6 Tips to Better Manage Your Files and Folders

The ability to locate your data when you need it is an essential skill for anyone who uses a computer. Unfortunately, many people become very frustrated performing this relatively simple task. This is due to either a simple lack of understanding in how to navigate Windows or just years of bad file-management practices.

I’ve seen many smart, business-savvy people save Word documents to wherever the system defaults to, with no idea how to locate them outside of the application they were created in. They’d also swear their mother’s grave that they’d copied a file to their USB flash drive, and yet the file would never be on the disk. So, if you — or someone you know — could use a bit of file management help, these six tips will come in handy.

1. Get Comfortable using Windows Explorer

The primary culprit behind poor file-management skills seems to be a lack of understanding of how to navigate Windows. Therefore the single most important tip I can give is to learn to use Windows Explorer.

Windows Explorer displays the hierarchical structure of files, folders, and drives on your computer. It also shows any network drives that have been mapped to drive letters on your computer. Windows Explorer is your primary tool for copying, moving, renaming and searching for files and folders.

Once you can successfully navigate your computer’s drive and folder structure, you’ll be hard-pressed to misplace anything. To open Windows Explorer, you click Start > All Programs > Accessories, and then select Windows Explorer. To help get you started, check out How to Navigate Windows 7 with Windows Explorer from Dummies.com.

2. Store All of Your Data in a Single Location

Keeping your files and folders organized on the computer is no more difficult than keeping them organized in real life. For most of us, our files reside in one location; usually a file cabinet. Do the same on your computer and appoint one primary folder to store all of your data.

The easiest way to do this, especially if you’re not terribly proficient, is to take advantage of the default Documents folder built into Windows. Windows XP users know this as My Documents. Windows 7 refers to this folder as User’s Files, and it’s typically found on the Windows desktop and labeled with your username.

Within this default folder you’ll find multiple folders here with names like My Pictures, My Music and My Videos. This encourages you to group similar file types together. This structure not only makes it easier to locate your files quickly, it allows even inexperienced users to intuitively store their pictures in the My Pictures folder and their music in the My Music folder; thus reinforcing good file management skills. This approach also makes it very easy to archive or transfer their data to another system.

3. Use Shortcuts

One of the simplest ways to be productive, yet still keep your files properly organized is to use shortcuts. Instead of copying a word document to your desktop for quick and easy access, get in the habit of creating a shortcut to the file. This avoids unnecessary file duplication while at the same time keeping your files where they belong.

Plus, should you accidently delete the shortcut from your desktop, you won’t have to worry about recovering the file, since deleting the shortcut does not affect the original file. You can use shortcuts with any file type, and they’re easy to create. Just right-click on the file and choose Create shortcut. The shortcut appears within the same folder as the original file. You can identify the shortcut by a small arrow in the lower left of the icon. Now just cut and paste the shortcut to a location that’s most convenient for you.

4. Keep File Names Short

Although Windows is capable of using file names as long as 255 characters, keep your filenames as short as possible. While long filenames are harder to read, those 255 characters also have to account for the entire file path. For instance, if you had a file named “2011 business Projections” on your desktop, then the path for that file would be something like: C:windowsusersusernamedesktop2011 Business Projections, which more than doubles the number of characters.

This number increases dramatically when you have files stored in nested subfolders, and it could lead to problems down the road when you archive or transfer them. To keep your filenames to a reasonable length, use abbreviations such as Dept as opposed to Department. Or instead of using a full date like September 25th, 2011, use 9-25-11. Little things like that will significantly decrease the length of your filenames and still keep them easily identifiable.

5. Use Descriptive Folders to Identify Files

Folders can help you break the files down into smaller, more easily identifiable units. Let’s use books as an example. Instead of a filename like Harry_Potter _and _The_Deathly_Hallows_by_JK_Rowling.epub, you can shorten it considerably — and better organize it — by using folders. For instance, create a folder called JK_Rowling and then a sub-folder called Harry Potter. Now store the book in the Harry Potter folder with the name The_Deadly_Hallows.epub.

This folder method is much more concise; it lets you shorten the filename and storing the book by either series or author makes it easier to locate. This will not only work with books, but all of your data as well. Music can be stored in the My Music folder, broken down further by Artist and Album. Word documents and spreadsheets can be stored in either a Work or Personal folder, further sorted by Project or Event. Remember, the more detailed you can be in defining your folders the easier it will be to locate what you need when you need it.

6. Group Projects Components Together

You can also benefit by storing all components of a project under a single folder. I once provided IT support for an architecture company where this was a standard practice. Anyone working on a particular project, regardless of their role on the project, knew that whatever information they needed, whether it be CAD drawings, photos, status reports, invoices, presentations, etc., lived in that folder. Another benefit: if you store all the project components in one folder, it’s much easier to move or archive once the project is completed.

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