Organise

Ditch Hard Drive Clutter With An Organised, Automated Home Folder

Your home folder is the base of operations on your computer, where you throw every document, app installer, photo and other file you’ll need later. So why does it look like it’s been ravaged by a virtual tornado? Here’s how to organise all of your documents so you never have to rummage through a mess of files again.

Icons by David Lanham.

We’ve already talked about how to clean up and organise your desktop, but your documents folder can get just as cluttered, especially since a lot of what you keep on your desktop is temporary — while your home folder builds up every project you’ve ever worked on, not to mention half the files you download. Building off Gina’s original document-organising method, we’re going to show you an updated folder structure for your documents, how to integrate it with Dropbox, so you have it everywhere you go, and how to keep it clean without ever having to touch it.

Organise Your Folders

The first step in getting your home folder under control is to create a folder structure that works for you. Most of the home folder is already set up for easy organisation — you have your documents in one folder, your music in another and so on. But within those individual folders, things can get cluttered quickly.

Generally, I let my media player manage my Music folder, and my photo manager deal with my Pictures folder (though you can always do it yourself, too). Your Documents folder, on the other hand, is up to you. You could just shove every word document, PDF and other miscellaneous file in the documents folder and leave it up to your search function, but I prefer to add at least one layer of organisation so I know where everything is. This is a little different for everyone, but I’ve found that these five folders should provide a good skeleton for just about anyone.

  1. Bak: I like short folder names, since I often have to access them with the command line, but you can name these folders however you want. Bak stands for Backup, but don’t be fooled: this isn’t where your system backups go. Those should reside in the cloud, or at the very least on an external drive. Rather, this folder is for application-specific backups, settings and other files. That means your Quicken backup file, exported address book CSVs, and stuff like that go in here. In addition, a lot of programs — like Rainmeter or PhraseExpress, for example — like to put settings folders in your Documents folder. Usually, you can’t change their location, but I don’t like them cluttering up the root of my Documents folder. So I usually hide them and place a shortcut to them in the Bak folder — at least for the ones I’d need to regularly access. You can hide a folder in Windows by right-clicking, going to Properties and checking the “Hidden” box. Mac users don’t really have this problem, so you shouldn’t need to hide folders inside your Documents.

  2. Docs: This is where all documents related to current, open projects go. For me, that means HTML files of any articles I’m currently working on, Zip files pertaining to anything still on my to-do list and so on. You can organise this into sub-folders if you have a lot of documents, though I find that I usually don’t need to (since most of my work is online). This folder can fluctuate and change often, and even though we’ll automate the process as much as we can, you’ll want to go through this folder regularly and purge everything that you don’t currently need quick access to.

  3. Docs Archive: This is where things from Docs go when you no longer need them. For me that means finished articles that have been published, past invoices, contracts and whatever else I might need access to “one day”. It is a long-term archive, and you shouldn’t be regularly accessing anything in this folder — it’s going to get big and unwieldy, and that’s OK, because on the few occasions you need something from it, you can just search. I usually like to put a shortcut to Docs Archive in my Docs folder, so I can easily drag and drop old documents to archive them, but that’s up to you.

  4. LTS: LTS stands for Long Term Storage, and this is where you dump things that don’t really fit in Docs Archive or Bak. This is where I keep ISOs for any live CDs I may need, PDF rulebooks for my favourite tabletop games, guitar tabs I want to store locally, or manuals for my gadgets and other tech. I prefer to keep these things out of Docs and Docs Archive because they’re usually more personal than work-related, and I’ll usually access them more often. What you store here is up to you, but I found it was a good location for all the things that didn’t yet have a place.

  5. Scripts: This is where you keep any scripts, shortcuts, registry tweaks and other similar things. Even if you aren’t a programmer, you may find there are a few things you want this folder for — whether it’s AutoHotkey scripts, your Todo.txt file, scripts you need for Geektool or Rainmeter and so on. A lot of times, the difference between Bak and Scripts can get murky, especially if you don’t have too many scripts. If you find that both folders are fairly empty, you can consolidate them into one folder for easier access. I have a lot of random scripts I keep on hand for different things, though, so I prefer to keep them separate. Again, you can tweak this structure to fit your workflow — this isn’t set in stone.

I don’t usually add folders within any of these folders, with an exception or two. The less clicking you have to do to find a file, the better, so you don’t want some big complicated folder tree if you don’t need one. I’ve found that one or two folders deep is all I need to keep everything organised, though depending on how many documents you’re throwing into the Docs folder, you may want to split it up into further subfolders. Since most of my work is online, I find that I only ever have a few documents at a time in there anyway, so your mileage may vary.

