The Beginning of Organization

Note: This was the first column, published at MacCentral December 8, 1998.

This may seem mundane, but the most basic step to having an efficient, effective Mac is to organize your files. It's really no different from the physical word where it can become impossible to find your stuff unless you store it in logical places.

Here's the basic rule: Create a folder for each project you work on and store all files pertaining to it in that folder. And here's the sister rule: Never, ever store any files you create in the folder that contains the application you are using - or any other application.

When I first tell this to someone the common response is, "but I created that file in Word (or ClarisWorks, FileMaker Pro, Excel, etc). Yes, that's true. But that application is the tool you used, that's all. Let's put this in real-life terms. Imagine you are working on a project for your local community center. A thought comes to you so you grab a pencil and jot it down. Now imagine that since you took those notes with that pencil, you store those notes in the pencil box. Later at the planning meeting, you take a pen out of your pocket and take notes, then store those notes taken in the pocket where you keep your pen. A week later an excellent opportunity comes up regarding that project and you think, "now what did I write with the day I jotted down those thoughts? Was I in a pen mood? What pen?" You search all of the places you store your pens. "No... maybe I borrowed my kid's crayon." And you search your kid's crayon container. Hours later you're mentally exhausted and missed the window of opportunity to act on those notes. It wouldn't happen, would it? That's because in the real world, we think in terms of our notes' contents, not in terms of the tool we use to create the notes.

Does that make sense now? Granted, you don't need that pen or pencil just to read your notes later, while you do need the program (aka application) that created your document in order to read the document. But the Mac is very smart. The "creator code" that tells the Mac what program your document "belongs" to is embedded in the document. When you open that document, no matter where it's stored, the Mac will locate the appropriate program and launch it automatically (unless you've subsequently trashed the application). That point is, the Mac will find a document's application even if the document isn't in the application's folder.

The chances are you've already been using your Mac. Ask yourself: "When I save a document am I aware of where it is landing?" If you are certain you are, where have you been letting your documents land? If you've already been filing them in project folders you're all set. If they've been landing in a folder called "Documents" you've got an easy job ahead of yourself cause the "Documents" folder will substitute for the "File These" folder I am about to tell you to create. If you have no idea, follow me closely.

Begin your organization by creating a new folder for each project you've ever worked on. Then create a folder called "File These." Now open each folder on your hard drive (yes, desktop too) one by one and, as you lay your eyes on each of your own files, drag that file to the appropriate folder. If you don't know where you want to put a file put it into the "File These" folder. (Alternately, begin by putting all of your files into "File these," then move them to their correct folders later.) Be sure to look in every folder! For example, inside that ClarisWorks folder are several folders such as ClarisWorks Scripts and ClarisWorks Stationery. Sometimes there are folders inside of folders. Check every folder in case one of your files has landed there. Dragging files from folder to folder is easy, after you position your windows so all folders are in view. The hard part comes when you aren't sure whether a document is yours, a friend's, or one that belongs to one of your applications. For example, each program has sample files and templates. Did you inadvertently save one of your own files into the Examples folder or are they all just examples? You may have to open many of these files to be sure. (Another trick is to look at the Date Created. If the date predates your computer purchase the chances are the file belongs to the program, not to you.)

[Stationery files are a special matter. Most programs want you to store the stationery/templates you create in the program's Stationery folder. You can leave them for now. I'll talk about them in the near future.]

From now on, whenever you begin working on a project create a folder for that project. The Mac provides ample opportunity to create a folder. You can do so before you begin your first document or you can create and name a new folder after you've begun to save your first document while in the Save Dialog box. You can also create the folder later, then locate and drag your document into the new folder.

Now you may be asking yourself, "Is this really important...?" Here are two real-life examples of why, both just from November (and another older one).

My friend's father was on his second Mac when he asked me to help him with a couple of things that didn't work well. While there I looked over hard drive and noticed he had no personal project folders. Together we created folders as I just described. Two days later he sent an email the other day saying, "I can find my files!"

My friend Bob recently came to me with a dead Mac. After 5 hours I was able to stabilize his drive enough to access the data. The best thing to do next was to back his files up to the Zip disk I'd started off of. Five years ago I'd created some basic project folders for him and told him how to save to those folders. If he'd used them and organized his files into project folders, all I'd have needed to do was drag those project folders to the Zip. It should have taken about 30 minutes. Instead, I found my five-year-old folders empty. Bob had saved his files without looking at where they went. I had to delve into folders within folders within folders. It took over 4 hours as I worked through the night. The next morning I missed a Thanksgiving I'd waited a full year to be invited to. Boy is he lucky I didn't charge him my going consulting rate! (Oh, Bob bought an iMac and transferred the data I'd retrieved.)

About while back I got a call from a fellow LA Mac Group member. He'd just upgraded to a new version of Word and couldn't find any of his files. It turned out he'd saved all of his letters into the Word folder - and that folder was trashed during the upgrade. All of his files had been deleted! Had they not been in the application's folder, he would not have lost years of documents. (Or had he backed them up, but that's another story.)

Until we meet again... This is the beginning of your Mac's organization. Next week I'll continue with the next step. Meanwhile, if you haven't already got project folders, I hope you'll start creating them today. Life is easier when you can find your files and there aren't too many people like me stupid enough to do over 10 hours of free work for a friend.

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