How to Organize Computer Files

Computer files on screen.
Keep your computer files organized to make them easy to find and access.
Rob Atkins/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Your personal computer can be a wonderful tool. It can provide you access to the Internet, give you a place to store photos and documents, and allow you to easily do many tasks that might have once been difficult. However, your computer can become as cluttered as your desk if you don't know how to keep it organized. Keeping the files on your computer in order will allow you to gain access to them more quickly.

If you have had your computer for a while, odds are you have accumulated many files, photos and e-mails that you simply no longer need. Having a bunch of unused files on your computer can eventually lead to a slowdown of your operating system and may make finding what you really need a chore. Organizing the files on your computer may not have even crossed your mind. Many people think of actual documents -- written or printed -- when they think of files, but you will learn that the files on your computer can become just as disorganized as any pile of paper.


When setting up a filing system on your computer, you can choose to follow whatever system works best for you. Whether by date, description or a combination of both, there should be a way that makes sense to you and accomplishes your ultimate goal of getting your desktop and hard drive organized.

So where do you begin? First, you need to take stock of what you have and determine its importance. You may not want or need to keep everything that is stored on your computer. You may even decide to store some of your files externally on a source other than your computer. Read on to the next section to get tips on how to take an accurate inventory of the files on your computer.


Taking Inventory of Computer Files

Once you decide to organize your computer files and take stock of what you have, you need to decide what stays and what goes. While you are in the process of taking inventory, you should also take the time to back up all the files you deem important, especially any personal files.

You may want to try a systematic approach to sorting through your files. For example, instead of just diving right in, you may want to start by separating all of the photos and images and going through them first. You might be surprised at how many pictures you have. You can always transfer some or all of these images to a CD or external hard drive to give yourself some extra space on your computer. Or you could try going through all of your Word documents first and weed out the ones you won't be using again. However you decide to proceed, remember that the effort you spend getting your computer organized now will probably make finding important files easier later, saving you both time and energy.


Watch out for doubles of pictures and images when you are performing your inventory. If you upload pictures from a digital camera and do not delete the images from the memory card, the next time you go to upload photos, you may unintentionally upload duplicates of images you have already stored.

Try to be realistic about what needs to be stored on your computer, and keep in mind that less is usually more. Check out the next section to get some tips on different methods for organizing your files.


Methods for Categorizing Computer Files

Your computer most likely uses two different types of files: program files and personal files. Program files come from programs you've installed on your computer. Microsoft Office and Adobe Illustrator are examples of program files. Personal files are those that you have personally created to store pictures, documents, spreadsheets and more. Personal files do not have a disc from which their content can be recovered and reinstalled. If you lose personal files that aren't backed up, they are simply -- and sadly -- gone.

Once you have determined which files are personal, you can begin to group them into subcategories, designating them perhaps as images, music or documents. At this point you will want to decide how you are going to go about organizing the files, such as by date or project name.


If you choose to organize by date, try to use one format consistently. For example, you might use "March2010" or "031510." Pick one style and stick with it, or you may find yourself having to reorganize your files yet again.

If you organize your files by project name, try to keep a uniform capitalization scheme throughout the files, and don't use special characters or spaces -- most operating systems won't even allow this [source: Organizing Computer Files].

If you are using a Windows operating system, there are tools built in that will help you find and edit files. The "My Computer" function and the "Windows Explorer" function both allow you to look for files and edit their names or locations. You can also delete files using the same applications.

Grouping by application is another useful way of organizing computer files. You can sort files labeled "documents" or "downloads" into separate locations.

Once you have decided on a method for organizing your computer that works well for you, the next step is naming the files you have decided to keep and putting them in their proper folders. Need some tips on what or how to name your folders? Check out the next section to get some useful tips on properly labeling computer file folders.


Creating Folders for Computer Files

When you have decided what files you want to keep on your computer, you can put them in folders. Creating a folder can, in most cases, be done by right-clicking and selecting "New" and then "Folder," at which point you will be able to give that folder a specific name. When naming your folders, keep the names short and simple. Try to avoid using abbreviations, because there's always the chance you may forget what the abbreviation represents. Then you'll end up having to go through the folder to figure out what's inside, defeating the purpose of naming the folder in the first place.

Sometimes your computer will automatically save your files in a certain location in an effort to keep itself organized. This can backfire, though, if you don't pay attention to the address of the file when it's created. Creating your own folders can help you stay organized in a way that is familiar to you. When you are in the process of naming files and assigning them to different folders, it may be helpful to limit the type of files that go into each folder. Keep all Word documents in one folder and spreadsheets in another. Later, you'll be able to locate what you are looking for in a quick and efficient manner.


Once you have established a system, do your best to maintain it. If you create a new file or program, put it in the appropriate folder immediately. Sorting files and folders on a regular basis is one of the keys to keeping your system neat and organized.

Organizing and maintaining files on your computer is a great step in the right direction. There are other ways to store your files if you feel that keeping them all on your computer is taking up too much memory space. In the next section, you'll learn about other options for storing your computer files.


Storing Computer Files

Most computers will automatically save your data to the hard drive, usually known as the C drive. This is the most common place to store files. However, if your computer crashes, your data could be lost, so it's important to always back up important files. When deciding where else to store your files other than on your computer, you have a variety of options.

Storing your computer files on a disc, such as a CD or DVD, is an easy approach to organizing files you don't want to keep on your computer. CDs come in two different formats: R and RW. With the CD-R option, you can copy files to the disc only one time, and you cannot edit or replace what is on the disc. The CD-RW option allows you to edit or add files to the disc at any time. There's an easy way to remember -- R stands for "recordable," and RW stands for "re-writeable." Using a DVD to store files is great if you are working with very large files or multiple images, but you will need a DVD burner to copy files to this type of disc. One disadvantage to using discs for storage is that they can easily be scratched, damaged or even lost.


Another option for file storage is a USB device. Most computers have a USB port. You simply plug in the USB device, then click on and drag your files to the appropriate destination. Many USB devices, such as the pocket-sized flash drives or thumb drives, are easily transportable but also easy to lose. You can also plug in an external hard drive unit to your USB port on your computer. These types of devices can store large amounts of data, but they aren't quite as easy to transport as a flash or thumb drive.

You can also store your data on a secure storage area network. These networks can provide a location in which there are multiple remote hard drives, each one of them backing up the others so that even if several fail, your data will still be safe [source: Ferris State University].

After you have organized your files, the only thing left to do is a little maintenance every once in a while. Keeping your computer files organized will increase your productivity and allow your system to run at its best.

For more information on maintaining your computer and keeping your data organized, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • Computer Hope. "Computer Disk Drive History." (Accessed 1/13/10).
  • Ferris State University. "Computer Data Storage Options." (Accessed 1/13/10).
  • Murray, Katherine. "Find Information Faster: Organize Your Computer." Microsoft. (Accessed 1/11/10).
  • Qwerty Studios. "How to Organize Information?" Accessed 1/13/10).
  • Saltzman, Marc. "Do a Clean Sweep of Your Computer." Microsoft. (Accessed 1/13/10).
  • Sullivan, Bob. "Drop the Mouse and Step Away from the PC." MSNBC. March 31, 2005. (Accessed 1/13/10).
  • Time Management Improvement. "Organizing Computer Files." (Accessed 1/13/10).
  • University of Missouri -- St. Louis. "File Storage Options." (Accessed 1/13/10).
  • University of Virginia Department of English. "Organizing Computer Files." Teaching and Technology (Accessed 1/13/10)