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I am an organizational nut case. My desk has nothing on it except what I am working on right at the moment. Likewise, my computing is clutter-free. I have my desktop, my browser, the ‘My Documents’ folder, and my drives organized and efficient.

My desktop has only the documents that I am working on today, plus the shortcuts I use each and every day. If I don’t use it within 48 hours, I create a folder and file it. Much like the situation with my desk, keeping my computer organized improves productivity. It also helps my less organized co-workers. The moment they can’t find an important email or paper, they ask me for it. I find it – quickly.

Let’s look at some simple and basic tips to organize Windows that you may be overlooking and won’t cost you a nickel.

Folder Structure

Many people go through their day to day computing work not even realizing they can create a new folder practically anywhere by right-clicking and then selecting New ““> Folder. You can then rename the folder to whatever you would like. Your desktop, in Outlook Mail, within My Documents, within My Music, and in your browser’s “Favorites” or “Bookmarks” are all places you can create new folders.

If you have all your pictures grouped into one huge folder labeled “Pictures” and you have to spend an inordinate amount of time hunting a specific picture taken on the beach in 2007, you may need to organize your Windows folders a bit. Having a folder within the Picture folder that is labeled “Beach pics 2007″ might save you time.

creating_a_folder

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The key to organize Windows folders is to do a little planning first with pencil and paper. I have a strong preference for the “drill down“ method when it comes to organizing. For example, you may use a folder that is generically named “Music” or “MP3s”. Inside are 857 different songs from various artists and albums. I like it much more organized. Inside my “Music” folder, I have different folders for different genres of music – say “Alternative”, “Hard Rock”, “Classic Rock”, “Country”, and well, you get the drift. Inside the genre folders, I have individual folders for each band. Within the band folders, I have individual folders for the albums. Finally, inside these folders are the actual MP3 files. This seems like a lot of work, and it can be, but doing the background work of building the framework secures your organization for a long time to come.

folders_expanded

When it comes to free applications out there to help you get organized, there are very few. Fortunately, Windows builds many of these functions right into your operating system. There are plenty of free resources for icons and color templates to organize Windows and dress up your folders, but when I fill up my screen with neat icons and pictures on my folders I find them distracting.

Program Launcher

Enhancements that you don’t want to miss for organization, convenience and productivity include Launchy, which allows you to have files, folders, shortcuts, etc. at your fingertips with a simple Alt+Spacebar hotkey combo. This free utility has previously been reviewed on MUO (See Launchy How To Be More Productive with Launchy Program Launcher How To Be More Productive with Launchy Program Launcher Read More ).

launchy

Bulk File Renaming

You may also want to consider any one of many bulk renaming utilities available. These allow you to seek and destroy those nutty “DCIM002354″ file names faster than right-clicking and renaming each one manually. They also give you various capabilities such as changing file names to all caps, all lowercase, capitalize words and many other nifty things. Check out MUO reviews of D-FileMU and Renamer Batch Rename Files in Windows With Style Using ReNamer Batch Rename Files in Windows With Style Using ReNamer Read More .

File Comparator

Finally, if you do use a lot of folders to keep organized, you need to make use of a file comparator. These normally lightweight utilities allow you to basically replace Windows Explorer with a program that has added functionality of comparing files, swapping directories, and oftentimes renaming. You can find multiple copies of your files that have been hidden away in numerous different directories and consolidate your files, deleting unneeded multiples. I used to love the old Windows File Manager, but now that I am using Commander, it feels like File Manager on steroids.

commander

How do you keep your computer organized? How do you find files fast? What free utilities do you use to organize Windows? Share your ideas.

  1. Andrea D'Intino
    December 7, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Hello everybody,

    I'm one of the guys behind Tabbles (http://tabbles.net), a desktop app meant to organize files using tags and virtual folders.

    It's not free but it solves the problem in an innovative way.

