A screenshot of my desktop

If you’re like me, your desktop probably doesn’t look like this most of the time. In fact, if you’re anything like me, it probably looks more like this.

As part of Operation: Clean Out The Engine Sludge, I recently reorganized my entire computer and put every last file away where it belonged. If you’re thinking, gosh, that sounds like a lot of work, it is. It took me about 2-3 hours and freed up about 10 gigabytes in space, but it was well worth it.

Today I thought I’d share with you how I organize the files on my computer in a way that makes them easy to find again, even if I leave them there and forget about them for months. I call it the “How To Organize Your Computer And Still Remember Where You Put Everything” system, or “The Alphabetical Reference System” for short.

What it looks like

In expanded list view:

How I organize my computer - the reference file, in list view

In icon view:

How I organize my computer - the reference file, in icon view

How it works

Everything is contained within one folder. In this example, the aforementioned folder is labeled “reference”. Within the reference folder, there are 26 folders, one for each letter of the alphabet. This is the basic structure of this organizational system.

Why this way versus another?

Before I organized my files using this system, I would try to organize my files by relation. For example: If I had a folder full of files related to business cards, I would put it under a file labeled “print work” in My Documents. The path to this file would then look like this:

Chanel > My Documents > Print Work.

But then a problem comes up. If I have an existing folder labeled with my company name (e.g., “XanGo”) and some of these business card templates are for my company, should I put the business card file under “print work” or “XanGo”? Should it be: Chanel > My Documents > XanGo > Business Cards? What happens if I leave this file alone for several months and forget where I put it—when I go to look for it, where I will look first?

The idea behind this organizational system is to “file away” all your files in the most natural, easy to recall places.

If you’re looking for the file “business cards”, you look under “B” for business cards:
Chanel > Reference > B > Business Cards.

If you save funny things on the internet to your computer, you file it under “F” for funny:
Chanel > Reference > F > Funny internet finds.

You label your files the way you will remember them, in places that seem most nature to find them.

How to make it for yourself

You can make this folder directly in your user account,
For Windows: C:/WINDOWS/Documents & Settings/Chanel/
For Macs: Macbook Pro > Users > Chanel

Or your can use your documents folder as the reference folder:
For Windows: C:/WINDOWS/Documents & Settings/Chanel/My Documents
For Macs: Macbook Pro > Users > Chanel > Documents

Once you have your main folder ready, make sure it is blank and ready for you to create 26 folders, one for each letter of the alphabet. Create a folder, label it “A”. Create a folder, label it “B”. Create a folder, label it “C”, etc. etc. until you have the entire alphabet.

Once these folders are done, you are ready to start filing away all those stray files on your computer.

How to use it

Like any organizational system, it only works if you use it. The idea behind the success of this system is to file files away in the appropriate place when you save them, not when you desktop becomes completely covered in icons.

For example, I take lots of notes on my laptop. I would then file these notes away under “N”, like such:

Chanel > Reference > N > Notes

From there, you can separate further organize the types of notes into different folders: School notes, work notes, seminar notes, etc.

Take lots of pictures? Do this:

Chanel > Reference > P > Photos

Download the photos from your camera to this parent folder, creating a new folder each time you upload a new batch of photos. I’ve organized my original photos by date:

How I organize my computer - The P folder

The file path for all the photos I took on December 5, 2008 would then be:
Chanel > Reference > P > Photos > Originals > December 5, 2008

Last words

I’ve actually has this organizational system in place since I bought my Macbook Pro—so almost a year now—but I must admit that I haven’t always used it to its full capacity. This was not my original idea; I actually created this organizational system on my computer after googling ways to organize files and stumbling across an article on this alphabetical method. I would give credit where credit is due, but unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me seem to find that article anywhere. (ETA December 12th, 2009 – I finally came across the website where I first learned about this filing system; the original idea comes from here.)

What kind of system do you use to organize your files on your computer? How is it working?