Lastly, you should have one or two places where you temporarily store files. These days, that’s usually your Downloads folder and/or your Desktop. Everyone organises them a little differently, but I’ve found that if I need to organise them, I’m relying on them too much. I set Firefox, uTorrent and other programs to dump their downloads in my Downloads folder, and I usually use whatever it is immediately — an app installer, a .torrent file or whatever else — and then it can be deleted. If it’s a document or PDF, I’ll usually put it right into Docs. Like Docs, this folder should never have too many things in it at once — once you’ve used it, delete it or put it into one of the above folders if it has a place there. My Downloads folder is essentially a halfway point between the internet and my documents, so if something’s been in there for awhile, it isn’t where it needs to be.

Automatically Keep It Clean with Belvedere

Coming up with an efficient folder structure helps out a lot, but constantly having to move files around is kind of a pain. We can automate some of the process with a program like Belvedere for Windows, or Hazel for Mac. We’ve shown you how to use them before, so we won’t go into too much detail here, but you can use a few simple rules to make sure everything stays clean.

For example, my Docs folder gets pretty cluttered after a week or two due to all the articles I save over the course of a few days. Instead of going in there and moving them to Docs Archive myself, I can set Belvedere to do it automatically. To do so, open up Belvedere’s settings and click the plus sign in the bottom left corner to add a new folder. Choose your Docs folder, and create a new rule. Call it whatever you want, and make sure the conditions are “Extension is doc” and “Date last modified is not in the last 7 days”. Obviously, you can change the file extension to whatever you want. Under “Do the Following”, I set it to move the file to Docs Archive. See the image to the right for an example of this rule.

Now, Belvedere will automatically archive documents of that type that have been in there for over a week. You can tweak the rule as you see fit; I’ve found that a week is usually sufficient for me. You can also check the “Confirm Action” box in the Edit Rule window if you want it to give you a popup every time it moves files, but this can get annoying.

I’ve set up a similar rule for my Downloads folder, that moves all week-old EXE files to the Recycle Bin (since these are usually installers that I no longer need). Again, you can do it with whatever file types you want. If you want to get more advanced with it, too, you can — whether that’s automatically adding downloaded music to your favourite media player, regularly emptying the recycle bin and more. Check out our full guides to automating your folder organisation with Belvedere and Hazel for more ideas and info.

Sync Everything to the Cloud with Dropbox

Lastly, we’ll want to make sure all of our important documents get synced to the cloud so we can access them anywhere. Again, we’ve talked about this once before, but we’re going to use a slightly different method. Instead of using our Dropbox as our home folder — since I like the default home folder structure — we’re going to use symbolic links to sync only the folders we want. Symbolic links are essentially like shortcuts, except your computer doesn’t recognise them as shortcuts — it sees them as the actual folder they’re linking to.

On Windows, the process is a tad confusing. We’re still going to put the folders we want to sync in our Dropbox folder. This is the only way it works on Windows. Then, we’ll create symbolic links in those folders’ original locations, so it’s like they were never gone, and all your apps will still use the same file paths to find all your documents and settings.

To do this, first grab a folder that you want to sync (we’ll use Docs as an example) and drag it into your Dropbox. Then, to create a symlink, you’ll need to jump into the command line and run the mklink command using this syntax:

mklink /D C:\Path\To\Link C:\Path\To\Original\Folder

So, in the case of the Docs folder, which now resides in our Dropbox, this would:

mklink /D C:\Users\Whitson\Documents\Docs C:\Users\Whitson\Dropbox\Docs

Now you should see a link to Docs in your Documents folder, which leads you to the real Docs folder in your Dropbox.

In OS X and Linux, you can leave your desired folder (again, in this case, Docs) in its original location, and create a symlink in your Dropbox to sync the folder. Do this with the ln command, which works like this:

ln -s /path/to/original/folder /path/to/link

In which case, you’d run this command to link the Docs folder:

ln -s /Users/Whitson/Documents/Docs /Users/Whitson/Dropbox/Docs

Now, repeat this process for any other folders you want to sync — I sync all my Documents folders and my photos, but not my music, videos or downloads — and you’ll have access to them on all your other machines without messing up your computer’s original directory structure. Note that if you’re uncomfortable with the command line, you can always use an app like previously mentioned Dropbox Folder Sync for Windows or previously mentioned MacDropAny to create those symbolic links.

Obviously, everything in this guide is subject to your particular wants and needs. If you only have one or two “scripts”, you can always just throw them in Bak to make your life easier, or if you find you need another folder for something specific related to your work, go ahead and create it. This is merely a skeleton outline, and should provide you with a starting point for a newly minted home folder with all the syncing, automated cleaning goodness you can think of. Got any of your own tips or modifications to this? Share them in the comments below.