How to Organize Computer Files for Easy Retrival

If you had a messy desk at home or work, and you bought a nice steel or wood filing cabinet to put the papers in – you would NOT, hopefully, just dump all the papers into the cabinet. However, when you dump all your files into one folder such as the default “Downloads” or “My documents” folder in Windows – that is exactly what you are doing. So, just like you’d organize your papers in a filing cabinet by date or topic or alphabetically – you should organize your computer files the same way. Doing so has many advantages.

Advantages to Keeping Computer Files Organized

There are many advantages to keeping your computer files organized. First, if you know where something is you can easily find it. And if you have a consistent system for where you save your files – it will become easy to know where something is. Second, if you keep your computer files organized you are less likely to permanently lose something, especially something important. Using only defaults for saving locations and file names can result in files being over-written, which means the data is lost. Third, keeping your files organized saves you time. If you know your quarterly budget is in your Excel Docs Folder in the sub-folder “Budgets”, and has the file name “Budget_first_quarter_2015.xlsx” or “Budget_03012015.xlsx” – you can find it instantly – much faster even than Windows search – even if you remember what you called the file. And if you don’t remember what you called a file, or what Windows named it for you – Windows won’t be able to help you find it.

Creating an Organizational System

I have a lot of experience temping in several different offices and organizations. One thing that being a temporary office worker teaches you is that although every organization has a different way of organizing files both paper and electronic – every office does have some system. And to be successful in your work, not only do you need to be able to adapt to the current system used by your current office – but it’s pretty pointless to say, “In my last place we did this…” or “Well, So-and-So Company did it this way,” – you need to adapt. You also need to be able to create a system quickly to fit the situation where one is currently working. I’ve created Microsoft Outlook e-mail folders and personal computer folders that were organized by project name, by product name or type, numerically by document or engineering notice, even by sales person name. It just depends on the information you have to organize, and what would be the quickest way to find that information again.

So I highly recommend that if you are starting from scratch in organizing computer files, first spend time thinking about not only how to organize them – but what makes the most sense in being able to locate the particular folder or file you need later. In the end, the specifics of how you organize your files isn’t as important as the idea of having some sort of organization.

Considerations for a Computer Filing System

  1. It must work for you – if you start a system and you don’t understand it, or it doesn’t make sense to you and your data, then you’ll never find anything. Look at what you have then make choices about how to organize it.
  2. It must be expandable. Make sure you can add to it later.
  3. File, Folder and subfolder names MUST be unique
  4. It should be easy to find things again.

Sample Computer Filing System

I tend to organize my computer files by topic. I sometimes add a date to a file name, especially for financial files. I also sometimes date folders – but only the year. One reason to date certain files in the file name itself is the computer-assigned date will change and update every time you open a file, so if you are trying to find your May 2014 Budget – which you looked at on September 1, 2015 the file date in the Windows detail pane will say 09012015 (Sept 1 2015) not May 2014. Plus, for financial files you may have several files with the same or similar names – but the date will be different.

I find several program type super-folders with topic-based sub-folders works well.

Main Folders:

  • Word Docs
  • Excel Docs
  • PowerPoints
  • Bills_Orders_Finances
  • Education
  • Video files
  • Music files
  • Graphics
  • Pictures


I used to break my video files down by the program used to create it (such as Real Player, Windows Movie Maker, or .mp4); however, I now use VLC Player to view my videos, which can view can kind of file. Therefore, I put all videos in a Video superfolder, then organize by topic (such as cooking demonstrations, or music videos, or education videos).

Inside each folder you can create additional folders by topic – so in your Word folder you might have one folder for Resumes and a second for Cover letters, and additional folders as you see fit. Your Bills_orders Folder might have sub folders by month. If you use iTunes or Amazon music player – it will create a directory structure (folders and sub-folders) for you. When you back-up your music to an additional drive – take advantage of this organization.

Once you’ve determined a folder and sub-folder structure you can move on to file management. And remember – your system should suit you, and it should also be expandable.