  1. Vasili on 12-5-2008:

    I really need to clean out my way of storing files. Most of the files are images or scripts. The scripts go into my local server and the pictures go into My Pictures. I then sort those. This is a really cool way, I’ll probably try it soon. :D

    5:26 pm
  2. Leila on 12-5-2008:

    You provide the path for Windows XP. Just for the record, it’s C:/Users/Chanel in Vista. I know it’s a bit obvious, but seeing as this post seems targeted toward towards those who might not have that much directory knowledge, just making sure.

    5:55 pm
  3. Wendy on 12-5-2008:

    My desktop is really messed up right now because I just keep downloading files and saving them to my desktop rather than into a folder. I really do need to get around organizing them so these tips come in handy! Thanks :)

    7:10 pm
  4. Clem on 12-5-2008:

    Wow, I organise everything alphabetically and I’ve never thought of doing it like this! I think it’s a really smart idea, actually. I’m getting a new computer soon, and I think I’ll end up doing it like this. Now that you mention it, my so-called organised computer really isn’t! Thanks for this!

    7:15 pm
  5. Valen on 12-5-2008:

    Relevant titles on all my files allows for good ol’ Spotlight [aka Command-Spacebar] to be quite handy when I want to find something quickly!

    9:30 pm
  6. Kaylee on 12-5-2008:

    I never save anything on my desktop, but I really like this alphabetical idea. I always run across the problem of not knowing where to save things when they fall under multiple folder topics.

    I’ll set aside some time to try and implement this one day soon :) Thanks for sharing the idea!

    10:44 pm
  7. Arielle on 12-6-2008:

    Literally organizing everything alphabetically? That scares me. I’d rather just use the search funtcion.

    11:16 pm
  8. Katy on 12-7-2008:

    Awesome post! My files are all over my computer too; most are on my desktop (C:\) but all my media and resources (eg. fonts, stock photos, etc.) are in my D:\ with a bunch of random and temp files in my MY DOCUMENTS folder for easy access. My desktop is empty and folder free (I’m on a PC but use a MAC-like menu) and only have 4 folders on it. I put all my web/graphic work in one labeled “Projects” then each client/project in it has it’s own folder.

    It’s a good system for me since I’ve been using it for years and I’m use to it but I seriously have to rethink organizing my D drive because that folder is just a total mess. I’m an organization freak too and it’s been bugging me for along time but never got around to it!

    4:46 am
  9. SArah on 12-7-2008:

    We are VERY alike. Thankfully yesterday I had absolutely nothing to do (scratch that, I had lots to do but prefered to procrastinate anyway) so I decided to organize my stuff. Now it’s so comfortable to search for stuff in my computer.. Though I know it’s going to be all messy again.. bleh.. I’ll just organize AGAIN :)

    5:29 pm
  10. Erin on 12-8-2008:

    Interesting idea, Chanel.

    I always keep my desktop clear. It helps me feel more zen when loading the computer. =)

    Reply: I totally know what you mean… Clutter on your desktop (physical or virtual) = clutter in your mind and productivity; or at least I’ve found that to be so!

    1:40 pm
  11. Liz on 12-9-2008:

    Sorry, I got stumped on the adorable doggy picture and missed most of the post. :) Gotta go back and reread. But cute dog.

    11:53 am
  12. Holly on 12-18-2008:

    Oh my gosh. I think you are the most organised person I have ever seen!

    AND you have the cutest desktop!

    2:18 am
  13. Robmarie on 12-18-2008:

    Wow — that sounds like an amazing and highly efficient way to organize files! The sad part of it all is that it should be common sense, but it isn’t. It had never even occurred to me!

