File management: self-awareness and philosophy

Welcome to part 1 of the “How I manage my files” reports. (You can read the prequel, in my previous post: My Computer Geography)

A few starting principles:

I work on the following theories. I list them so you know where my preferences are, and can adjust to whatever your preferences are (as yours are almost certainly different.)

  • Huge piles (well, lists) of files are not my friend.
  • I like seeing what I’ve done when it’s done.
  • I like to focus on the current thing, not see all the other stuff I should think about.

I get frustrated when I try to navigate a window with dozens of items. (Except, oddly, in iTunes). I’d much rather have 8-10 folders that open into more specific folders, and so on, than everything dumped into one space (like a big long documents folder with no differentiation.)

This is partly because my computer habits were formed in the days before really good ‘search inside this file’ technology.

But it’s also a reality of what I do: Spotlight (the default Mac search tool for harddrives) tells me I have more than 10,000 files with the word ‘book’ in them, more than 10,000 with the word ‘library’ in them, 833 with the name of my previous job and ‘library’ in them, and so on. Obviously, a lot of the time, I can and do remember more specific keywords that can help me narrow down a search quickly. (And I’m a librarian: I’m good at that kind of thing by now.) But that doesn’t mean I prefer doing it that way.

For me, it takes a lot more time to fuss with the list or a search than dropping stuff in a project or subject related folder that I can navigate to with a few clicks of the mouse – and where it’s easy for me to drop current projects in an easy to access folder.

I like to see what I’ve done when it’s done. I get a certain feeling of “Hey, that was cool” from moving a project folder from front and center to my past projects folder. And I get a bigger kick out of looking at that archive folder, and seeing stuff I’ve done through the years. I also like looking at a folder, and seeing just the current stuff, so I know what I need to do to make progress on the stuff that matters to me.

(And when doing things like resumes and other highlights of what I can do and have done, it’s also easy to scan down the list of project folders and go “Oh, yes, should mention that.” than it is to do it from a big long list.)

I like having a separation between topics. My home computer includes a bunch of professional files, but also a lot of personal projects – everything from writing, to religious community projects to art and music to health notes and budgets. I like to be able to focus on the thing I’m currently working on, so having the files for my budget or my taxes when I’m trying to work on a creative project puts me off my stride.

All of these lead me to a filing system that involves folder structure. You might be different (in which case, do the stuff that matters for you) – but some of what I talk about below will still be useful.

First step: what files?

The first thing I start with, when I’m going “There’s got to be a better way to manage these files” is .. well, where do they come from?

Some things have a finite date: they’re part of a particular project that is over at a known point – planning an event, for example. After the event, it might be useful to look back at the files, but do they need to be taking up prime real estate in the top levels of my file structure?

Some things I want to keep for a long time: Sometimes that’s for practical reasons (it’s hard to see long-term patterns without older material). Sometimes it’s for sentimental reason (something I really liked at the time, even if it’s not the thing now.) Sometimes it’s because the background files might be useful for a later project in some way.

Some things I don’t need to keep: Some of these are obvious: podcast files I’m never going to listen to again, even if I enjoyed them the first time. Music that for some reason now makes me wince at a memory. (If I *really* want it later, I can buy it again. In the meantime, it doesn’t need to sit in iTunes reminding me every time I see it.) Draft notes for blog posts I’ve since made (and which can therefore be archived from the blog if I want to.) Shopping list notes.

I’m also not a very image-driven person. I enjoy taking digital photos, but I don’t really enjoy looking at dozens of them later, so I delete all but the ones I like the most. Some people are totally the opposite, and would feel bereft without those photos.

Some things, I’m not sure. What the label says: sometimes I don’t know if I’ll want it later.

My general practice is:

  • Keep the stuff I know I want to look at/use later, saved into a file format that is likely to persist or at least produce conversion options. (More on this in a moment.) Normally this is filed by project or topic, as appropriate.
  • Put things I’m not sure about in a large archive folder (a ‘Miscellaneous’) box. (These I save into a likely-persistent format if I remember, but I am not as diligent. If I pull something out of that archive more than about six months later, I do now export it to something more useful long-term).
  • Delete stuff I don’t want to keep as soon as I know I don’t need it anymore.

