Education YouTuber & Blogger | English Studies PhD

Keep Organized: Creating Your Ideal Digital Filing System

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Fall semester has officially begun. We’ve found and created tons of resources for our students, and we keep finding more to potentially use in our courses. We’re working on multiple research projects, and we’ve compiled a giant list of resources to read through and potentially cite. We’re getting ready to download student assignment submissions from our LMS’s assignment tab, so that we can access them without needing access to the internet. And, if you’re in the coursework phase of your graduate degree, you also have documents from those classes to keep organized. All-in-all, we’re all likely drowning in .docx, PDFs, .jpegs, and other file types. What we need is to create our ideal digital filing system, so we never have to worry about losing vital documents and we can always know where to find what we’re looking for. In today’s post, I share the steps I’m taking to create my ideal digital filing system, so that you can perhaps adapt them to best fit your own needs. At the end of the post, I provide information about a PDF I created that has six templates designed to help with creating your new system.


Step 1: Pick an iCloud Storage Service

For me, one of the most important elements of my filing system is the ability to access my files across multiple digital devices and in various locations. As such, I save my teaching and research files to an iCloud service rather than to my laptop. I also have a bad habit of eating and drinking while using my laptop. So, if I ever spill water on my laptop, or drop it while moving it to my newest work spot, I’m not risking losing all of my work.

I used Dropbox as my go-to iCloud service for years, but I’ve run out of space. I can pay for an upgrade, but I realized I was better off paying 99 cents a month for more space on my Google Drive instead. With Google Drive, I can create documents and spreadsheets and edit them on any device with the Google apps. Dropbox doesn’t have that feature, as it’s all about storage. There are other iCloud services out there, but Google Drive is my go-to system.

Before you do anything else, then, research which app you want to use to keep your files organized. Make sure to check how much it’ll cost to add more space to your system in the future. If the system ends up working well for you, it would be unfortunate to run into a need to move it somewhere else because you’ve run out of space in your app and realize it’ll be too expensive to upgrade your data size.

I highly recommend first taking out a piece of paper and a pen and writing down lists of all the types of documents you’ll want to save in your filing system. Share on X

Step 2: Write Out Lists of Everything You Need to Keep Organized

Whether you already have a digital filing system or are just now starting to create one, I highly recommend first taking out a piece of paper and a pen and writing down lists of all the types of documents you’ll want to save in your filing system. Think of the various parts of your college instructor life. Most likely, you teach, research, and serve. But, you might also be a student, a creative writer, an administrator, etc. Whatever roles you have, write out lists of what files you’ll need to keep in relation to them.

For example, as an instructor of ENG 101.10, I work with an MA student consultant who leads weekly discussion groups with my students. So, I not only have lectures, assignment sheets, PDFs, website links, assessment guides, etc. for this class, but also documents that both my consultant and I use for teaching this course.

When writing out your lists, consider how you want to group them into folders. For example, I don’t organize my teaching files by type (PDF vs. .jpeg vs. .mov), but by purpose (lectures, class activities, assignment sheets). For my dissertation, I organize them by topic (visual rhetoric, new media, pedagogy, etc.) and by writing process (outlines, old drafts, final drafts). If I didn’t have any subfolders, finding a file among dozens or hundreds would be such a hassle. So, what folders do you want in your system?

Step 3: Design Folder Hierarchies for Your Files

Once you’ve listed out how you can organize all your files into folders, consider how you want to organize your folders into hierarchies. For example, do you want to start with a folder titled “Fall 2018,” and then create subfolders for every class, research, and service project you are working on that semester? Or, do you want main folders titled “Teacher” “Researcher” and “Student” that you use to organize all your sub folders for the whole academic year? Or, does another system work best for you? Now is the time to decide how you want to organize your digital filing system so that you don’t just have tons of folders in your iCloud app with no overall structure.

Personally, I keep all my courses in a folder labeled by the semester I teach/take them, and I have separate folders for each major writing project.

Step 4: Create Your Folders in Your iCloud App

Once you’ve figured out how to organize your folders (I suggest brainstorming and designing all this on paper first), go ahead and create all of them in your iCloud service of choice. Make sure you stick to a certain title style. For example, if you have a folder for each course you teach, don’t title one ENG170, another one YALit, and a third 101.10. Use the same title style: ENG170, ENG125, ENG101.10. If you teach more than one section of a course in the same semester and you want separate folders for them, I suggest starting the folder names with the section number: 7ENG170, 13ENG170, ENG125.

For teaching, I suggest trying to stick to a three-tier system, rather than creating a really minutely detailed folder tree. For example, “Fall2018” > Course Names (like ENG125, ENG170, ENG101) > Folders for Each Class (like “Assignment Sheets” “Lectures” “Exams” “Literary Terms Resources”). For research, you might need more tiers, but I still try to stick to as few as possible. For example, I use the system Dissertation > Chapters > Basic Folders for Each Chapter (like Visual Rhetoric Resources, Multimodality Resources, Drafts, Pre-Writing Documents, MISC). I also have a folder titled “Official Documents” in the second tier of this folder system, where I place/will place all the approved, final drafts related to my dissertation (proposal, chapter drafts, full draft).

