Sustainable file system hygiene

“Does anyone have good tips/tricks for file structures? I keep losing track of my projects.”

I hear this question or a variation of it frequently. Just got asked today during a skill share session I was in with the other OpenNews Fellows so I thought I’d write this up.

It is very easy to generate data (whatever form that data comes in — photos, project files, databases, notes, etc) so data accumulates rapidly. No matter how systematic you are about putting it somewhere, your context will change or the volume of data will exceed your ability to keep it under control.

It’s a challenge for everyone whatever their occupation or workflow so how do we deal with it? Here’s my solution:

  • Projects
  • References
  • Archives

Let me elaborate.

First, what problem are you solving? The central question is not “How do I keep stuff organized?” it is “How do I find this later?”, so your goal is findability above all else.

Rule #1: Everything needs a place. If you don’t have a place for things to go, they will go wherever and you won’t find it later.

Second, your data deluge problem is cross-platform and ubiquitous so you need to solve the issue for that scope, not just for one platform or device. It’s not just how you nest and name folders on your laptop but also how you organize things on Dropbox, Google Drive and so on.

Rule #2: The system is inherent to YOU, not the place where things are, it just gets mirrored there. It needs to be abstract and simple so it can be applied wherever you go and wherever your things might be. Over and over again.

Third, we are talking digital things so presume a file system will be involved and acknowledge that a file system is a constrained hierarchy which forces a certain set of decisions to be made.

(Yes, you can always search, great, but you also want to know where stuff lives so you can put more stuff like it along with it. Also don’t minimize your natural desire to want to browse because you will want to do that too.)

Rule #3: It’s a file system and hierarchy is inherently insufficient because categories evolve in meaning over time. Deal with it.

Your system is going to evolve over time so more important than what is the system, is how are you going to respond to the change over time. I have 5 active projects now but what will happen when two of the projects end? What and when do I back things up? And so on. Also:

Rule #4: Hygiene is about maintaining a healthy state. Only you can tell if the state of things is not healthy or going downhill. It’s also up to you to put the time to get things back to shape before it falls into a complete state of disarray.

Ok, back to the solution:

  • Projects
  • References
  • Archives

This is no surprise to anyone who has practiced Getting Things Done, but even if you haven’t, this is a sufficiently good place to start. Why does this work?

  1. Too much nesting is bad (for your own recall and because some backup reasons – some systems really choke with 8+ levels)
  2. Too much scanning is bad (for your own speed/efficiency, long list of projects you are not really working on won’t help you find things quickly)
  3. Trash/distractions are bad (also for your own speed/efficiency), but random stuff will accumulate. You don’t necessarily get to put things where they belong as you are working with them, but you have to at some point.


Whatever you are actively working on. Be descriptive. One folder per project. Anything that involves more than a step that has a supporting set of data/files needs to live in there.

“But I have 100 projects!” That’s not an organization problem, that’s a lack of priority problem. “But I don’t like mixing personal and professional!” ok, create those two folders and then put your projects in them – but remember, the more nesting/complexity, less likely to stay functioning and healthy.

Usage frequency: You will use what’s in this daily or every few days until you are done with the project.


This is a library; things you need to consult on a regular basis or review periodically. They don’t need to be cluttering your projects but need to be accessible and readily available. I have a copy of all my important IDs and docs in folder here. Also all my purchased fonts live here.

For example, when I finish a professional project, I move it to a folder in references called /Portfolio. I know that when it comes time to update my resume, LinkedIn profile or website, I can review this folder for the history of what I’ve worked on since the last update.

Usage frequency: Occasional or on recurring basis in service of active projects.


I put all my backups on the archive folder of my home computer. I back up my various devices to that location as well. Periodically I check my computer’s download folder and move any software to a /software downloads folder in there should I ever need a previous version of an app. I put all my photos here. I have albums I publish to places and such, but every photo taken is put away here.

Usage frequency: Rarely if ever. This only exists for an eventuality but also helps you get rid of stuff from Projects and References that is not that important to your day to day but you don’t want to get rid of.

Over time when I check that References/Portfolio/ folder I find projects that I have no interest in ever talking about again so I move them to archive. If I ever needed to read my graduation thesis ever again, this is where I can go get it (Chances: 0.000001%).

Rule #0: A sustainable file system hygiene depends as much on your workflow maintaining the system as the organization of the files themselves.

(It’s last to make a point, but really, it’s the first rule in importance and impact)

If you focus on organizing, you can go down a rabbit hole of eternal taxonomization that will not stand the test of time because when you are trying to find a thing your focus is on the thing itself.

The file system really should reflects your workflow. Your workflow needs to include a) put things in one of those places b) put the right things in the right places c) move things between those places as the context changes and they evolve/change status d) give all the orphans a home when you come across them (and if there isn’t one, the trash is where it needs to go).

If you do this across all your various systems you will find that findability improves but you also become ruthless about what’s occupying your attention and as long as you use the same pattern over and over, and periodically restore the pattern when it starts to deteriorate, you can stay on top of things.