Digital File Organization – A Field Guide

Being organized is one the keys for effective leadership. Too often I see ineffective leadership due to lack of organization causing missed deadlines, wasted time, and duplicated efforts. Not being able to find what you need quickly and efficiently reduces your effectiveness to lead and manage. In the digital world we live in, it is important to develop a system that allows you to easily file your data, but more importantly to be able to find it quickly for reference.

Your system for organizing must apply to both documents and e-mail and should have three primary goals:

Easy to file – You don’t want your system to be a huge maze. You want it to be a fast and easy system that is logical and simple to use.
Easy to find – Your system should make it easy to find the folder, file or email, either by using the search feature or going directly to a folder.
Duplicatable – You want to duplicate your system in both your email and your document storage. Using the same basic system and names of your folders will make storing and finding information quick and easy.

Let’s look at each area in more depth and I will provide proven techniques you can use.

Easy to file
Get started by having a clear method of thinking about the information coming at you from various sources. From a high-level view, create a watershed process that puts every file or email in a primary bucket. For example, every data file or email should be screened when it is first read and should immediately be placed mentally in one of the four primary buckets. The buckets are:

1. Administration
2. Production
3. Added to the “To Do List”
4. Junk/Delete

These primary buckets are the start of what action needs to be taken for every item. It takes some discipline at first until it becomes part of your process. To begin the process set up your two primary folders in your email system and hard drive called Administration and Production. Items that require you to take action or get something accomplished go to the “To Do List” or get added to your calendar. The Junk/Delete is not a folder, but an act.

Because both your email and data folders are set up in the same format it doesn’t take much thought to find what you’re looking for at a later date.

As data files add up in your folders you can set up subfolders to categorize the information. Here is an example:






Limit folder creation. When you’re creating folders, think minimal. Most files and documents can fit somewhere in your basic hierarchy if you’ve done a good job of initially mapping it out.

In general, only create new folders if you find yourself repeatedly coming back to one folder and are having some difficulty finding what you need. At this stage you know it is time to create another level in the hierarchy rather than creating a vast extensive multi-layered tree before you need it.

Easy to find
One of the goals for organizing files is they must be easy to find. The best way to accomplish this is by putting some thought into how you name your files. In essence, begin with the end in mind! First, make sure your file system is duplicated in both your email and your document storage. Using the same basic system and names of your folders will make storing and finding information quick and easy. Next, label your data files with a format that is logical and consistent so you can find files easy.

The best way to do this to break the name into four different components.


A good name allows you to search and find the file right away and allows you to see what the file is without having to open it. Here are some examples of good file names:
Invoice – ABC Corp 12-2-XX
Contract – MainBank 2-13-XX
Incentive plan for staff – 20XX
Team Strategy – 20xx

Use key words
Key words are the secret to finding data files and emails at a later date. I often add key words to the file name after I have thought about the primary name.

There are times when you may need to find a file or email a year from now and adding key words to the name ensures the file will pop up in the search engine. Some of the key words will be other words for the same item such as Invoice = Billing or ABC Corp = Client. Perhaps you manage several sales agents and they have the same client in different parts of the country. Adding the sales representative name would be helpful. Also adding the territory name to the invoice such as “Arizona” would be really important. Thus, add key words to the original name. If I need to find a specific file such as a computer invoice for a client that has multiple locations, with multiple sales representatives think about how to name the file to quickly pop up in search a year from now. Here is an example:

“Invoice: ABC Corp 12-2-XX-computer billing-client-Arizona-Rep-Smith”

A year from now if I need to refer to this document because the sales representative needs a copy of the invoice, I may not remember the client but I remember the territory “Arizona” and I know it was a “computer invoice” for my sales rep “Smith”. I will simply search “Arizona, computer invoice, Smith” and the file will pop up immediately with no further effort on my part.

Special care with emails
Emails can be trickier than data files for two reasons. First, some people use the inbox as a storage repository. Big mistake as most companies have limited storage capacity and often purge older emails. If you are using this as a long-term storage area for all your emails, it is time to stop. Simply save your important emails onto your hard drive and be sure to add your key words.

The second reason is people often mislabel the subject line of the email making it difficult to find important emails later. For example, they may label the subject as “important” but it’s really about a change in the incentive plan. The proper subject should be “Important Incentive Plan Change.” Thus, you have to be on guard for this and change the subject line accordingly. Another issue happens during an email thread. Often there can be several emails back and forth to a teammate or client. During the email strand the conversation can morph into new topics. You have to be very diligent in looking for this and change the subject line accordingly with key words to reflect the changes or better yet start a new email with the new topic. Here are some good rules to follow:

1. One subject per email. In other words, do not mix topics in emails such as information about a clients’ billing and the company picnic. You would create two separate emails and both would be labeled appropriately with key words in the subject heading.

2. Beware of others adding new subject matter to an existing email thread. Let’s say you are emailing a colleague about a client and the subject is “ABC Corp Invoice.” Your colleague sends you an email back and adds to the topic informing you of a recent policy change. The best way to handle this is to use the original email strand to answer the client information and then send a separate email to your colleague about the policy change with the appropriate labeling, “Policy Change” and add any key words in the subject line. While it may take some extra time to send a separate email, it could save lots of time later if you ever have to recall the email on “Policy Change,” only to find out it was a combined with an email strand called ABC Corp Invoice. Honestly, you may never find it and have to email a colleague to get the information you need. This leads to a lot of wasted time for you and your colleague.

File your email immediately after reading if possible. Here are some examples of watershed emails to make sure they are in the appropriate folders:







Document storage tips
Don’t put files on the desktop as your desktop is supposed to be clean with only the top 4-5 programs and 4-5 shortcuts to your main folders and that’s about it.

• Drag-and-drop email messages into those folders.
• Create rules with your email system to automatically place email in the appropriate folder automatically
◊ Rules can use different criteria such as sender, subject or email address to file the email automatically in a folder.

1. Every email and data file should immediately be put in one of four places: Administration, Production, To Do List, or Junk/Delete.

2. Duplicate your file names in both hard drive storage and your email folders.

3. Limit folder creation until you absolutely need it.

4. Name your files and folders strategically and use key words for search capability. This makes files easy to find.

5. Carefully label email subjects for ease of finding data and do not mix topics in emails. Be vigilant to start new emails if the new topics are introduced in an email thread.

6. Don’t store files on the desktop.