    9:06 pm
  14. Keng on 1-7-2009:

    Oh wow, this is such an interesting way to organize files! I must admit, I’m usually on top of my computer clutter (the only folder that really gets messy is my Downloads folder, but even then I’m always cleaning it every week if not sooner), but I might just give it a try one of these days. ;)

    9:50 pm
  15. Timotheonb on 5-15-2009:

    I have tested your idea and it works very well. I islso speak two languages, but, all is well since both languages use the same alphabet.
    I haven’t read up on the other comments, but an interesting idea came up as I was reorgizing my files. It hinges aroung levels. It sort of goes like this:
    level one – alphabetical order
    In this level I can use people’s names, places, book titles, etc. But with other types of concepts I noticed I can use a second level. I will use an example. I am learning how to use a Content Management System called TYPO3. In this content management system there are manuals, videos and podcasts. Normally, podcasts would be under the letter P, but I keep it under t/TYPO3/podcasts. I think this would enter level 2.
    Level two – related material (conceptual?)er
    Here I can organize things that are directly related to the subdirectory (TYPO3) and not allow the files to be copied into v/video, for example. Under v/video would be a range of different subdirectories that are related to a project, or a place to download videos in general and then, later on, save them into their diretories that are connected to the subject ( say a video of geography on the Grand Canyon, g/geography/Grand_Canyon/).
    On this same level it may be necessary to change the concept. For example, I study the Bible in at least two languages and need to organize material in Hebrew and Greek. Until I had heard of this alphabetical system, I was getting confused as to how I would organize everything. Now I organize like this: b/biblos/44mt/kjv_mp3 (for King James version mp3 files on the book of Matthe) or b/biblos/44mt/greek/ for anything lated to the greek language, b/biblos/44mt/google_files for .kml or .kmz files to view places on Google Earth. Videos are also organized around this system.
    I see that on the first level everthing is centralized around the alphabetical system, on the second level, everything pertinent or related to the subject (person, book, project, etc.).

    That is what I have come up with. I am not sure if this will be of any help to anyone but if it is, please drop me in a note.


    10:42 am
  16. Timotheonb on 5-15-2009:

    Oh, one more thing. I run OpenSuse 11.1

    10:46 am
  17. Chelsea on 8-17-2009:

    This is very inspiring. :)

    6:24 pm
  18. Victoria on 8-26-2009:

    Very organized. Can’t say it looks like the most efficient method though. What if something doesn’t necessarily cleanly fit into one type (rather, two, or even three)? The trick is then you have to remember where you filed it under in the first place. I’d rather combine a hybrid of folders by relation/relevance and Spotlight. This system looks really neat and uncluttered, but ultimately will be less efficient for most people (unless they just naturally have the compulsive filing gene like you :) )

    11:02 pm
  19. Laptop Service on 10-30-2009:

    Even I am into laptop repair and service business, I have never thought of organizing my system this way. Its simply great way. I shall give a try to it.

    5:12 am
  20. Scott on 11-27-2009:

    You may have seen the article about alphabetical filing on this website: http://www.alphabetical-filing.com/.

    2:25 am
  21. Chantelle on 12-8-2009:

    Nice. I need to (re)organize on my computer. My personality isn’t exactly practical or straightforward, so I’d never think to label things alphabetically on my own. One of the downsides to this system is that it’s geared towards files labeled in Western languages. A lot of my stuff is in Korean. :(

    4:54 am
  22. Rudra on 12-12-2009:

    This is a very cool explanation on organising the files in the pc. I have been Browsing for such an information for a long time. This was a very interesting way of organising the files-folders. Even though it looks a little scary to start with. This surely helped me. Hope u keep writing such interesting and even more simpler ways as u come accross. I appreciate ur writing.I’ll be in touch….. Take care……….

    6:11 am
  23. Don on 9-12-2010:

    very interesting way of organizing will have to bookmark this (on my desktop.. LOL), and come back to read thru again. I clean off my desktop, and 2 weeks later, it’s all over the place again. thanx!
    .-= Don’s last blog: PCTech – Computer Repair Services Augusta GA =-.

    10:17 pm
  24. Ana on 5-12-2011:

    Chanel thank you very much for your suggestion, it seems to me like a very good way to organize files! I have been looking for a way to organize and declutter My Documents, and I was thinking about creating folders on different categories, but I have so many files that dont really have an specific place (which category they belong to?) and I was getting quite confused! Alphabetical order seems to be a really good solution, thank you very much!

    9:11 pm
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