Build a Digital Reference Filing System in 5 steps for better productivity

Let’s check how well your digital files are organized! Can you quickly produce following in NO TIME, if you were asked for?

  • Photos from your vacation 3 summers back.
  • A humorous video you had received a few months back from your friend.
  • Your latest digital passport size photograph.
  • Link to an interesting article that you had read once.
  • Presentation that you had presented in a conference a few years back.
  • Dissertation report of your post-graduation degree.
  • Contract document of the project that you had worked last year.

If you felt discomfort after reading the above list, it’s not uncommon. Most of us are reasonably diligent about keeping physical things organized, such as wardrobe, shoes, important documents, or accessories in the kitchen. But our digital world is not that organized. Probably, as our generation hasn’t been coaxed about it by our parents or we haven’t had chance to have many role models around.

The basic goal of any organized reference system, be it physical or digital, is to get the ability to retrieve whatever we want at any moment, in a moment. At best we lose precious time in searching what we want and at worst the work couldn’t be done on time because we could not locate the required files. We miss those bouts of our creative energy, for the same reason.

Well, it’s not that we do not have a digital reference filing system at all, but many time’s it’s fragmented, dated, incomplete — something is on mobile phone, something on home PC or laptop, something on cloud and lots in emails — and thus not productive. Clouds are useful and should be exploited to keep a copy of some files but not all.

Here is how one can build a workable digital reference filing system.

1. Create a root folder on a PC/laptop that is fully under your control. Create a tree structure of file/folder system and organize all files in them. Typically there will be two filing system, one for professional life and the other for personal life. It could be any structure, but we need to keep following two guidelines in mind:

a. It should be the one that naturally occurs to you when you want to retrieve something.

b. Try to not mix files that we want to copy on cloud with the ones that we do not want to.

Here is a sample (partial)structure:

A Sample Digital Reference Filing System Structure

2. Keep this filing system up to date. This is achieved by developing a habit of storing files at their designated locations within the filing system, when we deal with them for the first time. For example,

a. You return from a vacation. You collect all photos and videos from all devices and put them in your reference system at right location.

b. You receive an email with the certificate of online course you just completed. You download the copy and keep in the reference filing system. (A comment on Emails: Email Apps should be looked as tools to communicate than the ones to store the documents. This perspective can make the big difference).

c. You create a mind map while analyzing an interesting problem. You save it in right location in your filing system.

This is not all. You could pin frequently accessed folders to Quick Access of File Explorer on Windows and also pin frequently accesses files in respective Applications.

3. Maintain a schedule to frequently backup your files on to a backup drive. Typical backup drives come with a software that keeps track of files modified and new files that got created and give regular alerts on pending backups.

4. Make a list of folders that you wish to keep a copy of, on cloud such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. Make a schedule of copying them at a frequency that works for you. It’s very productive to be able to retrieve some material on cloud on our mobile device just from anywhere.

5. Bookmark web resources actively. Some of your reference material may be available on Internet, in the form of interesting articles, web pages or web apps. We should maintain bookmarks to them, to reduce our time of retrieval. All browsers allow organizing bookmarks in a tree structure. Choose a structure that works well for you keeping retrieval in mind. Export bookmarks in a file regularly and keep it in the reference filing system. Additionally, you could also use bookmarks bar to have all that you frequently access.

This is how (part of) my Chrome bookmarks bar looks like, today. You reach your page, just at a glimpse and a click!

Chrome Bookmarks bar

That’s pretty much all. Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages the habit of building a reference filing system as one of its tenets. Implementing entire GTD system will multiply your productivity and will keep you stress free.

While most of us are right now under lock-down, why not tidy up our digital reference filing system to improve our productivity now and for time to come!




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Ravindra Kondekar

Ravindra Kondekar

Personal Productivity Coach| | Download my Reading Guide at

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