Organize your "electronic filing cabinet"

How many minutes, hours, days have you spent searching for a file that you know is somewhere on your computer? Perhaps it's the back-to-school letter that you wrote last year. Or perhaps it's the to-do list you wrote just this morning.

Whatever the case, there's nothing more frustrating than trying to find a file that you know exists but that eludes you in the digital abyss of your computer hard disk drive.

Because you're reading this article, it's likely that you're ready to get organized. Congratulations on taking the first step. After you've organized your electronic files, you can save yourself a bundle of time throughout the year.

Establish your filing system

Whether you're starting with a fresh computer that contains no files or whether you're knee-deep in "electronic paper," start by thinking of your computer as a filing cabinet. The organizational system within your computer is basically made up of two components: directories and files. The directories are like the tabbed file folders, and the files — documents, pictures, or any other sort of data — are like the papers that you'd put in those file folders. Unlike paper folders, however, your electronic directories can hold a nearly infinite number of files.

There are some who still believe in filing a file under the program that created it. But this is much like a landscaper filing every plant he's ever planted under the tool he used to dig the hole for it — not a very useful system. In order to create a filing system that will work for you and your classroom, first think about the way you think about your work. Start with broad categories — for example, the subject matter — and then whittle it down.

Your system might look something like this:

  • U.S. History
    • Colonization Lesson Plans
      • Jamestown
      • Plymouth Colony Simulation
    • Exploration Lesson Plans
      • Maps
      • Regions Explored
      • Timeline

One of the many nice features of a computer versus the old three-drawer filing cabinet: A computer alphabetizes folders and files for you. However, if you happen to teach U.S. History, as in the preceding example, you'd want "Exploration Lesson Plans" listed before "Colonization Lesson Plans." If you want your unit plans filed in the order in which you'll teach them, put the letter A in front of the first unit you teach, B in front of the second, and so on.

What's in a name

Many teachers struggle to learn students' names at the beginning of each school year. Fortunately, not all children look alike or have the same personality. So, eventually, you'll know Suzie from Sally and Jack from Jonathan. Computer files, however, are another story. Until they're opened, they look very similar to one another. Therefore, it's extremely important to give your files good names.

File names are no longer restricted to eight characters. In fact, you can use up to 255 characters — about as many as are in this paragraph. Of course, if every document had 255 characters in the title, reading through a list of file names would be far too time-consuming.

The best way to name your files is to think about how you'll look for them next year. What keywords would you think of first? If you were searching on the Internet for the topic, what would you type? Then make sure that you include these keywords in the title.

If you make it a habit to give each document a good title now, you should be able to find the document by using your computer's search feature. Just type in a logical keyword and, voilà, your document will appear.

Learn to keep your files organized

Everyone goes through stages in which they spend time getting organized. If you're typical, you're organized for a few days, and then you fall back into old habits. Try to stick to a few easy rules that maintain at least a basic level of organization when it comes to computer files.

  • Include file names on your documents     The document name can be placed in the footer of a Microsoft Office Word document, for example, by using the AutoText command on the Insert menu. You can include only the document name or both the document name and the path to where the document is saved. (The latter is very helpful on a printed copy when you can't find the document on your computer.)
  • Create a directory for the past school year      When you start a new school year, put a copy of your files into that directory. Then you can modify documents as needed for the new school year without losing last year's versions of the documents.
  • Organize your e-mail     The same filing principles that were outlined earlier in this article can be applied to your e-mail account. Create folders for listservs, and apply rules that automatically file your e-mail messages as they're delivered into your account. Also, be sure to use good subject lines in your e-mail messages — it's much easier to find an e-mail message if it has a subject line that applies to the content of the message.
  • Clean house     Get in the habit of going through your files and deleting the ones that haven't been used in a long while. By using the search feature, you can find documents by date. If a file was last modified or created more than two years ago, delete it. If you think that you might use it in the distant future, burn it onto a CD before deleting it.
  • Index your files     Did you know that your computer will index all of your files for you? Even text within documents. After indexing is set up, it will run automatically and requires little attention. This greatly improves the search functionality of your computer.

Set organizational goals that you can meet

When it comes to organizing your electronic files, don't feel that you have to do it all at once. You can take it one step at a time. First, follow the steps in this article to set organizational goals that you can use going forward. Then, if your documents are strewn all over your computer, create a directory titled "Old Documents" and put all of your old files, just as they are, in that directory. As you access and use those old files, save each of them to its place in your new electronic filing cabinet.

Applies to:
Outlook 2003, Word 2003