Given the prevalence of Word right now, it’s probably likely that any files in it will have an easy conversion option somewhere, and maybe that’s true for Excel – but otherwise, having a backup of long-term files in the most basic and generic format you can think of (plain text or RTF, comma-separated, etc.) is probably very smart. There are converters for ClarisWorks out there, for example, but I’d rather spend my time doing stuff besides figuring them out (and figuring out which ones run on my current computer, etc.)

Since I do not run Word (or other Microsoft Office stuff) on my own computer (I vastly prefer either a pure text editor or iWorks for formatting, plus Scivener for larger writing projects), that means I save stuff in Pages or Numbers into other text options periodically.If you were to guess by my comments above that I used to have a bunch of ClarisWorks files from earlier computers that became a pain to get open, you would be right.

As an example: all my current job hunting files are in Pages (until I turn them into a PDF to send them off). When I get a job, I won’t necessarily translate all the older resume versions into RTF/Word files or the cover letters, but I will do the most heavily refined ones, as well as things like the reference list with contact information. (I have multiple resumes, depending on type of job, naturally.)

Know your own head:

When you go looking for a file, what’s your first impulse?

  • name
  • date
  • associated project
  • type of program
  • something else?

For me, I know that I usually like having files from the same project together. If I have an archive of older files from a similar project, I like having them nearby. (So, for example, with the yearly event I’ve helped run, the archive folder for the previous years is in the same folder as the documents for this year.)

So, for me, having folder structures works really well – and in a future post, I’ll show off some of those. For you, it might mean tagging (something possible on most computers these days, if you want to put the effort and upkeep in). Some people like the ‘one big search bin’ approach. Knowing which one is your usual preference will help you figure out.

Are you sharing files with other people regularly?

How do you share them? Sharing files with other people does complicate some of this – of course, you need to take the other person’s preferences into consideration.

If you’re thinking about this at work, you may need to keep the workplace policies/practices in mind: previous job had a shared server folder where we dropped all non-personal library files, so that if someone was out sick, or changed jobs, we didn’t have to worry about access. And we also didn’t need to worry about accidentally reading a file that wasn’t appropriate, like a performance review.

If you email files around a lot, you want to pick a sensible naming structure. (I’ll talk a bit more about that in a later post too.)

A few broader issues:

Finally, there are a couple of things you might want to tuck into the back of your mind for later consideration.

What is your general take on intentional simplicity?

I’ll be honest here: I like a certain amount of physical stuff: I describe my home as living with a cat, a folk harp, and a lot of books, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change even if I start reading more ebooks. (And then there’s sheet music, and hobby supplies, and so on.) While I’m not big on random trinkets, I am easily tempted by boxes, ceramic bowls and mugs, and cobalt blue glass in pretty much any shape.

On the other hand, I like my home better when it’s reasonably uncluttered, when the books on the shelves form fit in rows, not random piles. (I am also less likely to wake up in the middle of the night when one of the piles falls over.) I focus better, I get more done, I’m happier to be in my home. (And I can find the stuff I want to focus on more easily.)

My electronic life works much the same way: if there are piles of files on my desktop, or row after row in a folder listing, I can get either distracted (ooh, shiny, haven’t looked at this in a while) or frustrated (“Why can’t I find the thing I really want right now?”) Neither one is really how I want to live my life.

So, while I’m by no means a serious minimalist, I do ask myself “Do I really need this thing here?” on a regular basis. If the answer’s “Yes”, well, fine. I find it a home. If the answer’s “No.” I make it go away somewhere more useful. If I’m not sure, I put it somewhere out of the way, and see if I want it again in a reasonable time frame. (For physical stuff, if I haven’t touched it in a year, maybe I don’t need it. For electronic stuff, I go a bit longer.)

Angle for your personal management quirks:

I mentioned in my first post on this topic that I have a ‘To Sort’ folder that I dump everything into, and periodically clean out. This works for me precisely because I hate huge long lists of files. Every couple of weeks (somewhere between 3 and 6, depending on what I’ve been doing), I get really annoyed when I try to find a file in there.

That’s a sign I should find a movie I want to watch (but don’t need to look at the screen all the time for), and do some file sorting. I can easily sort through a couple of hundred files in a feature-length movie, and it’s a great time to ditch files I know I don’t need to keep, and sort everything else into the long-term home.

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1 comment to File management: self-awareness and philosophy

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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