File Management

Professionals in IT call this “naming convention”. Basically, that means “rules on how you name stuff”. Windows has some rules about naming files: character limits including path, use of extensions, not allowing certain characters, etc. You’ve probably run into these before (Windows will clearly give you a warning when a folder or file name is invalid). A couple of basics – never name anything “my ______”. Some versions of Windows have system-level files that are called “My something” such as “My documents”. You can never have two files or folders or pieces of different information with identical names on a computer – so one easy way to avoid that is just don’t name files “my something”. For files you need to send out to others, first – check if they have a naming convention, second, if not, include your name in the file name. So not simply Resume_01012015 but Smith_Resume_01012015. This helps on the other end for files to not get lost, confused, misplaced, etc. Be professional in naming electronic files destined for elsewhere. This includes work files send to clients, other departments, etc. You can use hyphens, underscores, and even blank spaces in file names. Be consistent in how you do this. You cannot use slashes in file names so for dates simply use an 8-digit number. Today would be 09262015. Other than that, Windows has consistently eliminated or reduced requirements and restrictions on file names. Many of the old “rules” no longer apply. However, in a work environment, you may need to ask or review information on naming conventions for your files. This is especially important in environments where you routinely share files. Or in environments, like engineering, where there are strict guidelines about versions of documents and files.

Second, don’t use full sentences for file names. Yes, in some cases Windows will let you, but it’s just not neat. You no longer need to limit yourself to eight characters for the file name and three for the extension (the part to the right of the dot that tells you what program created the file, such as .doc or .docx for Word Documents), as was the case in the days of DOS. And don’t create file names so bland and repeative you can’t tell one file from another. Simple, clear, descriptive but short file names are best.

You can rename a file after creating it by right-clicking on the file in Windows Explorer then choosing “rename” or simply editing in the file name box. Or if you want to keep the file with the original name, but create a second file with a new name, open the file in the program used to create it, choose “save as”, assign the new name and save it with that name. The exact process might vary, depending on the program used to create the file (many graphics programs for example use “Export” rather than “save as”). Saving a new version of the file with a new name can be very important when you “version” your files, and you need to track when, where, and how changes were made.


If you do lose or misplace a file, or you save something in a program such as Word, without first changing the name using “save as” and changing the file location to the one you want, how do you find it again?

In Windows there are several default locations to check first. They are listed below.

Windows Directory – Where’s My Stuff (default locations)

  • Downloads
  • C:\ Users/username/My Documents
  • Desktop

Stop using default locations – and when you do, clean them regularly. To clean a default location like My Desktop move (don’t copy) files from the desktop to the correct location in your file structure. So, for example, the budget you worked on in Excel goes into your Excel_Docs/Budgets subfolder. That report goes into Word Docs/Reports. The picture of your cat or dog goes into Pictures or maybe Pictures/Cat Name or Pictures/ Dog Name or Pets. Move those extra files off your desktop, just like you would periodically clean a physical desk at work or home. Be sure to use “Move” not “Copy” – copy will create a new copy of the file and leave the original behind. Move will move the file to the new location.

Create a folder system that fits you, then put those folders on C:\ or an external drive, or even inside one of the default locations (Downloads, Desktop, My Documents).

Your user folder is C:\Users\Username and that is actually a good place to create your major folders. Another good place to create your new super folders is on an external hard drive. Or, you can create the folders on C – then copy them to an external hard drive or other removable media to create a back-up. I would recommend that your most common folders remain on C but that you also copy that folder regularly to at least one other location for back-up purposes. Any extremely large files, such as video, can also be saved to an external hard drive. You can certainly have one external hard drive permanently attached to your computer for extra storage, and have a second “passport drive” or portable hard drive for back-up purposes.

In some working environments you might not be able to create folders on C or there may be a policy against saving to your computer’s hard drive. In such cases, you will be instructed to save to a Network Drive. Be sure to ask your company’s IT help desk how to save to the Network Drive if you do not know. (A network drive will have a letter like H:\ or J:\ or etc. it varies by the organization.) Saving to the Network drive means your files will be backed-up as part of the corporate back-up policy.