5 Effective Ways to Keep Your Files Under Control

By . Filed in How-To Guides

Your computer is a digital jungle. It’s so easy to take a clean and tidy design workplace and turn it into a huge mess. There are too many files, and they’re all over the place. Design files you need become near impossible to find. So how do you keep your files from getting out of control? Well, you’re in luck, because there’s 5 effective ways to keep your files under control.

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(Image by Paul Goyette)

But first: why do our computer and design files get out of control so easily? The same reason so many people have messy rooms and disorganized closets and physical work spaces. Except multiply by 100, since it’s so easy to create computer design files that don’t take up physical space.

Luckily, it’s not that hard to keep your computer and design files under control. Add a pinch of common sense, mix with a dash of self discipline, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t worry – it sounds more work than it is. Just equate it to brushing your teeth: once you get into the habit of doing these things, you won’t even notice it. You’ll just naturally keep your computer and design files under control.

Alright, without further ado, here are the 5 effective ways to keep your files under control.

1. Ruthlessly Delete Old and Unnecessary Files

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(Image by Mixy Lorenzo)

This one might seem forehead-slapping obvious, but sometimes the most common sense steps are overlooked. Forget any productivity software, and file streamlining workflows, and any other pat-on-the-back productivity nonsense: simply delete old and unnecessary files.

It’s the same as cleaning your room or organizing your physical files. You go through your stuff, and when looking at an item, you decide: is this relevant to something important? If not, you ruthlessly throw it away. That’s how you stay organized: by minimizing the number of stuff you have. No tricks or secrets.

This method is no different when it comes to your computer design files. When going through your files, decide if each one is still relevant to something important. If it isn’t, ruthlessly delete it – you won’t need it again, and it’s just cluttering up your digital work place. Usually these files are old project files such as earlier drafts of graphics and designs and outdated website files.

That’s nice and all, but when should you ruthlessly delete old and unnecessary files? After all, practically everyone hates cleaning their room.

Well, just like the way you can minimize having to schedule cleaning your room is by taking care of an object as soon as you encounter it, so too should you decide if you need to delete a file when you encounter it. Which leads us to #2…

2. Take Immediate Action on Files You Encounter

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(Image by John Britton)

The best way to avoid having to schedule sorting and cleaning of your computer design files is to not have it be necessary. Each time you encounter a file, take immediate action on it.

But you’re no doubt a busy dude or gal. You’ve got things to do, places to be. You can’t drop everything you’re doing and take care of each file you encounter. So how do you decide when to take action? Use the 5-minute rule: if taking immediate action on the file will take 5 minutes or less, take care of it as soon as you encounter it.

Sound familiar? It’s because this is “influenced” by David Allen’s popular book GTD: Getting Things Done. In it, he says you can avoid accumulating a long to-do list by immediately taking care of a task you encounter as long as it’ll take no more than minutes.

This applies to your computer design files as well:

  • Found a half-finished logo? Wrap it up and send it off.
  • Almost done with a piece of code? Finish it.
  • Have a group of files you’re not sure you need anymore? Go through them, decide, and delete if necessary.

So #1 and #2 helps to keep your files under control. But there’s another essential element, which is…

3. Have as Few Folders as Possible

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(Image by Steve Ryan)

Create only a few folders for your type of work, and be as general with the category as possible. Instead of getting niche with countless folders being broken down (such as ‘vectors‘ or ‘photoshop’ or whatever), just have things like ‘logos’ and ‘websites’. Or you can have folders for each project, and any type of file that’s related to it goes in there.

Why do this? Two reasons:

  1. No indecision paralysis: is the file a logo, website stuff, or part of a project? Just throw it in the respective folder and be done with it.
  2. Anti-too-many-files filter: when you see the folder filling up with too many files, you’ll be more inclined to delete old and unnecessary ones. Similar to seeing too much stuff in your room, rather than hiding it in drawers and other rooms.

Avoid getting too specific with folder names and categories. The more specific you name a folder, the more categories you’ll have. And with more categories, you’ll have to decide where the new file goes. Chances are it won’t neatly fit into just one of them, so you’ll arbitrarily pick one. Then when it’s time to organize more files, you’ll think back to which category you choose with a similar file last time. Not to mention not clearly knowing which category each file belongs too.

Why not just use some tagging system? Then you can do away with folders altogether, right? While in theory this should work, in reality it’ll encourage you to create and keep way too many files.

Here’s what will happen:

  1. You tag your initial files, feeling good that you’ll be able to easily find them later by searching via tags.
  2. You become liberal with tags by creating too many tags that are too specific – this is due to indecision paralysis, since you couldn’t choose between two tags and decided to create a new one specifically for that one file.
  3. You end up having too many tags which become overwhelming to find stuff with.
  4. What’s worse is since you didn’t feel the need to keep your file count low, you now have more files than if they were constantly visible in a general folder you looked in.

4. Ditch Auto-Organizing Features

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(Image by Mark Sebastian)

Auto-organizing features (think iTunes’ auto-rename-and-sort feature but applied to all files) are the nemesis to keeping files under control. They encourage liberal file creation and saving. While it seems fine at first, the more files you have, the less you’ll know where everything is.

Why not just delete files when they’re old or unnecessary? The auto-organizing feature will encourage you to not delete. Sort of like Gmail’s never-delete-just-search feature. But unlike email, where you only have one type of content (text) and thus easy to search, your files are hard to search this way. There’s no simple way to search inside the content, especially for visual and audio files. So the only thing you’ll have to work with is filenames and maybe some meta description tagged onto it. That’s a recipe for file overload.

By not using any auto-organizing features, you’ll be accountable for every file you create. You’ll see it and pay attention to it at least once, so you’ll be more conscious of each file on your computer. This way, you’ll get a better feel for when your files are getting out control – and when you need to ruthlessly delete.

5. Consolidate Files When Possible

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(Image by Aldo Gonzalez)

This is a simple one. If you can somehow consolidate two or more files into one, then you’ll naturally have less files. And less files equals less clutter.

The other benefit of consolidating files is it becomes easier to find what you’re looking for. Your files become more organized. How? You’ll naturally have relevant content all in one file, so no need to hunt multiple files that pertain to the same project.

How do you go about consolidating your files?

  • For text, simply copy/paste related content from multiple files into one main text file.
  • For visual designs, you can copy/paste different elements and variations into one main graphic file.

Every major and minor graphics app supports layers and the labeling and grouping of them, so take advantage of that. It can be variations of a logo, or multiple aspects of a bigger design – all in one graphics file.

Granted, not every type of file or content can be consolidated. Code, for example. So that’s why the above is titled “when possible” – do the best you can, and any amount that helps to reduce the number of files is a net gain.

Effectively Keep Your Files Under Control

Hopefully these 5 ways weren’t just some productivity porn: things to read to avoid doing actual work that gets you desired results in your life. No, these were written with the intention to be actionable things you can start applying now to keep your computer and design files from getting out of control.

No one actively wants to organize and manage their computer and design files. So these 5 ways will help you to form habits that’ll avoid needing to do that. And as with any habits, the most important thing is to just start doing them.

To recap, here are the 5 effective ways to keep your files under control:

  1. Ruthlessly delete old and unnecessary files
  2. Take immediate action on files you encounter
  3. Have as few folders as possible
  4. Ditch auto-organizing features
  5. Consolidate files when possible

Your turn: what other ways have helped you to effectively keep your computer and design files under control?

Author:

Oleg Mokhov is the world's most mobile electronic musician, a web and visual design enthusiast, and co-founder of the premium royalty free music store Soundtrackster.

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