Let’s check how well your digital files are organized! Can you quickly produce the following in NO TIME, if you were asked?

  • Photos from your vacation 3 summers back.
  • A humorous video you received a few months back from your friend.
  • Your latest digital passport size photograph.
  • Link to an interesting article that you had read once.
  • The presentation that you presented at a conference a few years back.
  • Dissertation report of your post-graduation degree.
  • Contract document of the project that you worked on last year.

If you felt discomfort after reading the above list, it’s not uncommon. Most of us are reasonably diligent about keeping physical things organized, such as wardrobe, shoes, important documents, or accessories in the kitchen. But our digital world is not that organized. Probably, as our generation hasn’t been coaxed about it by our parents or we haven’t had a chance to have many role models around.

The basic goal of any organized reference system, be it physical or digital, is to get the ability to retrieve whatever we want at any moment, in a moment. At best we lose precious time in searching for what we want and at worst the work couldn’t be done on time because we could not locate the required files. We miss those bouts of our creative energy, for the same reason.

Well, it’s not that we do not have a digital reference filing system at all, but many times it’s fragmented, dated, and incomplete — something is on a mobile phone, something on a home PC or laptop, something on the cloud and lots in emails — and thus not productive. Clouds are useful and should be exploited to keep a copy of some files but not all.

Here is how one can build a workable digital reference filing system:

  1. Create a root folder on a PC/laptop that is fully under your control. Create a tree structure of the file/folder system and organize all files in them. Typically there will be two filing systems, one for professional life and the other for personal life. It could be any structure, but we need to keep following two guidelines in mind. It should be the one that naturally occurs to you when you want to retrieve something. Try to not mix files that we want to copy on the cloud with the ones that we do not want to.
    Refer feature image of a sample (partial)structure of a Sample Digital Reference Filing System Structure.
  2. Keep this filing system up to date. This is achieved by developing a habit of storing files at their designated locations within the filing system when we deal with them for the first time. For example, You return from a vacation. You collect all photos and videos from all devices and put them in your reference system at the right location.  You receive an email with the certificate of the online course you just completed. You download the copy and keep it in the reference filing system. (A comment on Emails: Email Apps should be looked at as tools to communicate than the ones to store the documents. This perspective can make a big difference).
  3. You create a mind map while analyzing an interesting problem. You save it in the right location in your filing system.
    This is not all. You could pin frequently accessed folders to Quick Access of File Explorer on Windows and also pin frequently accessed files in respective Applications.
  4. Maintain a schedule to frequently back up your files onto a backup drive. Typical backup drives come with software that keeps track of files modified and new files that got created and give regular alerts on pending backups.
  5. Make a list of folders that you wish to keep a copy of, on clouds such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. Make a schedule of copying them at a frequency that works for you. It’s very productive to be able to retrieve some material on the cloud on our mobile device just from anywhere.
  6. Bookmark web resources actively. Some of your reference material may be available on Internet, in the form of interesting articles, web pages, or web apps. We should maintain bookmarks for them, to reduce our time of retrieval. All browsers allow organizing bookmarks in a tree structure. Choose a structure that works well for you keeping retrieval in mind. Export bookmarks in a file regularly and keep them in the reference filing system. Additionally, you could also use the bookmarks bar to have all that you frequently access.

That’s pretty much all. Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages the habit of building a reference filing system as one of its tenets. Implementing the entire GTD system will multiply your productivity and will keep you stress-free.

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(Originally published on Medium on March 29, 2020)