The Syntax of your Personal and Work Files; When a Search isn’t Enough

Jānis Lanka
4 min readMay 6, 2020

Being a freelancer for the past two years, my digital personal and professional lives have become increasingly mixed, and it’s getting out of control in terms of file/folder/data organization. So, during this COVID-19 pandemic, I had a few weeks of downtime and decided to use my systems-thinking brain to come up with a better solution to fix the rat’s nest that is my computer’s folder structure. I asked several friends from other industries about how they keep their digital space tidy and easy to navigate, so hopefully the presented solution could serve as a starting point for gaining some sanity in your digital life. It sure has helped mine.

The core of the problem is that I found it to be difficult to separate personal and professional files within my digital ecosystem, it’s just too entwined. Keeping work files on work computers is also not an option, as I don’t want to purchase another laptop just for work, and the same applies to my phone and external drives. In addition, I didn’t have any strong method of naming folders and files, so most things got moved onto a desktop that was relevant at the moment, and moved out to some external drive or cloud storage location that made sense at that moment. So, finding the right thing got really complicated.

When Search can’t Find Everything

When I asked for input from a few friends, some of them suggested that there is no need for folders and I should only rely on search. True, in many situations, folders have been replaced by tags, and consequently, tags have been replaced by increasingly better search; be that within your files on the computer or content within an email. However, my data is stored on my laptop, on one external hard drive, and on several cloud storage services. Unfortunately, a unified search cannot properly index all of those locations, so the first step was to consolidate my cloud storage and only use Google Drive.

The downside to using Google Drive is that not everything can be conveniently stored there, and not every file is compatible with Google Drive to search within. In general, not everyone is a fan of cloud storage because they prefer some more reliable “off-line” option. Whatever the preference, unless you’re working with common files and storing everything on the cloud, your search will be limited and you will still need a good folder structure and tidy filename syntax so that you can find information quickly.

Solution for the Peaceful Coexistence of Two Worlds

I designed my solution around logical groupings and paid attention to semantics, so it’s easier to determine the difference between personal and work information. The only exception was money-related or financial topics, so I ended up using both names: “money” is used for personal things, but “finance” is related to all things business such as invoices, expenses, and documents related to my accountant. The rest, well, it’s pretty self-explanatory on this mindmap!

Want to zoom in? Click on the image or check my live mindmap at https://whimsical.com/NnKHRzwwZE4LTHRM9d5EAZ

Photos & Videos Take a Lot of Space

When it comes to searching for visual files, such as photos and videos, most programs fall short. Adobe Bridge is a great way to browse and tag photos, but not everyone wants an Adobe account. The best I found was Google Photos, because of the easy retrievability via face, location, time, etc. However, Google Photos is less desirable for its cost, which quickly became an issue since I take photos in RAW and have 4k drone videos. Also, if you want to store or backup files on an external storage device (not the cloud), then you still need some level of the old-school file structure.

Closets and garages are not the only things that need spring cleaning; we need to pay attention to our devices and drives, too. But what’s the Marie Kondo method of organizing your digital data? Well, the good news is that figuring out your own system doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Before embarking on the journey of changing your folders, do your brainstorm via tools like Whimsical and use my outline as your starting point. Once you have established your desired structure, it can gradually be adopted on your drives, and easily ported to such places as email tags (or folders), browser bookmark folders, project drives, etc.

So, whenever you get to it, I would love to hear your experience and suggestions on how you would improve upon my approach.

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Jānis Lanka

Building a better internet, one digital brick at a time.