“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” — A.A. Milne
With over 20 years of experience managing thousands of documents at Microsoft, I’ve developed a better file organization system that will transform the way you store and find your files and unlock new levels of productivity.
Say goodbye to wasting precious time and energy with micro-decisions and decision fatigue.
As a trusted source for world-class knowledge, frameworks, methods, and practices, I’ve created an evergreen file organization system that’s easy to evolve, built a network of high achievers who inspire and share openly, and leveraged knowledge as a competitive advantage and collaboration platform.
In this article, I’ll share my proven approach to help you create a world-class library of profound knowledge and high-value resources, empowering you to operate at a higher level in both work and life.
Your File Organization System is Your Library of Profound Knowledge
Your file organization system is more than just a simple way to store your documents – it’s your personal learning platform and library of profound knowledge.
Folders help you focus. Folders help you consolidate. Folders help you file and find your best documents.
By transcending the ordinary and creating an extraordinary file organization system, you can take your personal and professional success to the next level.
In the Knowledge Age, your ability to manage and leverage knowledge is the ultimate game changer.
The ability to easily file and find knowledge sets the best apart from the rest, and those who can effectively learn, share, and apply knowledge will gain a competitive advantage and achieve greater success.
Join the ranks of top performers in the Knowledge Age by mastering your file organization system and unlocking the full potential of your knowledge.
Goals for a Better File Organization System
The primary goals of a better file organization system are to make it easier and faster to access the files and information needed for work, while also reducing stress and enhancing collaboration and decision-making.
You don’t want to have to think to hard every time you try to file a document or find one.
The primary goals of a better file organization system for better productivity are:
- Time-saving: A better file organization system should save time by allowing users to quickly and easily find the files they need without wasting time searching through cluttered folders or trying to remember where files are stored.
- Improved efficiency: By streamlining the file organization process, a better system can help users work more efficiently and get more done in less time.
- Reduced stress: A disorganized file system can lead to stress and frustration, while a better system can help users feel more in control and confident about their work.
- Increased collaboration: A well-organized file system can make it easier to collaborate with colleagues and share files across teams.
- Better decision-making: A better file organization system can provide users with the information they need to make better decisions, by allowing them to easily access and review relevant files and documents.
- Enhanced security: By properly organizing files and folders, a better system can help ensure that sensitive information is kept secure and confidential.
Keys to a Better File Organization System
The most important idea to me is to have a place for things and everything in its place.
I like fast, simple, and easy, especially for something that’s so repetitive and mundane. Don’t make me think.
I also am always imagining, “How will Future You” find this again? That helps me name things better and organize better for findability in the future.
Here are what I believe to be the keys to a better file organization system, along with simple examples for each one:
- Name things with the most important noun: When naming files and folders, it’s important to choose a name that accurately describes the contents. This means focusing on the most important noun in the name. For example, instead of naming a file “Presentation Draft Version 1”, a better name might be “Marketing Presentation”.
- Keep names simple: The simpler the name, the easier it will be to find and remember. Use common language and avoid overly technical terms or jargon. For example, instead of naming a folder “Asynchronous Communication”, a simpler and more intuitive name might be “Emails”.
- Move files or folders to the right location: If you find yourself repeatedly searching for a file in the wrong place, it’s time to move it to a more logical location. For example, if you’ve been looking for a file on a shared drive when it’s actually saved on your desktop, move it to the correct location.
- Make it easy to find and file things: If you have to think too hard when you’re trying to file something, it’s a sign that your current system isn’t working effectively. Change the naming or folder structure to make it more intuitive and easier to use. For example, instead of having a folder named “Miscellaneous”, create subfolders for different types of files like “Invoices” or “Receipts”.
- Be consistent: Consistency is more important than getting everything perfect. If you consistently use a naming convention or folder structure that doesn’t work well, it’s easier to correct than if you use a different system every time. For example, if you consistently name files by client name first, it’s easier to go back and correct any mistakes than if you use different naming conventions for different clients.