Folder Hierarchy

Dissertation Folder Hierarchy

Step 5: Move Old Files to Their Proper Places

All your folders are organized now, though you might come up with more to create when you start moving your files into their proper folders. This step might take a while, especially if you’re like me and have accumulated tons of resources that you’ve found on library databases for “later use.” I suggest setting aside a certain amount of time each day/week to work on moving over your old files. Make sure to combine this step with step six, so you don’t make more work for yourself later on.

Step 6: Decide on a File Name System (and Rename Your Old Files)

Do you name every file you download from the Internet? If so, perhaps you have a much more user-friendly digital filing system than I do. But, that’s only if you stick to a certain pattern when naming these files. If you’re like me and have files with completely different types of file names (author names, article titles, dates of publication, database names, numbers, etc.), brainstorming how you want your files to be named going forward is an important step in this process.

Do you want the articles and book chapters downloaded from online organized by the authors’ last names, article/chapter titles, date published, etc.? Do you want your lectures organized in chronological order or by subject? Do you want your drafts organized by date saved and/or whether or not they’ve been revised, submitted, accepted, etc.?

Pick file title styles that you think will be useful to you going forward, but that will also be easy to remember to type whenever you create or download a new file. Once you make your decision, spend time renaming your old files that don’t fit your style. Doing this step while moving over old files will help minimize the amount of time it’ll take to get organized.

For example, I plan on using the author’s last name when giving a title to any articles or book chapters I download from the internet, followed by an underscore and a word or two that hints at the topic of the piece. So, “Jenkins_RaceandFanfic” or “”

Pick file title styles that you think will be useful to you going forward, but that will also be easy to remember to type whenever you create or download a new file. Share on X

Step 7: Make a “File System Routine” Sheet

Once you decide on a filing system, create a “cheat sheet” for yourself. Write out the steps you should take each time you teach a new class or download a new article or start working on a new research or service project. Keep this information in your iCloud app, on your home office desk, in your campus office. Make sure you can easily find it whenever you need a quick reminder of your new and improved digital filing system design. By doing this step, you’ll have a resource to turn to if you’re ever in a rush or feeling so stressed that you can’t remember how to make sure your filing system stays organized. Sure, you can fix any errors later, but that can become a bad habit that leads to a once-again messy system. Directly below is an example of a routine sheet for naming files in a new system. The template for this sheet and a few others are included in the PDF I’ve made to go along with this post. You can access this PDF by subscribing to my blog, which I describe in more detail after step 8.

File Naming System Template

Step 8: Keep Consistent with Your System, but Review It Periodically

While you definitely want to make sure to keep to your system organized as the semester rolls along, you also want to ensure that the system you designed continues to be beneficial to your teaching, writing, studenting, etc. So, just like planner people tend to review their planning systems periodically to make sure it’s working well, review your filing system and make sure it’s making life easier for you, not harder. It might take you a while to get into the groove of finding your newly organized files. But, if it’s been months and you still find it impossible to easily find what you are looking for, review your system and see what you can change to make searching it more efficient. If your naming system isn’t working and you’ve stopped using it consistently (or never did so), review it and see how you can make it easier to remember or more valuable to actually use.

I suggest giving your system a full semester before you consider any major revisions to it, as it might take some time to hit your stride. But, you might know within a month that a major change needs to be made because you hadn’t considered an important factor in your original design. I definitely don’t recommend holding on to a system that doesn’t function, so a monthly or bi-monthly review might work best for you.

FREE TEMPLATES: If you’d like some help getting your new digital filing system started, you can access my “File System Routine and Organization Templates” PDF (Six Templates Included) by subscribing to my blog. By signing up, you’ll receive access to the page on my site where I store all my blog-related PDFs, and you’ll receive an email notification every time a new blog post goes live.

Final Thoughts

The life of a college instructor is full of so many tasks. Having an efficient digital filing system is a good way to reduce the stress of trying to accomplish them all. The steps above are the ones I’m taking to organize my files. With my recent move from Dropbox to Google Drive, I have a lot of files that need organizing. I’m working on building my system a bit at a time, but so far I’m loving what I’ve done. I hope that following some or all of these steps will help you get organized, too.

Do you have any tips to share about creating an ideal digital filing system? If so, please share in the comments below!

Looking for a way to keep all your digital teaching files organized? Here's a step-by-step guide to keeping your files easy to find and track. There are free templates you can download, too! #teaching



  1. Mindful Literacy

    What a wonderful and comprehensive list of things to consider when organizing. Thanks so much! Mark

    • Erika Romero

      Thanks! I really needed to get my files organized as I started working on my dissertation. Not done yet, but working towards the finish line.

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