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Organizing Your Digital Files

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In a digital world, keeping your files organized is becoming an increasingly important thing to do. At the same time, the number of files each of us has to manage is growing at a very fast pace, which makes it hard to keep up with.

At the end of the day, there are two main things you want to do with your files: Keep them safe and keep them findable.

When it comes to keeping your files safe, findable, and organized, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Folders vs search

While I grew up in the folder-style file structure world, that is beginning to fade away. A fascinating article from the Verge talks about how younger students don’t use (or even understand) the concept of files. This quote from the article really stood out to me:

She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

While I still keep most of my files in tight folders, that’s not always true for me either. Because search and AI are becoming so powerful, it can often be easier to just drop your files in a bucket and search for them when you need them.

For example, I have tens of thousands of photos in my Google Photos account but I have very few folders. When I need to find a photo, I can search by date, location, even content (“campfire”) or person.

Related, I use Roam Research for most of my personal notes, and it’s intentionally a folder-less system. It works great, but it’s a very different mindset to try to get around.

Organizing your folders

While search may solve some of your needs, you’ll still often find yourself needing to manually organize many of your files. This can be handled in a variety of different ways, but taking time to think through your high-level folders is a good place to start.

For example, we have hundreds of gigabytes of files for our work, but we’ve split them across three top-level folders:

  • Clients: For all client work
  • GreenMellen: For internal marketing pieces
  • Resources: For all other resources and documents

When you dig into one of those, the secondary levels are kept rather simple to the extent possible as well.

Simple is often better

As an example, we used to get very creative inside of the “clients” folder, with sub-folders for “leads”, “active clients”, “past clients” and others, each with clients inside of them.

Now, we simply have A-Z directly inside of the Clients folder, and it’s been fantastic. Rather than thinking “Is Acme still considered a lead, or are they active now?” and trying to track them down, I can just go to [Clients] –> [A] and they’re right there.

A complex system can sound great on paper, but it can be tough to keep up with and often will fall into disrepair. A simple system that is well-maintained will serve you much better.

Have a place for everything

Another challenge is to know which system a particular file ended up in. You may think “I know I saved that file, but where did I put it?“, and that’s always a frustrating experience. In the case of GreenMellen, we have the following systems:

  • Files: Always go in Google Drive
  • Tasks: Always go in Clickup
  • Events: Always go on Google Calendar

If you couple those items with our continual push for inbox zero, things tend to stay pretty clean. If I’m looking for a document for our client DGM, I can be very confident that it’s in Google Drive under [Clients] –> [D].

For my personal files, things are a little bit more complicated. I’ve written quite a bit about my personal process, which you can read in my Digital Efficiency Framework post.

The cloud is a backup… mostly

One of the best things about tools like Google Drive and Dropbox is that they’re essentially a backup for your files. It’s kind of like what Google showed off 12 years ago when they were promoting the very first Chromebooks:

Even if your computer gets lost or destroyed, your files are safe.

That said, it’s still wise to keep an additional backup from time to time in case your cloud account were to get hacked or otherwise compromised. In our case, I use Google Takeout to download a full copy of our Google Drive files to an external hard drive once a month. It’s a bit of a hassle, and likely unnecessary, but will be wildly valuable if things ever go sideways.

You can largely protect yourself by using strong, unique passwords and using dual-factor authentication to protect your account. There is still always a chance you may get hacked, or the service itself might get hacked directly, so having those extra backups are always wise.

As the number of files under your control continues to grow, it’s worth spending a little bit of time now to make sure they’re all secure and findable, versus spending a lot of time in the future trying to track them down or recover from a crash.

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Mickey Mellen

Co-Founder and Technical Director

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