How To Organize Your Files and Folders for Better Productivity
Here are the key steps to organizing your files and folders:
Step 1: Assess Your Current System
The first step is to assess your current system for organizing files and folders. Take a look at your desktop, downloads folder, and other areas where files tend to accumulate.
Determine whether you have a consistent system in place or if you tend to save files in a haphazard way.
Identify any pain points or areas where your current system is not working effectively.
Step 2: Develop a Naming Convention
The next step is to develop a naming convention for your files.
A naming convention is a consistent way of naming files so that they are easy to find and understand.
Use nouns over verbs and simple over complex.
Step 3: Create a Folder Structure
The next step is to create a folder structure that will help you organize your files in a logical way.
Use a hierarchy of folders that start with broad categories and then become increasingly specific. For example, you might have a top-level folder for work-related files, with subfolders for individual projects or clients.
Step 4: Apply Your System Consistently
Once you have developed a naming convention and folder structure, the key is to apply it consistently.
This means saving files in the appropriate folders, using the correct naming convention, and regularly reviewing and organizing your files to ensure they stay up-to-date and relevant.
Step 5: Tune and Improve What’s Not Working
After applying your system consistently for a while, it’s important to review and assess whether it’s working effectively.
Look for areas where you’re still having trouble finding or filing files, and consider whether you need to make adjustments to your naming convention or folder structure.
Focus on speed and effort. Consider how much work it takes to find or file a document, and make changes to streamline the process.
For example, if you find yourself constantly digging through subfolders to find a specific file, consider moving it to a more easily accessible location.
Regularly reviewing and improving your system is key to maintaining an effective file organization system.
By continuously refining your process, you can ensure that you’re always able to find the files you need quickly and easily.
A Better File Organization System for Better Productivity
Here is a simple top-level view of broad categories to organize your folders and files.
Top Level Folders
Here is a starter set of top level folders:
Let’s walk through each folder so that you get an idea of what goes in there and how to use it…
The Admin folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
- /Career Dev
The Admin folder is a great place to keep your administrative files such as your Bio, Expenses, Career Dev, Resumes, Reviews, etc.
The Docs folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
The Docs folder is a great place to store your documents to easily find them and easily.
I find it helpful to store by the document type. This way you can quickly find all of your MindMaps or all of your Slides, etc.
The People folder is a primary folder in your better folder organization system:
- /Asher Nightingale
- /Bilbo Baggins
- /Briar Moonstone
- /Kyrie Blackwood
- /Lennox Hawthorne
- /Lila Starshine
- /Nia Evergreen
- /Orion Sterling
- /Sage Riversong
- /Willow Frostbite
- /Zander Waverly
The People folder is a great way to store documents that other people share with you.
The way I think about this is, you may forget the punchline, but you remember who told you the joke. Imagine how easy it is to find all the documents that Zander Waverly or Bilbo Baggins shared with you.
And imagine how much easier it is to just save files each time somebody shares something with you.
The Presentations folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
- /Breaking Through Barriers
- /Digital Transformation: Strategies
- /Embracing Diversity and Inclusion
- /Innovative Marketing Strategies
- /Mastering Time Management
- /Streamlining Workflow
- /The Power of Collaboration
The Presentations folder is a great way to keep your presentations all in one place.
I gave a lot of presentations over the years, so it was really helpful to have a simple place to browse my presentations and to reuse them when needed.
The Projects folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
- /Blue Horizon
- /Delta Dynamics
- /Eclipse Enterprises
- /Galactic Ventures
- /Horizon Heights
- /Infinity Innovations
- /Jupiter Junction
If you want to get something done, make it a project. Having a project folder makes it super simple to find and browse all your projects. It’s one place to look. And having one place to look makes it much faster, especially when you are working on multiple projects.