  2. Lisa Bogart
    November 28, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    I've moved all my working files to an external hard drive that has a shortcut on my desktop. I got tired of files getting corrupted when a virus or something else happened to the computer's main hard drive. It also saved me a lot of time and heartache recently when my desktop's hard drive began to go into its final death phases. I didn't have to be concerned about getting the files off of the hard drive and backed up, although I already do that too.

    I try to keep my file structure as linear as possible, but there are some files that just by their nature have quite a few subfolders. For instance, I am attending grad school right now. So under the main file folder, which has the name of the school, I then have each class labeled by their catalog number. Under that, I have each week of the term set out in folders (Week 1, etc), along with a folder for general course info and for midterm and final projects.

    For clients, my folder organization is close to the same. The main folder has the name of the organization. Once we're into that file, I divide it up into projects, billing, correspondence, work orders, etc.

    I can get my hands on documents very quickly with this type of structure. I set the file structure up by thinking about how I would organize a real file drawer and what would go into a larger file system for a client with multiple projects.

  3. DigitalAdrenaline
    November 20, 2009 at 6:23 am

    One terrific free program I use is Menu Inventor which allows you to group anything you like: files, programs, folders etc into any category you choose, all in the form of a start menmu. This really is the best I've seen. Their werb site is

    micron.me.uk/menuinventor

  4. Altzan
    September 29, 2009 at 7:59 am

    I organize like this as well! My music folder is organized by letter ("A" "B" etc) because I use the music on my phone. I have a games folder where the games are sorted by genre. I even have icons on my desktop organized by type.

    Fences is a great software tool for organizing the desktop:

    stardock.com/products/fences/

    • Paul
      September 29, 2009 at 9:13 am

      I may give Fences a try, but I already group my scant desktop icons in a similar fashion. Of course, I don't have the designated and named areas like Fences provides.

      • Altzan
        September 30, 2009 at 8:19 am

        Yeah, Fences is best with a lot of icons - you could put 50 icons in a small box on the desktop and the box would let you scroll through with a scrollbar.
        Fences doesn't really help much with just a small set of icons, though.

  5. Who.Else
    September 28, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Microsoft Desktop Search came as a real boon. I don't even bother trying to organize my folders. Yes, pictures, audio and video are still a pain. But, I have Picasa for pics and somehow it works out for me despite the clutter.

  6. dp
    September 28, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    I could do a similar blogpost on the details and challenges of folder structures. For me the main thing is consistency and simplicity.

    I have a small set of category folders that cover 99% of what I do: Writing; Imagery; Web; System; Audio; Transfers; Comms; Desktop and a couple of others.

    Within each I have a subset of related folders. Each subfolder gets an annual folder and a further set of 12 subfolders to keep things organised by month. So, for example, my screenshots are in Imagery | Screenshots | 2009 | 09.

    I then set up shortcut to the most used folders, and set those in a new desktop toolbar with a set of dropdown menus for each of the main folders.

    I create an entire tree of empty folders, then save it as a self-extracting Zip file. I can copy this to a new PC, and clone the directory structure in seconds.

    I work from 3 desktops and a laptop, so it's easy to navigate to parallel folders and copy material from one to another.

    It does get tricky at times. Do email backups go in the Email folder or the Backups folder? Stuff like that.

    Plus, there are times I want to create a new sub-collection based on a txt or CSV file, but have yet to find a (free) batch folder creator that works properly.

    Similarly, there are times I want to add tags to an entire range of files across several folders (for a project, say), but I have yet to find a file explorer that makes it easy to add tags based on an imported list.

    So there's still plenty of room for improving the storage, identification and organisation of files.

    I have stayed with Windows Explorer after trying Google Desktop (memory hog) and some of the other offerings. It ain't great, but I don't expect it to do much at all.

