Stacks of paper folders with yellow post it notes
Academic life, Decluttering

Help! How do I organize my digital documents so I can stop wasting time searching?

Welcome to the first installment of Ask an Academic, a new series on the blog where I answer reader questions about all things academic. Today’s letter comes from a reader in Moncton, a location shockingly nearby to my current hometown of Sackville. Go New Brunswick!

Getting organized

Dear Leslie,

I would love advice on how to better organize multiple projects and documents on the computer to easily find what I am looking for while writing.

This seems to be linked with time-management, because lack of efficient organization can really take up time when searching for documents. Thanks!

Identify the problem

Great question! For any issue, the first step is to “identify the problem.” Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project, Happier Podcast) says we all have things that are sources of irritation and frustration, and we put up with them for months or even years, because we haven’t given careful thought to the specific thing that’s not working.

For example, I was hardly using my home office. It was cozy and organized but using it annoyed me. So what was the actual problem? My partner’s clothing was stored in a dresser in the room, and I realized I didn’t like having to let him know whenever I needed to use the space for a call in case he needed to pop in and grab clothes. It made me anxious. So we figured out how to build some extra storage into his closet and ditched the dresser. Voila. Problem identified and solved.

When it comes to a disorganized digital filing system, it’s important to identify your actual problem. Is your computer “cluttered” with lots of old, unnecessary files? A hundred pdfs of articles you intend to read someday? Work from decades ago? Or is there just no system for sorting and filing? Maybe your document and folder names are vague and indirect (I’m looking at you, “Draft 1” people), meaning they’re not easily searchable? I’m guessing that for many people, it’s some combination of all three issues.

Clear the clutter

If there’s clutter, your first step is a cull. There’s no point going to the trouble of organizing stuff you aren’t going to keep. Everyone who knows me know that I’m a fairly ruthless purge-er of, well, everything. Even if you’re not, I bet you can find a whole lot of files that don’t need to be saved any longer.

If you’re not inclined to hit the delete button with abandon, buy a portable external hard drive for your “archives.” Move those unneeded or very rarely-needed files and folders off your main computer. If you do this, you should probably go back into that hard drive and create some kind of a filing system so you can find stuff.

Set up a system

Now that you’ve cleared some clutter, what kind of system do you have in place? For academics, I would start with four high-level folders: Teaching, Research, Service, and Personal. Within each of the work-related ones, I recommend a next level that is organized by course (in teaching, for example), project (in research), or area/committee (in service). Under each of those, it may make sense to organize by year. So, under teaching, within each course, there might be a folder for each year you’ve taught it: fall 2017, fall 2018, spring 2019 etc. With research, each project could have sub-folders like: drafts; readings; notes; photos; archives; and eventually, publications.

That’s just a quick overview of the kind of system I recommend for academics. There’s lots of room for customization. But you should very easily be able to find your notes on “x” for project “y” because they’re in the folder called “notes” under the folder for project “y.” Get it? Check out my “decluttering” workbook for more detailed guidelines and visuals!

Make it searchable

At a more fine-grained level is the issue of document naming. If you have a really good folder system, the names of the documents can be less specific because the folder will tell you a lot of information. You could have multiple documents called “Syllabus” if each one is filed under the correct course name and year taught.

But an advantage to having clear, detailed document names is that you can then search and find the right document fast, even if you don’t know where it’s filed. Instead of syllabus, it’s “GENV1201 Winter 2019 Syllabus.” Or instead of draft, it’s “Sustainability draft April 22.”

This also makes it a big difference if you’re sharing documents. Don’t you love getting emails with attachments like “Agenda for today” and “Geo paper?” If there’s any chance you’ll need to share your document, an unambiguous file name is going to make everyone’s life easier.

I don’t think it’s a good use of time to try to rename every document you currently have. But going forward, give them more specific names, and put them in the right place. Rename only those you use often and want better access to.

Send me your questions!

I hope today’s bit of advice was helpful. Maybe it’s the gentle kick you need to get started on some organizing. As the letter writer suggests, having your files organized can be a big boost to your productivity. If you don’t have to waste time with a frustrating search, you can focus on what really matters.

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