Thursday, October 4, 2012

Organizing Your Electronic Files

Have you ever sat in front of your computer looking for a document - knowing it was there - the question is: "Where?" The answer gets amazingly complicated if the document is an attachment someone sent to you from someone else's e-mail account!
In addition to organizing the additional paper that results from our new technology, we now also have to organize the technology itself. Did you know that 80-95% of the information we work with daily is generated by email and electronic files?
How Computer Filing Works
Your computer is basically an electronic filing cabinet. This is true regardless of what kind of operating system your computer uses, what kind of graphical interface it uses to show you how things are organized, what tools are available to you, and what kind of words or icons it uses to identify and describe the features of those tools. Whether you use a Windows based program or a Macintosh, the principles of organizing the programs and the information are basically the same.
The problem with computers is that the information isn't organized according to how we work and think. It is organized by format or application source (email, documents, web pages, contacts, etc.). Yet we comprehend by subject, person, company, project, and some other criteria appropriate to the work we do.
What many computer users overlook is that with today's technology we all have the advantages of the 255-character file name, which can be a combination of key words and phrases! This feature, plus the search capability of the computer, gives you access to a powerful organizing tool which can save you hours of time looking for or recreating information which already exists!
"Today's Mail is Tomorrow's File" One of my overriding Paper Tiger principles is "Today's mail is tomorrow's pile." How do you apply this to your computer? If you have a computer full of unidentifiable files, and you waste more time than you can afford looking for what you need, the easiest way to get yourself out of the quagmire is to start over!
What does that mean? Ignore all your old files! Design your new computer-filing system, using the principles I am going to describe. Then re-file your old files into the new system as you need them or, back them up on some other media, or delete them.
How do you design an effective computer-filing system? First, remember one of the most important (and neglected) principles of organizing computer files: A computer's value is that it allows you to use a file again - but only if you can find it again! Sometimes you may simply want to print another copy. Other times, you may want to update or change the document in some way, or excerpt parts of it to create a new document. In any event, your key to success in finding the information you need is keywords!
Setting Up Your Computer-Filing System
The first step to success in easy file retrieval is to point all files into one directory. Windows created "My Documents" for that purpose - but you may create another directory. In addition to making it significantly easier to retrieve information you need, this technique provides another major benefit. It's much simpler to back up your data for archives or for transfer to other locations.
So here's my system -- or it was - until I discovered another great productivity tool (see sidebar): I use My Documents. Then I create a subdirectory for each of the computer programs I use, such as Word, Excel, Power Point, Paper Tiger, Access, QuickBooks, etc.
If you don't keep many electronic files, you can ignore the option of creating subdirectories and keep all your files in one directory. But if you have lots of files, that would be like tossing all your tools in your garage and then spending hours looking for a screwdriver!
In addition, you can create additional subdirectories for projects, clients, or categories of work. But be careful - this can get you in trouble. For example, if I create a subdirectory for Clients, and a subdirectory for Articles, and then write an article for a client, where do I file it? The fewer directories, the fewer places to look - and you'll soon see how keywords will allow you to find any file in your computer in a few seconds!
Note: If you're working on a networked computer, you may have a choice of multiple drives. Your organization may already have made this decision for you of which drive to use. For example, all files of mutual business interest or used by a single division of the business may be filed on one drive, while employees' private work files may be filed on another.
In any event, don't make your strategy too complicated. It would, for example, probably be more confusing than helpful to send separate projects to separate drives, when there's space for all of them on the same drive, especially if they're all related to the same role or client in your work life.
The Power of Keywords In the early days of computers and DOS, files had to be named with eight letters and a 3-character extension. As a result, we got into the habit of creating shorthand for naming documents. The problem (as with paper files) is that often we don't think of the same name every time we look for the document. Fortunately, we don't have that limitation anymore! The good news is that you now have up to 255 characters to name a file - and the name can be a combination of words and phrases.
For example, when I am writing this article, I save it in My Documents/Word. I name it: Organizing Your Computer Files, article, 2003, website, DJ Watson, editor. Any of those words could be helpful to me when I, or someone else, try to find the file years from now.
In other words, to determine how to name a file, use the same technique as the one for paper files: Ask yourself, "If I want this file again, what word will I think of first?" Enter that word first, and then any other word or phrase that might help you retrieve that file. You can separate the identifying words with commas or semicolons. (Some punctuation marks and symbols are not allowed.)
Finding Your Electronic File - in 5 Seconds or Less!
So let's say I'm out of town and my assistant needs to find this article. She can go to the Start Menu, Search, My Documents and type in any of the words I used to describe the article - voila! It's there - in seconds!
My favorite electronic coup: An editor of a banking publication calls to say they would like an article for their newsletter (today, of course!). I do a search on "Article" and instantly I have a list of every article in my computer. I scan the list quickly and see an article I wrote for a real estate newsletter, which I can easily adapt - in a fraction of the time if would take me to write a new article!
Information is power - if you can find it when you need it! (And you'll really feel smug when others can find it too!)

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