A beginner’s guide to staying organised with file syncing services

Messy and disorganised people are forever leaving important things behind. That presentation you needed for the conference? It's at the office on your desktop computer. Those pictures from Mickey's first birthday party that you planned to show Grandma while visiting? They're still on your laptop, which is sitting 300 miles away at home on the couch.

Technologists have, rather brilliantly, solved this problem for discombobulated people.

The answer is file syncing, and there are plenty of companies that offer this service for free. While file syncing services won't change your personality and turn you into a neat and mindful individual, they can act as a safety net, helping you avoid paying disastrous consequences for your disorganisation.

What is file syncing?

First off, for the uninitiated, or those not exactly clear on the matter, let’s have a quick look at exactly what file syncing is. The purpose of a file synchronisation service is to give you access to all your most important, current files from any computer or Internet-connected device, like your smartphone or tablet, anytime, anywhere. "Current" in this case means files you might reasonably need to access in the near future, rather than documents that are done with and you really ought to archive. And files can be anything from documents to photos to music.

Here's how it works: You sign up for an account with a file syncing service (either free or with a subscription fee – I'll name some specific offerings a little later in this article), install the file syncing software on your computer, and decide which files or folders you want synchronised. Once the files are marked for syncing, the service makes a copy of them and stores them online, and – this is the important part – from here on out it updates the copy anytime you change the file locally. Now, whenever you log into the service, whether from a smartphone or someone else's computer via the file syncing service's website, you will have access to your documents.

Details of how the services work can vary a little bit, but the basic premise is that any time you change a file, the altered copy will be saved online, and any time you're logged in to the service – whether through a website or just by keeping yourself logged in through the installed software on your computer or mobile device – the service will make sure you're seeing the most recent copy. The service syncs the most recent copy of every file to all the devices you use for access. Some services also save versions that preserve the history of your changes, up to a certain number. This way, you don't have to worry about saving "version 1" and "version 2" copies of documents. The file syncing service will do that automatically.

The reason a file syncing service helps you feel more organised is that it makes leaving a file behind very difficult. You don't have to constantly email yourself that document you're working on. As long as you have an Internet connection, you can retrieve your work. Most services also have some level of sharing, letting you easily send files across to others so they can view them, and some have collaboration features so that multiple people can upload files to a shared place.

Use cases for file syncing

Sometimes it's hard to imagine why you would need a particular service until you hear about how other people are using it. Here are some examples:

Busy business professional. Anyone who does even a little bit of their professional work from home – or might one day need to – can imagine the usefulness of file syncing service. Imagine bad weather prevents you from getting into work, but you need to finish a project to meet a deadline. And the latest copy of the project lives locally on your office computer. With a file syncing service in place, you can grab that project in seconds.

Traveller. Frequent travellers who don't want to carry a clunky laptop with them can ensure all their files are available to them no matter where they log in. Travellers can also sync photos they take and have them appear on their home computer almost instantly.

Applicant. I used a file syncing service recently while going through a lengthy application process that involved multiple parties. Whenever I received a document, I scanned it and saved it to a syncing service. Then, when one of the parties contacted me to ask for a copy of something, I almost never had to fax or photocopy and mail anything. Instead, I could push a button and send documents to whomever needed them, regardless of whether I was home, at work, or elsewhere.

Student. Students working on dissertations, essays, or really any kind of project can save their assets to the file syncing cloud and be able to get at them any time an idea strikes. Those who keep one computer at home, perhaps sharing it with a roommate, and use public computers at a library or computer lab would definitely be well served by synchronising their work.

The emailer. If you're in the habit of emailing files to yourself so that they will be saved online for easy access, let me assure you that you are a prime candidate for a file syncing service. They are much more fool-proof than the ad-hoc email method – and email attachments can clog up storage-limited inboxes, too.

Tips for syncing files

File syncing services can actually be a little confusing to the novice. The more you know about them, however, the easier they are to understand. The most important thing to realise is that the file syncing system is always looking to the location where you first marked the file to be synced for information about what's going on with the file.

For example, you have your dissertation on your home computer, along with a number of images that go with it, all in one folder. You mark all those assets to be synced. The system makes a copy of all the items in that folder and saves them to its remote servers.

You shut down your computer, leave the house, head to the library, and log in to the file syncing website from a computer at the library. On the site, you see the folder, your dissertation, and all the images. If you want to work on them here, you can download them and edit away. When you're done, you have to upload the changed files to the server because there's no local file syncing software on this machine. Easy enough.

Back at home, ready to do more work, you'll notice that when you connect to the Internet, the dissertation documents will have a little icon on them that indicates they are in the process of syncing. For most services, it's some kind of spinning arrow. When it's done syncing, you'll see something like a green checkmark or other "okay" style icon. Now, all the work you did at the library is reflected in the documents on your home computer.

So, you can see that as long as you always remember to re-upload your work when editing remotely (meaning on a computer that's not your own), the file syncing service becomes a very secure safety net.

The most important thing to know – and I've heard a few horror stories – is that the file syncing service is always checking your primary machine first for an updated status of a file. If you delete files from your hard drive that you had marked to be backed up, the syncing service will also delete them.

But there's good news, too. If you lose a hard drive and can never reboot that system, the file syncing service will still have the most recent copy of your files. That's because it's still looking for your computer, and if it never makes contact, it will never receive instructions to delete the files. So the work will still be there. (If you do lose a hard drive, you should download the files to your new system immediately and mark them to sync).

Which file syncing service to choose?

When it comes to file syncing services, to be quite frank, all the major players are pretty good. But they do offer slightly different perks and ways of doing things, naturally enough.

One of our favourites is Dropbox (pictured above), as it’s an elegant system which is very easy to use, so it’s great for beginners. It’s also free, which is obviously a big plus, although you only get 2GB of storage space with a free account – but you can earn more by referrals (recommending friends to join).

Security company Trend Micro owns the synchronising service SafeSync for Home, and there’s a SafeSync for Business version, too. Both offer impressive secure syncing capabilities for your files, and a no-nonsense online interface. All the data is encrypted with bank-level security during syncing. The software works on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, but the main drawback is there's no free edition – although there is a free 30 day trial, so you can give it a whirl for nothing.

File synchronisation service SugarSync is highly intuitive and easy to understand, allowing you to quickly mark any file or folder to back up. You can get a free account with 5GB of space on a three month trial, but sadly the totally free account which used to exist doesn’t anymore. The basic paid account is £4.50 per month for 60GB of storage, so you do get a big chunk of space for your money.

Finally, Mozy – like Dropbox – is a free service which gives you 2GB of space, and boasts a slick system for backing up and syncing your files. There are many options out there other than the ones we’ve mentioned, of course – if you stick to a major brand name, as we mentioned previously, you can’t really go wrong.

File syncing does the organisation for you

What I love most about syncing services is that they help people feel more confident. You're confident you have the files you need and that they are the most recently updated version. File syncing services are one very good example of a technology that takes the burden off you when it comes to being organised. If you can remember how the services work, there's very little else you have to do. Let the technology be responsible – it'll give you more time to focus on the content of your files.