Have you ever sat there while your boss stands over you, desperately searching for that missing document he or she needs RIGHT NOW? Or have you kept a client waiting on the phone for several minutes while you’ve searched for a status report?
If you have, then however organized and effective you are in your day-to-day work, your boss and your client may have a less than perfect opinion of you, because in a key encounter, you’ve let them down. And if it’s your job to help people, how much of other people’s time are you wasting if you can’t find the information you need when you need it?
You owe it to yourself to file effectively, however boring this may seem. Imagine how much more impressive it would have been if – when asked – you’d smiled, accessed a well-organized filing system, immediately found the document, and quickly given the answer!
On a typical work day, we deal with many documents, presentations, graphics, and other files. There’s a flurry of data pouring in from all directions that we need to process and, usually, store to retrieve later. We want to be able to lay our hands on the information we need – at the right moment, when we need it – so it can be used for further analysis or report writing, or perhaps for creating a presentation.
All too often, though, we waste our own time (and often the time of other people) searching for data that’s sitting on the very computer we’re using! This adds to our stress, and makes the task of putting the data to use more difficult than it ought to be. So we need to get more organized and efficient with our file management if we’re going to get our work done in a timely manner.
Managing Information Efficiently
When you receive a file in an e-mail from a co-worker, vendor, or customer, it’s tempting to “just put it away” in some folder for the time being. “Hmm. looks interesting, but I’ll take a closer look at this later, when I’ve got more time.” Sound familiar? Or, worse still, perhaps you just leave the message and its attachment sitting in your Inbox. After a while, many such documents build up, leading to a lot of clutter. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever find time to go back and get all of that information organized, especially considering that you’re usually under pressure with other things.
You can spend hours of precious time searching for data you’ve filed away somewhere, because it’s easy to forget the filename – or even to forget that such information is on your computer in the first place. So how can you go about simplifying your work? Get better at managing files.
Effective File Management
Managing files on your computer isn’t much different from the way you’ve always stored and managed your paper files. It boils down to this: store the information in folders – by category, and in a sequence that makes sense to you.
Here are some tips to help manage your files:
- Avoid saving unnecessary documents. Don’t make a habit of saving everything that finds its way into your Inbox. Take a few seconds to glance through the content, and save a file only if it’s relevant to your work activity. Having too much data on your computer adds to clutter and makes it harder to find things in the future – and it may, over time, slow down your computer’s performance too. Be selective about what you keep!
- Follow a consistent method for naming your files and folders. For instance, divide a main folder into subfolders for customers, vendors, and co-workers. Give shortened names to identify what or whom the folders relate to. What’s more, you can even give a different appearance or look to different categories of folders – this can make it easy to tell them apart at first glance.
- Store related documents together, whatever their type. For example, store Word documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and graphics related to a particular project in a single folder – rather than having one folder for presentations for all projects, another folder for spreadsheets for all projects, and so forth. This way, it’s much quicker to find, open, and attach documents for a particular project.
- Separate ongoing work from completed work. Some people prefer to save current or ongoing work on their computer’s desktop until a job is completed. Then, once it’s done, they move it to the appropriate location, where files of the same category are stored. At periodic intervals (for example, weekly or every two weeks), move files you’re no longer working on to the folders where your completed work is stored.
- Avoid overfilling folders. If you have a large number of files in one folder, or a large number of subfolders in a main folder – so many that you can’t see the entire list on your screen without scrolling down – break them into smaller groups (subfolders or sub-subfolders). Think of creating a sequential menu, arranged either in chronological or alphabetical order, to make retrieval easy. For instance, you can divide a folder called “Business Plan” into subfolders called “BP2008,” “BP2009,” and “BP2010.” Likewise, you can divide a folder for a client named Delta Traders into subfolders named “Delta Traders sales presentations” and “Delta Traders contracts.” The idea is to place every file into a logical folder or subfolder, rather than have one huge list of files.
- Having said this, there is usually little point in creating a folder for fewer than about five documents. If you do, the time you spend clicking through subfolders to get to the documents you need may not be outweighed by the greater ease of finding them.
- Install Google Desktop on your PC. If you can (sometimes IT departments don’t permit this), install Google Desktop on your PC – you can find this at http://desktop.google.com. This neat tool creates a desktop search engine that indexes all of your files and emails, meaning that you can search for them quickly and easily. This can be invaluable when you need to answer offbeat questions!
- Make sure your filing system is backed up. Again, this is a bit tedious, but it’s so important, as anyone who’s had a failed disk drive will testify! Make sure, firstly, that your PC is backed up regularly and, secondly, that the backup includes the directories where you file information.
Prioritizing Your Files for Action
Take these approaches further by customizing your file management. This can help you prioritize your work, which can lead to better efficiency.
- Organize files by dates. Incorporate a date into the file name. This will help you determine which is the most recent document in the folder, without having to open the file and read through the content. For example, a file named “Guidelines 12Oct07” would indicate a version of the Guidelines file dated October 12, 2007. (If you’re working internationally, be aware that in some countries this date can be presented as 101207, while in other countries, this same date can be shown as 121007. This can be very confusing!)
- Some people use version numbers to distinguish between documents that have been reworked or changed. Examples would be “Delta Traders contract v1” and “Delta Traders contract v2.” This also makes it easier to pick out the most current file.
If your document is going to be looked at, used, or amended by several people, you need to be particularly careful about version control: people quite rightly can get very annoyed if versions are mixed up and their work on the document is lost.
Make sure you put the version number in the file name here, and also consider having a version control table at the beginning of the document showing the version number, the date of the version, the person making changes, and, perhaps, the nature of changes made.
- Use “Tickler” files. Tickler files, also known as the “43 folders” method, are a unique system that’s used by many people for organizing files. Create 12 folders (one for each month of the year) and an additional 31 subfolders (for each day of the month). Fill each folder with the documents that you need to work with on that day. At the beginning of each day, open the folder for that day. Take all the items out of the folder and move them into a “today” folder or onto your desktop. Then move the empty folder into the corresponding slot for the next month. If you can’t complete some work items by the end of the day, transfer them to the folder for the next convenient day. This system of file management helps you keep track of everything you need to do, and it also doubles as a diary.
For any system to be useful and effective, it must also be convenient for you. To some extent, this depends on the nature of your business or the work that you do. So, although there’s no “one size fits all” solution to file management, you will likely profit by using some of these file management tips, and by customizing them in a way that best serves your own needs.
Are you losing too much time searching through the clutter on your computer for files that you need? And when you’re under pressure, can you retrieve information quickly and easily?
Spending precious time looking for data can take the pleasure out of any kind of creative work you might be doing – and it adds to your stress levels as well. Simple good file management habits can hugely simplify your working life!