The computer file problem

I have 30 years worth of computer files. Most, except those very most recently worked on, are backed up in Dropbox and on a flash drive or four. They are very disorganized — there are folders within folders and it is terrible. I need to sit down and go through all of these, put them in a more working order, and do it in such a way as I back up what I am working on more systematically, but I am not sure where to begin. I have very few files on my office computer and have thought of erasing these, then starting to build a file system on it from scratch, then putting this in Dropbox, but even so it is not clear to me how to start, that is to say, what architectural concept to go on. The current one is basically Computer 1, 2, 3, and so on … except that files from these overlap so I cannot reliably go by year even if I wanted to. I practically think I need an archivist, but what do you do?

A. You can just search for stuff in Dropbox though, so no need to organize things.

A. Get some freeware to delete doubles. Perhaps begin by sorting by file type and date: “word-2015” and so on. Also use global search programs that make “finding” more or less irrelevant.

A. If you download an duplicate finder like Duplicate Detective, you can run it and it will tell you how many files you have, how many duplicates there are and where they are located etc, etc., without deleting/merging anything. There are settings that provide you with a list of duplicates and then let you delete each file manually if you want. Also, when you learn how many files you’ve got on your machine, you might change your mind about doing everything manually. When I first ran Duplicate Detective, I learned I had tens of thousands of files, waaaayyyy too many to sort by hand. So I just backed everything up well in two places and then merged everything automatically and I haven’t had any problems yet. It freed up a ton of space for me very quickly.

 I also love this thing: Disk Inventory X

Disk Inventory X, disk usage utility for Mac OS X from

A. Take some time and read David Spark’s e-book, Paperless. Among other things, it goes over how to structure a paperless life with hardware, software, apps, and wetware (your brain). He’s mac-based, but many of his suggestions are platform agnostic. There’s also several sites that are specifically geared to helping academics, like Macademic, think through those who have research, writing, and teaching needs.

You’ll have to put in some time developing a larger system that makes sense. For example, for my oldest archives I use year-month but anything from 2000 onward that I’m scanning and archiving uses year-month-date; this sorts all files in chronological order. Dates are always date created. I have several categories for research, so this is similar to tagging, but I have broad categories for files. I use a particular strategy for correspondence: Pea–> Person or Person–>Pea. I also organize into folders because I was good at doing this with physical files, but it doesn’t matter as much when you can search for files across all folders.

I use a combination of filing software (Hazel), apple macros, and text expander software so I don’t have to type everything out. I manage research in bibliographic software.

It’s important to work this out an create a map to guide me—mine is color coded and big and on the wall near my desk. Whatever Hazel doesn’t clean up for me gets put in a folder TO BE FILED on my desktop. Every few weeks I tackle this (and scan any hard copies) and use my map to do my best. By having & using the map, at least I know I should use/used one of the terms there when I start my search for a file.

My dropbox mirrors my hard drive filing system; that makes it easier when I share folders with colleagues and clients, too.


I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest Video Field Guide. This one is all about Hazel. For years,…
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