By Jeremy Wagstaff
At the risk of boring you all to death this week I’d like to talk about folders. Yes, I know it’s not the most exciting subject in the world, but I’ve seen too many people make a mess of this that I reckon reading this article should save you on average about 10 minutes a day, which over a lifetime adds up to nearly 180 days, so you can thank me when you’re in your retirement home.
The problem is this: We create files, we save files, we copy files, we move files. We delete files, we edit files, we rename files, we back up files. We lose files. It’s the last bit that I want to focus on. In short, we treat our computer like a store cupboard that we never organize and never clean out.
When you buy milk you know where to put it, right? In the shelves built into the fridge door, right? You put the washing back in the cupboard when it’s all folded, right? When you bake a cake you put it in a tin, right?
But when we create, move, save, rename, copy, backup a file we rarely do anything similar. If we’re disciplined we put it in the My Documents folder (in Windows) or in Documents (on Macs.) If we’re feeling really energetic we might even make a special folder called “Other documents” or something equally imaginative.
This is about as far as we go. It’s like throwing the milk anywhere in the fridge, or the towel in the nearest drawer, or the cake in the nearest cupboard. The more files you have, the harder it’s going to be find them. You’ve probably found that already.
So the obvious first lesson is: organize your folders. I’ve told you about that before, so that’s not really the lesson. But it’s worth saying again: organize your folders. Make new folders for new projects, and make them subfolders (i.e. folders within folders) of bigger categories. Projects, for example, may be a main folder, but have other folders within it called ‘Logo design project’ or ‘Cake baking’.
Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s logical and you get into the habit of storing all related documents in the same folder.
Now, here are some tricks to make this process easier. In Windows you’ll see a little icon in the box that appears when you want to save a file (what’s called the ‘Save As Dialog’ that looks like a folder with a corner of it on fire. This is the button for creating a new folder. So navigate to the folder or place where you want to make your new (sub) folder and click that button. Type in a name, hit enter, and then save your file there.
I would recommend you make it really simple for yourself by making folders like C:Documents and C:Downloads and C:Dump and C:Backup to store your stuff. (The C: refers to the hard drive, which is always called C for historical reasons.) You can make subfolders below these, but having these folders in what is called the root directory makes it easy later.
The problem is that once you start making lots of folders, you’ll find that the Save As dialog doesn’t always open in the folder that you want it to, and navigating around subfolders is slightly less fun than visiting the dentist, even if you’ve put them in the root canal, sorry directory.
Here are a couple of tricks to make it easier in Windows. If you use XP, download a little piece of free Microsoft software called TweakUI (UI stands for User Interface). You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/2meyw (just scroll down the rights hand side until you see the download link.)
Once you’ve installed the software launch it (you’ll find it in the Powertoys folder in your Start Menu) and select the Places Bar item in the Common Dialogs entry. Once you’re there type in the names of the four or five folders you use most (if you’ve used my suggestions above, this is easy enough to remember. If you haven’t, jot down the full path (with all the backslashes and stuff, and type them in. I know it’s not fun, but it’ll be worth it.)
Once this is done, click OK, and try opening a Save as dialog in one of your Windows program. You should notice an extra little pane in the left hand side with your newly entered folders appearing in a list. Click on one of those and you’re magically shuffled off to that particular folder. Now you should be saving precious minutes already. (Thanks to Dennis O’Reilly of CNET for this tip.)
A word of warning: This doesn’t work in Microsoft Office, which uses a slightly different dialog box. There you just navigate your way to the folder you want to save, right click in the left hand pane where the special folders are located and select the “Add ‘[the name of the open folder]’” option.
I’ve got one more tip for you in this field, which will help if you’ve got more than five folders you want to access or save files to. A small, free, program called FileBox eXtender (from http://tinyurl.com/yjhns8) will add an extra couple of icons to your Save as or Open dialog boxes which will contain a list of your recently used folders. (The software is useful but not that intuitive; if you’re having problems try an alternative, also free, called Direct Folders from http://tinyurl.com/ynt235.) Both should work with Vista.
I’m not aware of Mac programs that do this, but doubtless I’ll hear from users and be informed/chastised accordingly.
Jeremy Wagstaff writes for The Wall Street Journal Asia and the BBC World Service. His guide to technology, “Loose Wire”, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.