How to Organize Computer Documents

The average worker spends between 30 minutes to two hours daily looking for misplaced documents and emails on their computer. Creating a paperless office can be a difficult challenge when your electronic files and documents are not well organized and you have difficulty finding key information. The following is information on how to create an organized system of managing your digital documents to improve productivity and efficiency. 

Before creating your digital filing structure, you need to determine where you want to store your electronic files on your computer. If your organization uses a cloud-based network, then you might have a personal location in that application such as Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive. If your organization still has information on a local server, most likely your IT department gave you a personal file folder or space on the server that usually is named your first initial and last name. Both these locations might be the best location to store your personal electronic documents because they are usually backed up automatically.

Some individuals prefer to keep their documents on their local hard drive, or C drive, and not on the cloud-based systems or network server because they find it is easier to access and more reliable, especially when traveling. If you select this option, be sure to determine a backup plan.

If you decide to use multiple locations including local and cloud-based file managers, be clear on the distinction between each location. For example, you might want to keep all personal documents on the local drive, use the cloud-based storage for copies of documents to share with others, the shared server for all final business documents and your own personal drive as a master repository of all work documents. Trying to manage multiple document locations can be frustrating and challenging if you are not clear of intent of each location.

Parallel File Structures

It is best to create a digital file hierarchy structure that is parallel to other applications including email and/or paper file structures. This keeps records organized under one structure instead of trying to maintain multiple structures. When you use this approach to information management, you think of all your data as one entity, and no matter what form that data is in, it is stored in the same category or structure within all your information systems. Using this approach, all your information systems will be parallel to one another. That, in turn, simplifies filing and retrieving information, no matter which type of format.

First Line Folder Structure

First determine the first line folder structure. This first line should be major topics within the scope of your job and organization. First line folders could include the following type of categories:

  • Primary areas of responsibility
  • Primary areas of reference information
  • Division or departments of an organization
  • Major projects or initiatives
  • Names of associations and external organizations

Here is an example of a 1st level file folder structure.Click image to enlarge

Create Sub-Folders

You can sub-categorize each first line folder in the following ways:

  • Chronologically by calendar year or fiscal year
  • Subject or topic name
  • Peron or Organization name
  • Numerically by ID number
  • Geographic region, state or country

It is recommended when a folder has more than 30 documents in it or over a screen view in length, consider sub categorizing the folder contents by creating sub-folders. For example, if you have a file folder titled Staff Meetings with more than 30 documents of meeting minutes for the past four years, create chronological sub-folders by year and store each year’s minutes in the appropriate sub-folder. This sub-categorization simplifies the process of finding meeting minutes from the past to current year. It also makes it easier to purge older minutes.

It is recommended to try and stay within 4-5 folder levels to keep simplicity and ease of navigation in your folder structure. This will also ensure that you do not surpass character and text limits in file manager applications.

Here is an example of developing sub-categories by year.

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Here is an example of developing sub-categories by name.

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Here is an example of developing sub-categories by topic.

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Here is an example of developing sub-categories by geographic region, then by client name and then by project name.

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Create your file folder structure first, before you begin to reorganize and migrate the electronic documents. With your file folder system in place, you can easily drag and drop files into the appropriate file folders, without stopping to create a new file folder. Of course, as you begin to organize your digital information, you will find you need to expand your sub-folder structure to include additional sub-folders, as needed. Step 1: Open up the File Manager If you’re working on a PC, you can use the standard Microsoft File Explorer application to organize files. For Mac-based systems, just click the Finder icon in the lower toolbar. For cloud-based applications, install the desktop version to make it easy to navigate either in MS File Explorer or Mac Finder. Step 2: Determine the Folder View Once in a File Manager application, select an appropriate view. Ideally, choosing a list or column view simplifies organizing electronic files and makes it easy to drag and drop files and documents from one pane into another. In this double pane column view, the left side lists all primary files and drives and the right side lists the contents of a highlighted folder.