The Research folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
- /Big Data Analytics
- /Climate Change
- /Future of Work
- /Human-Machine Interaction
- /Online Learning
- /Psychology of Social Media
- /Quantum Computing
If your work is less about research and more about learning, then you might just create a “Learning” folder, or both.
I’ve done intense research for years at Microsoft whether it was to ramp up on new technologies or investigate markets or learn new domains. It’s great when you know you can dive into a topic and simply start saving files to a folder as you do research and find interesting documents and create useful notes.
The Resources folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
- /Acme Inc
- /Deloitte Consulting
- /Forrester Research
- /Harvard Business Review
- /McKinsey & Company
- /PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
- /TED Talks
The Resources folder is a great place to store things you download or get from other sources, external to you. It’s stuff that you did not create.
This way, you keep a clean separately from the docs you create, the projects you create, the templates you create, versus the things you acquire during your research and exploration.
Similar to the People folder, you might not remember the punchline, but you’ll remember who told you the joke. You may not remember the name of a particular presentation you saved, but you might remember it was from Acme Corp, and this lets you quickly browse your collection.
In fact, that’s a great way to think of your Resources folder. It’s a library of your collections from external sources.
The Templates folder is a primary folder in your better file organization system:
- /Business Templates
- /Creative Templates
- /Education Template
- /Innovation Templates
- /Personal Development Templates
- /Productivity Templates
- /Slide Templates
- /Writing Templates
The Templates folder is something I should have started much earlier in my career. I effectively had a lot of templates or at least documents that I was using as templates scattered about, either as past presentations or in my documents or as part of projects. Especially as parts of projects.
As soon as I made an official Templates folder and curated my templates, my work life got 10X better, every day.
It was much easier for me to find my repetitive resources. I took better care of them. And, ultimately, I started paying more attention to template opportunities, and I soon found myself creating a vast library of templates for all sorts of repetitive tasks and activities.
Bonus Tip #1: The View More Pattern
When I have a folder with many files, one thing I found useful is to use what I call the View More pattern.
Here’s a simple example:
- /- View More
- /Document 1
- /Document 2
- /Document 3
This way, I can keep the short set of documents that I might frequently use, while keeping the rest of the documents out of my way, yet easily within my grasp.
By keeping the bulk of documents under View More, and keeping the short set front and center, it also helps me focus and it takes less energy to find things.
Bonus Tip #2: Archiving Files and Folders
There are a lot of strategies here, but the main one I found most useful in the long run is to simply archive by year.
I reviewed a lot of colleagues file organization systems looking for patterns, and the one that got my attention is setting folders by year.
This way, it’s easy to get a fresh start each year. And, at the same time, it’s easy to go back and find things.
To be fair, while this worked really well for timely things like projects and a lot of research and other documents, it was less effective for things that I found were more evergreen.
For that, I created a Library folder of high value assets.
Bonus Tip #3: Your Library of High Value Assets
Creating a library of high value assets can be a real game changer, especially if you create and curate it with care.
- / Canvases
- / Frameworks
- / Mental Models
- / Visuals
- / Workshops
While Templates is where I really keep a set of starters and quick start guides and canned canvases and templates, I think of my Library as a place for my outputs and creations.
In a way, it makes it easy to see the kinds of knowledge that you package up for reuse at a glance.
Working on Your File Organization System is Working on Your Knowledge
Organizing your files and folders is crucial for better productivity, but it can be overwhelming to know where to start.
By assessing your current system, developing a consistent naming convention and folder structure, and applying your system consistently, you can create a streamlined and efficient way of managing your files.
The key is to keep it simple, focusing on using nouns and avoiding complexity, and to continuously tune and improve your system.
A well-organized file system not only saves time and energy but also leads to better work-life balance and a sense of control and confidence.
Keep in mind this is just a thought starter and reference example. Ultimately, you will need to discover the system that works for you, but hopefully this gets you started in a better direction, and helps you lead to your own personal breakthroughs.
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