    • Paul
      September 29, 2009 at 9:08 am

      You made some good points. However, I am careful not to organize too many things by date because of my memory. I have trouble recalling time frames and dates that things happen, so I use alternative methods. A few things I do organize by date, like time sheets for work (I group them in a set of folders by quarter -- i.e. "Q1 2009", Q2 2009") and I usually label backup folders based on the date of the backup.

  7. Richard
    September 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I'd been interested in knowing what you (or anyone else) uses for their whole folder structure (i.e., docs, downloads, pictures, wallpaper, etc.) I can get my music and movies organized pretty good, but when it comes to documents and downloads (app executables, zips, etc.) I find myself not knowing the best course of action and they end up getting scattered.

    • Paul
      September 28, 2009 at 3:10 pm

      I keep things very basic on my computer. First, I use the provided "Documents" folder. I don't have tons of random documents, but a series of basic folders. For me, they include "Pictures", "Writing", "Music", "Ebay", "Videos", etc. In each of these folders I have other folders to keep the organization going. Within "Music" is where I begin classifying by genre, band, album, etc., as I mentioned in the article (drill down to specifics).
      The key for me is to decide when handling a file, what it pertains to and figuring out where to store it. Sometimes the file requires me to create a new folder, but I go ahead and do the work because it usually saves time later.
      Taking a hard look at your documents and then figuring out how to categorize them helps - sometimes with pencil and paper. Renaming a file with a better description can help too. I recently downloaded an owners' manual for my projector - the file was named "SHXWPP28R" or something like that! I renamed it to "Sharp Projector OM". A few seconds work to save me minutes later.
      Yes it takes a little time to click through five or six folders to find something - but I find it! I don't have to open dozens of unknown documents to see if they are what I'm looking for. A good folder structure leads you right to it.

  8. thenonhacker
    September 28, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    I <3 LAUNCHY in Windows XP!

    As for the Folder Structure tip: I do not complete agree with the deep folder structure suggestion. That would be very difficult to navigate. Using Genres is Not advisable because one Album can have many Genres.

    For Music: I prefer a flat folder structure, named "Album Artist - Title". I will also make sure that ID3 tags are complete, for easier searching.

    Examples:
    Toto - Best Ballads
    John Legend - Evolver

    For Pictures: Flat Folder Structure again, named "yyyy-mm-dd SHORT TITLE".

    Examples:
    2001-03-15 Kelly's Graduation
    2005-12-25 Christmas Time with Family

    Tag your pictures by editing their metadata. Windows Live Photo Gallery is a free program that lets you do this easily. That way, you can give more than 1 tag to your picture. One pic could belong to the "Beach" and "Miami" tags.

    • Paul
      September 29, 2009 at 9:01 am

      That's a very good point about genres. Most music I listen to is pretty cut and dry, so it's not a problem for me to include a folder layer of genres, but if the genre gets tricky with your music you can have trouble figuring out whether you classified it as "Alternative" or "Rock". So just skipping the genre altogether like you suggest might be best.

    • amy
      September 30, 2009 at 5:02 pm

      @thenonhacker -- absolutely, flat file structure makes so much more sense, and not just for music or pictures. I would be horrified to wade through those deep sub-folder structures and then click my way back out again. In my opinion, the answer is NOT folder structure, it's intelligent naming conventions.

  9. Docquesting
    September 28, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Don't even get me started on such topics. Totally binds me up to see how some folks treat there place and computers and workplace. Totally into organizing. It not only make ya feel better but increases productivity vs the time it takes to otherwise cleanup later or try to find something.

    • Paul
      September 28, 2009 at 3:14 pm

      "Make ya feel better" - I'm with you there! For me, I can think better and focus better when my desk and/or computer are not cluttered. I'm one of these "handle each paper once" guys - maybe OCD, I don't know. Of course, I know a lot of people who are the opposite...they work very effectively in tumultuous environment.

    • Alyssa Myers
      September 30, 2009 at 12:30 am

      Not to mention, keeping a lot of things on the desktop can make for slower startup times.

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