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Organized Data: How to organize a project in a shared or common drive

So let’s say you’re working on a project and you have to manage its files. How do you go about starting to figure out a strategy on how to do this?

The way I organize my files is by phases, or chronologically.

My projects tend to have very set phases, and we all work and move along the same kind of chronological order. No one overlaps each other until we’re all ready to move on to the next part.

These are some basic folders I set up on every project I am on, named exactly like this:

1. Archive

2. Admin

3. Phase 1

4. Phase 2

5. Phase 3

In the main folder or the “root” folder, I keep commonly accessed files such as:

  • List of contacts (names, phone numbers, etc)
  • Project timeline (usually in Microsoft Project)

That way you don’t need to search through any folder to find all the basic things you need.

Now going into each folder’s purpose:

1. Archive

I don’t know what it is, but every project always ends up having files that you need to archive.

I tend to throw old contact lists (all the old versions), and old project timelines into here JUST IN CASE someone says: Hey! The newest version is wrong, do we have an old one we can resuscitate?

2. Admin

This is where I throw any kind of templates, user guides, computer set up (wireless and so on) notes, or anything that is related to the project but not necessarily part of it.

All the administrative junk.

3. 4. 5. Phases 1- 3

Self-explanatory. Within each phase, I have another subset of folders usually organized by subject like for instance having an Invoices folder, so that ALL the invoices that are sent out, get grouped into there and are found in ONE spot.

Other ways you can organize a project:

  • By topic – Go straight to having Invoices in the main Root folder, not by Phases
  • By area – Maybe you have to deal with Marketing, Accounting on the same project
  • By person – Sometimes you have people on specific areas, and by name helps

However you do it, you should try it out on your existing (or next) project and see what works and what doesn’t.

How to tell when your folder system is NOT working

When people start dumping files like “Untitled” or “Bla bla bla” into your Root (Main) folder because they have no idea where else to go.

When people start asking you: But where is that one folder….??

When you have folders that hold just ONE file — that is just ridiculous and annoying.

When people start throwing files that don’t belong in those folders there because it happened to be open.

When people start naming folders after themselves like: Sally’s Folder DO NOT TOUCH.

Then you need a folder intervention.

Photograph-Travel-Hong-Kong-Asia-Shopping-Housewares-PaintedIf your file system looks like this, then you need to start cleaning it up.

Tips on how to get people to use your folder system

Use the carrot method first… then the stick.

Be nice and coax them, and then basically lay down the rule that anything that comes into the folder without a name, gets thrown into the “Archive” folder, or worse… deleted.

Don’t have more than 3 levels deep of folders, 4 MAXIMUM.

(This does not include your Root folder, which is usually in the middle of some other big, disorganized mess on the common shared drive.)

Don’t name your folders and files super long names.

This has more than just an annoyance-factor purpose, because in Windows, I’ve found that the longer your file names are, the dumber it gets.

Windows does NOT like it when your folders, and then your file names get way too long and unwieldy because it starts truncating the end of those names with a “~” when you try to create a hyperlink to them or a shortcut to your desktop.

To avoid this problem, keep the naming of your folders short and sweet unless you only have one or two levels deep of folders.

Don’t create folders for the hell of it if there is just ONE file that goes in there.

You’d be surprised how stupid people can be. I’ve seen this so many times I want to slap them and say: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

They create folders to categorize and organize files down to its granular level when it is wholly unnecessary and effing annoying.

I HATE clicking on 6 folders to get to ONE file at the end that could have just been stored elsewhere that is easily accessible.

As a rule, a folder should be created if more than 5-10 items have the SAME subject in common and should be grouped together.

If you only have 2-5 files of the same topic, do not create another folder for it. Just name them properly like “File-Type_Descriptor_2013-05-May” and put them in a generic, applicable folder.

Do a clean out every Friday.

I set aside time every Friday to go through and organize the folders, do a little clean up and so on while my brain is still fresh on what it is I wanted to do.

Otherwise, after the weekend, my brain totally shuts down and come Monday, I have no clue where my files are.

…and for that matter, do a backup on your files every Friday.

Want to know my secret to a stress-free project and career?


Every time I have lost the contents of my laptop, I haven’t freaked out because I HAD BACKUPS. PLENTY OF BACKUPS.

Am I screaming loud enough?


That is all.

(Do that for your personal life too.)

Result? Folder ZEN!



  • Tania

    I hate when I go to work for a company and the accounting department is keeping the files they work on under their “name” file. For example, keeping a receivable collection worksheet under “Bob” instead of “Accounts Receivable/Doubtful Accounts”. NO!!! What inevitably happens is you have files all over the place under names of people who no longer work there! The ideal methodology is one that anyone who knows what they’re doing could find the softcopy of a file. This goes for hardcopy files too. Letting individual team members develop their own system doesn’t work. Everyone needs to follow a certain structure.

    I do an “old” directory similar to your archive for budgeting. Those old files come in handy quite a few times as starting templates for a variety of strategic projects as they are usually “old” because of certain assumptions which may be mocked up again later.

    I’m the same as you for projects. I do keep separate for in progress and completed in both my email, file cabinets and soft files. When a project is done, I take that entire project main directory and move it into the completed area everywhere.

  • Ree Klein

    Oh, you hit a mega hot button with me. I get so massively annoyed when I inherit or am forced to work with a messed up folder system. The thing that gets me the most are folders labeled by worker names. WHO KNOWS WHAT’S IN THERE ANYWAY????

    Sure, if you work in the legal department it’s something legal, but that doesn’t help me find anything especially when “Harriet” is GONE!!! So, having a strategy for setting up electronic file systems is critical in my mind. BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND (thanks Stephen Covey).

    I’m not crazy about the phased approach you mention above simply because of the duplicate folders; your Invoice folders are a perfect example. However, I do like and use another scenario you present: a topic or category system

    I think the best way to get people on a team or in a department to comply with a better system is to get them in on the design. If you’re new to a department, call a meeting, ask what bugs others about the current system and see if you can create a workable new system together. You can do the same basic thing when new teams are formed on projects, for example. People are more likely to support something they helped to create.

    Great post, Mocimac!

    • saverspender @ save. spend. splurge.

      People should choose what works for them. Mine works for me because of the way my projects are done, but otherwise, just letting people “do what they want” drives me nuts on projects. I’d rather set a structure and have people evolve it to what they can use it for than to have nothing at all.

  • cj

    I am so happy I do not have to work with files this way, but I love reading about your organizational prowess, Mochimac!!!

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