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Step 3: Creating File Folders In all File Managers, electronic file folders are viewed and sorted in numerical and then alphabetical order. Initially the file folder is named “New Folder” in file managers and the name is highlighted; type in the new file name to change the name of the folder. If you accidentally click out of the new file before you have typed in your file name, just right-click on the new folder and choose Rename from the context menu. Below are specific directions to create a new file folder in Windows File Explorer, Mac Finder, Google Drive and OneDrive. Many other file manager applications function similarly. Windows File Explorer: To create a new file folder in File Explorer, highlight the file or drive in which you want to create the new folder (such as Documents). In the Home toolbar, choose New Folder. Or simply right click and choose New Folder. (see screen shot)

Mac: To create a new file folder for Mac users, go to Finder and click on File/New Folder. (see screen shot)Click image to enlarge

Google Drive: To create a new file folder in Google Drive, click on New and choose New Folder from the drop down menu (see screen shot below).

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OneDrive: To create a new file folder in OneDrive, click on New/Folder from the drop-down menu. (see screen shot)

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Step 4: Move Files and Documents Once you have your file folder system created, then move your existing documents into the new file structure. To move files into folders, merely click and drag the document into the file folder or use the cut/paste function. Within your file manager application you can create multiple layers of sub-folders but again, try to stay within 4-5 levels of folders. Create the subfolders using the same process described in Step 3 by highlighting or clicking into the file folder within you want to create the subfolder. As you re-organize your electronic documents you will find you need to modify your initial file structure and/or add more sub-folders. This is normal and expected when re-organizing existing electronic file structures.

Developing standard naming conventions for your digital records will help you quickly name, file, and locate your documents. Having good document naming practices will also significantly improve searching within file manager applications.

To create standard naming conventions, consider the data that should always be entered in first, based on how you want to access and recall documents. The following information is recommended to include in document naming:

  • Include Title or Topic
  • Type of Document (i.e. Agenda, Briefing, Form, Template, Minutes, Report, etc.)
  • Target Audience (If applicable)
  • Version Number, if applicable (v01)
  • Date (DD.MM.YYYY)
  • Author, Originator or Reviewer initials, if applicable

Here is an example of a complete document naming convention:

How to Organize Your Computer Documents_Report_05.01.2018_KJMcCorry

Here is an example of using standard naming conventions for meeting minutes.

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Date Standardization

The international date standard format is year, month and day with underscores between them. (YYYY_MM_DD) Example: 2019_01_30. The United States date standard is month, day and then year with usually periods between (MM.DD.YYYY). It is recommended to always add a relevant date at the end of the file name conventions so users can see easily see the date a document is associated with. When files and documents are moved locally from one computer/server or cloud-based application the “creation date” will change to the date those documents were moved to the new location. Thus, the creation date can be lost if not recorded on the document naming convention. Further, when emailing documents, it is helpful for the user to see a date associated with a document within the name.

File Name Length

Document file path and name cannot exceed 255 characters in most File Manager applications. This includes all characters including slashes, dashes, periods, underscores and spaces. This character limit generally applies when documents are saved locally or in cloud-based systems.


An underscore (_), space or dash (-) can be used as separators for document naming conventions. This assists users to read naming conventions easily as well as clarifies separation of text for system search functions. Avoid using special characters in a document name such as: \ / : ; * ? “” < > [] & $. These characters may present errors in various applications that do not recognize them in document names.

Version Control

In the case version control is needed, one of the standards is to use a lower case ‘v’ with sequential two-digit number (e.g. v01, v02, v03). This could be included along with the revised date.

Keep Folders in a Screen View

It is recommended to keep the file folder structure and/or documents within a screen view. Once folders or documents exceed a screen view, consider adding sub-folders. This minimizes scrolling for the user which increases the propensity to find and organize data quickly.

Create Shortcuts

For file folders and/or documents that you access on a regular basis, create shortcuts on the desktop or in the Favorites section of the File Manager for quick and fast access.

Annual Review

Review your file folder structure annually and purge and re-organize. This will keep your file system current and up-to-date which increases the likelihood of you keeping your system in-tact and not duplicating records.

Related Products

This 80-page guidebook is designed to guide IT staff, technology and organizing consultants (or assigned project managers) through the steps—from assessment to implementation—to establish a common practice for organizing and managing digital documentation on shared drive networks,  Sharepoint, Google Drive, and other document management systems.