think about reviews, I see three categories in my mind's eye:

1. Ideas for products to review.

2. Articles that are in-progress.

3. Reviews that are finished.

Within the "finished" category, I tend to remember reviews by their publication date, which I simplify to the month and year because there are never too many within a single month that I would lose sight of them. Within the "ideas" category, things are kind of fluid. Some ideas encompass more than one product, while others relate to a single thing. But just because they're fluid, doesn't mean I can't have a system for keeping them organised. Within the "in-progress" category, I think of the name of the product I'm reviewing. Now, how does this translate to folders?

This system works because it's important for me to see a snapshot of ideas and things in progress. They are right in the name of the folders, so I see them immediately when I open my "REVIEW" folder. I don't need to see all the names of products I've finished reviewing, so I tuck them into folders according to their publication date. All the names of the folders are consistent. When the status of a project changes from being in-progress to being finished, I drag and drop it into the corresponding folder, and its naming convention is the same as all the other folders that are with it. For example, I can drag a Roman numeral folder, such as ii, up to the level of c and d without having to rename it, and it will fit right into the system.

Tips and tricks

Numbers. Notice how the month folders start with four digits. The first two digits are for the year, and the second relate to the month. I like to see names of the months as well, so I put them at the end after an underscore. I am a big proponent of using four or six-digit numerals for dates for a few reasons. First, I personally tend to remember when things happened, so it's easy for me to find things if I can look for them by date. Second, folders always appear in order by date when I sort them by name because alphabetically 1401 comes before 1402, which comes before 1403, etc.

Using dates becomes extremely useful when you have to archive, which I'll talk about in an upcoming article on email management.

Tags. In my example, I use all capital letters for the folders starting with "IDEAS_" because I want "ideas" to stick together when I sort by name. I think of these as tags. For in-progress reviews, I don't bother with a tag. I just name the folder by the product name. If I had more than about 20 product reviews in progress at a time, I would probably alter my folder naming convention and add a tag to let all the in-progress stuff hang together. "IN-PROGRESS_" would probably be too long, but maybe something as simple as "IN_" would work.

It turns out that "IN_" in particular wouldn't work, and here's why: When I sketched out my entire folder structures, I used the word "in" elsewhere to mean something very specific. See how important it is to sketch out the whole thing first?

Unique. One of the reasons to use tags and numbers is that it helps keep file names unique. You never want two files or folders named the same thing because if you accidentally drag and drop them to the same location, one could overwrite the other. And, of course, it's just confusing anyway.

Special characters. Underscores are my best friend in folder naming conventions. They're clean and keep the text easy to read. Some people use spaces and hyphens in their folder names – it's up to you. Whatever you choose, always stay conscious of how the characters affect alphabetical name sorting. Sometimes I use an underscore at the beginning of a folder name when I always want that folder to appear at the top, like "_DONE." Then I can easily drag and drop anything that's completed to the top folder. Alternatively, if I wanted it at the bottom, I could name it "z_DONE."

Colour. Mac OS X is fantastic at letting you quickly colour-code folders by right clicking. You can do it on a PC, but it's clunky. I relied on colour-coding when I worked on highly collaborative design projects – my colleague and I labelled folders on a shared server as yellow when the contents were new and not yet polished, orange after the files had passed their first design phase, and so on through purple, which indicated that the work was done.

Whatever system you implement, stick to it! Consistency is key to staying organised.

Remember that being organised, like staying in shape, requires long-term lifestyle changes, not quick fixes. As much as possible and as much as it makes sense, try to use the same basic principles across all projects, teams, and departments in the whole business.


The steps to remember from this article are:

1. Sketch out your folder structure before implementing it.

2. Organise information hierarchically, thinking about what you will need to see and know in a snapshot view when you look in a folder.

3. Use letters, numerals, and special characters in your folder names to get them to appear in an intelligent order.

4. Be consistent with naming conventions when you create new folders.