Dear Geek Girlfriend,

You’ve been trying to organize your life, how do you organize your computer? Yesterday, while trying to find electronic clips to forward someone, I wasn’t sure if they were in my Clients folder or my Writing folder…or on my old computer. I feel like I’m becoming organizationally challenged. For example, I have various fiction and non-fiction writing projects, clients, writing groups, drafts of articles, lists of book agents (some who I have submitted project A to and some I’ve submitted project B to), contacts, e-mails, school work, class work, projects, ideas, etc.! I’ve just dumped my filing cabinet out on the kitchen table to organize the files. I’d love to find something similar cleaning process to do with my computer. And I’d love to migrate to a fancy PDA, but won’t bring myself to do it until I’ve straightened out this virtual mess.

Help! Any programs you can recommend? Any advice?

Miss Messy Desktop

Dear Miss Messy,

I’m so glad you asked this. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about how to organize my virtual files. It has taken me years to work out my system but it finally works for me and is very simple. Every computer has a directory (or folder) structure that starts at the root name of the hard drive. Usually your internal hard drive is called C:/. Windows comes with its own ideas about organization—buried in a folder called Users—but I ignore it completely. I write several blogs, have several fiction projects, manage most of our domestic bills and property, own a rental property, take a few virtual classes, run a business with my husband, and work as a magazine and book writer. Every aspect of my life gets a folder that starts with “@” so that it will always be at the top of a list when I choose File/Open from any program and so that it is clear what files are my data files and what are program files. It looks like this:

I use folders within those folders liberally as well. For example, inside the folder @Work, which holds everything I consider to be part of my day job, I give every client a folder. And inside every client folder, I give every project a folder. So if I wrote a piece for Family Circle last year called “Games for Kids,” I would find everything related to that project in @Work/Family Circle/Games for Kids. And when a project starts to feel unwieldy, I break the project file down even further. This depends on the project but I might break a book down into sub-folders like Research, Drafts, Revisions, Copy Edit, and Layout, Sale and Marketing. And some of those sub-folder probably have folders of their own. Revisions, for example, has a folder for each chapter.

When I move from one computer to another, I copy that organization structure—intact—from the old computer to an external hard drive and attach it to my new computer. So that also archives everything every few years.

There are also a couple of tools I find useful.

Picasa is terrific for instantly indexing all the image files on a computer automatically and visually. Invaluable. And it’s free!

Google Desktop (also free) does for your desktop what Google does for the Internet.

And Microsoft Office OneNote has helped me reign in all those scraps of ideas, Web research, notes on travel plans, financial information, passwords, and conversation notes. I started using it last year and could no longer live without it. In fact, I think I will have to write a post just about OneNote soon.

I’m also looking for more ideas on this, though, so suggestions are welcome.