Personal Knowledge Management

5 tips for organizing computer files: how to structure your computer folders, documents, and files

Organize your digital files with these 5 tips on folder organization and document naming.
Elizabeth Butler 6 min read
5 tips for organizing computer files: how to structure your computer folders, documents, and files
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You might have come across this site because you’re searching for the most effective way to organize your computer files and folders. Perhaps you’re starting a new role at work, and want to figure out the best way to organize your work notes and documents. Or maybe you’re just tired of feeling scattered and disorganized so you found yourself Googling “what’s the best practice for organizing files within your computer” and “how can I organize my computer files“ and “how do I organize file folders“ and other variations late into the evening without success.

I’m Elizabeth Butler, MD, PhD, and I’m the creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. I’ve spent nearly two decades working in the field of information management, and I want to help you ditch the overwhelm— you can create a minimalist, simplified knowledge management system that truly fits your life.

Here are 5 tips on best practices for organizing your computer files and folders to get you started.

Define your goals in creating an organization system for your computer files and folders

When we’re feeling overwhelmed and scattered, it can be tempting just to leap in and focus on the technical details of best practices for computer file naming and folder organization. We feel like it must be a technical problem, with a technical solution. (And we’ll get to some practical tips and strategies further along in this article.)

But the first, most critical step in building a sustainable information management system is to define your goals.

  • What are you trying to organize?
  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What are your current frustrations?

Everyone faces different challenges: we all have different problems we’re trying to solve. We all have our own reasons for wanting to reorganize our digital filing systems.

Not quite clear on the “why” behind your desire to organize your digital files and folders? Looking for guidance in determining your information management goals? The Calmer Notes course takes you through a step-by-step framework to identify your own unique personal knowledge management goals and challenges— then build a tailored digital filing system that precisely meets your own unique needs.

Choose a logical hierarchy for your folders

Once you get clear on your computer filing goals and challenges, it becomes simpler to choose an appropriate folder setup. Depending on your own individual needs, you may choose to create a filing system that is:

  • Client based
  • Project based
  • Date based
  • File-type based

You might choose to make your own blended version of a combination of them above (such as subfolders of projects within a client file, sorted by date).

Project based example

Date based example

Client based example

File type based

Create a naming formula (with descriptive keywords) for your files

Adding descriptive keywords to file names

When you’re naming your files, it’s important to be as consistent and descriptive as possible. When you name a file, try to imagine the search strings of your future self.

  • Why will your future self be looking for this information?
  • What type of project might they be working on that this may help them support?
  • What  types of keywords might they be typing into a search bar?

Think how you would search for this information right now if you were browsing someone else’s database. What words would you search? How would you expect it to be categorized?

Adding the date to file names

When you start your file names with the date (using a common, standardized dating approach), you can quickly sort your files by date on any platform.

File naming convention inspiration

Here’s what a file naming convention could look like in practice:

Keep your system consistent across platforms

Like many people, you probably store your files in at least a few different spots - perhaps on your personal laptop, your work computer, your tablet, and Google Drive.

Do you feel like your notes and documents are scattered across way too many platforms and note taking apps? Does setting up a better computer filing system just feel like a bandaid solution? The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management may be just what you’ve been looking for.

Once you establish a computer folder hierarchy and standardized file naming convention, take the time to refresh and update all the spots where you store files. Consistency is key for maintaining your computer filing system.

Establish a weekly processing checklist

Any system requires upkeep— and this includes any organizational system for managing computer files, documents, and folders. If you create a weekly (or monthly) habit of maintaining your system, you’ll never again have to face the overwhelm of processing a truckload of scattered files all at once.

As part of your weekly review (or on whatever rhythm and schedule makes sense for you), aim to go through a standard processing checklist. This can include items such as:

  • Process files on your desktop and downloads folder (delete unnecessary ones, rename and file ones you want to keep)
  • Clean out, delete duplicates, and/or archive old files
  • Reviewing your filing system to make sure it still fits your goals

Craft an intentional, effortless note taking system with the Calmer Notes method

Hi friend! If you're searching for advice on the best way to organize your computer files, folders, and documents, you're probably in the midst of trying to figure out the best way to structure and organize your note taking system.

You may find yourself wondering:

  • What's the best way to organize my notes? Should I use folders? Tags? Backlinks?
  • How can I choose the right note taking app... so I don't have to start from scratch again every few months?
  • How can I stop losing ideas and spending time searching for files and links over and over again?
  • If I organized my notes exactly like [fill-in-the-blank-productivity-You-Tuber-or-blogger] and bought the exact (pricey) apps and tech they use... would I finally be "insanely, ridiculously, unbelievably productive" like their headlines are always promising?
  • How can I finally build a note taking system I actually enjoy using?

I'm Elizabeth Butler, MD, PhD, and I'm a firm believer that there is not one single, perfect, one-size-fits-all setup for organizing your personal knowledge management system.

I’ve used personal knowledge management to organize my time and knowledge for nearly two decades. I believe that everyone deserves to be able to create a highly personalized note taking system that's perfectly tailored to fit their lives.

If you’re new to the world of personal knowledge management, welcome! It’s a fun, fascinating place to be. If you’d like to explore more of my articles on personal knowledge management, please do explore my quick-start guide to find some of my most popular blog posts on note taking and personal knowledge management.

Maybe you’re done reading and browsing and searching, though. Perhaps today is the day that you’re ready to dive in with both feet and get starting building your own custom-designed, bespoke personal knowledge management system.

You’re ready to leave behind unsatisfying cookie-cutter solutions and endless internet rabbit holes in search of the “perfect” note taking app. If this is where you're at, Calmer Notes is what you've been searching for.

The Calmer Notes method is a step-by-step process for creating a personalized, tailored system to organize your notes and files. When you go through the Calmer Notes training (a self-paced course designed to fit comfortably into even the busiest of schedules), you’ll stop spinning your wheels, losing your notes, and investing hours upon hours on systems and apps that never quite fit. Instead, you’ll craft a sustainable note taking system you actually love to use month after month and year after year.

Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!

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