A New Simplified File Storage System

I've been going through my backlog of Mac Power Users podcasts and it has revitalised my enthusiasm for sorting out my digital life. One of the major areas of focus is sorting out my digital filing strategy.

I have been a long time user of Devonthink Pro Office, and have been going paperless for a good few years now. Devonthink is a great app, but it does lack in certain areas for me:

  1. Not Mobile - Their Devonthink To Go app is not good enough.
  2. Large Databases - Syncing on Dropbox is a pain in the rear end.
  3. Hazel Unfriendly - These large databases do not play nicely with Hazel so I am limited to dumping everything into the inbox folder then moving them by hand in DT Pro when I open it.
  4. Poor GUI - Using it, frankly, isn't pleasurable or easy for me.

I have been listening to David and Katie over a series of maybe 10 of their latest podcasts in quick succession. I am hearing the same common theme, 'nested folders' and 'Evernote'. The word Evernote is usually followed by a lengthy explanation by Katie about how she organises her notebooks. One thing I have taken, and learnt from David is you need a good file naming convention and a lot of good automation. Those two items in my mind are synonomous with SIMPLICITY! Listening to some of the ways they are handling their data does not sound simple to me, but hey, each to their own.

Off the back of this, I set out to find a way to simplify the way I store all of my data. I have the following requirements and objectives:

  1. Non-propriatary - Using open long term formats (PDF and TXT) stored in an open way.
  2. Simple - Something that does not require me to engage my brain for it to work, therefore, no nested folders. I have found these to be a royal pain in the ass and grow arms and legs.
  3. Automated - I want my data to manage itself and let me know when it is due to be deleted etc.
  4. Backed Up - must be backed up, and should not involve me having to do anything.

The first point is easy to achieve, every file will feature the file notations that you can read in David's book, Paperless. The file type is also an easy one, my files will on the whole be PDF and TXT files. These are open and will not 'go out of fashion' in the future. I have really grown to love text files, the old ways are still the best ways!

This leads me on to how will I store these files!? David uses nested folders, Katie uses this and Evernote (They may correct me if I am wrong!). Now, from many years of personal experience, nested folders are good - but a total pain in the ass longterm. I find the system starts to grow arms and legs. As your life changes, you add, take away and move folders and you can make it really granular or really high level. For example, do you make a folder per year to seperate bills or just have a single folder for those particular bills? The possibilities are endless and are very individual to the individual! I honestly believe that even the most strict and organised individuals like David will still expend to much effort and thought on a nested folder system over the years its in use. This will range from filing to finding files in this system. These issues also exist in Devonthink Pro and Evernote, but why bother thinking about this? What are nested folders going to achieve? You think they are going to help you find things more quickly? You think your going to be more organised? I disagree on all counts and here are two simple reasons why:

  1. With nested folders you need to decide where to put the files. Regardless if you automate things, at one point in time you have had to think about where to put the files - god forbid your automation should go haywire and file your file in the wrong nested folder (Yes that can happen).
  2. How do you find a file you need? If you think your going to click through or Alfred your way down to the files then your already to slow and having to engage your brain. If your going to use spotlight or similar, then why are you bothering filing it in the first place?

The last point leads me on to my final solution. I use spotlight to find my files. I use David's file notations so they are easy to find and my name is descrptive. Spotlight or any similar system makes it quick and rapid to find and open any file you need. I even use this system on my work Vista machine and it works just as well there too! So how do I manage my files? I keep everything in a single folder! Well, it isn't quite a single folder... I will explain what my system is made up of:

  1. Dropbox - All of my folders/files except one folder are kept in Dropbox so that I can access them all from any location on my iOS devices (Notice I don't need Evernote App for this!). On Dropbox I use the following folders:

    1. Working On - Any none text file that I am working on will reside in the folder until I am finished with it. Hazel watches this folder and moves files that have not been accessed for 4 weeks to another folder based on the colour. I use two colours, green for files that I am happy to be stored in the cloud and red for those I am not.
    2. Text Files - As above but it is just for text files. I am thinking about integrating the two very soon. The only reason it isn't currently integrated is because I currently have text scratch files that I update periodically with things I am tracking, like movies watched and books read. Sometimes I run the risk of not using one of these files for 4 weeks but I don't want it moved. I know I could set up a longer expiration for just text files - but at this point in time I am keeping it seperate.
    3. File Store Cloud - Any green files from the 'Working on' folder are moved to this folder after 4 weeks. Therefore, all of my files are located in this one single level folder. There are no nested folders in this folder.... there are no other folders at all! I can easily find any file here with spotlight and I can access this folder on the go from Dropbox app. Hazel watches these files and colours them like a traffic light for the date since they were last opened. Yellow for more than a year ago, orange for more than three years and red for more than five years and indicates the need for deleting. When a file is opened the clock and colour is reset. If the filename contains archivex then it will never be marked for deletion, it is a file I have determined I want to keep forever, like tax documents. Any file that does not have a date last opened value, is marked blue so that I can frequently audit these files easily. I have found .dmg and .zip suffer this issue.
  2. File Store Local - Any red files are moved here from the 'Working on' folder after four weeks. This folder is the only one that resides outside of my Dropbox and is located in my 'Documents' folder. I will be buying a File Transportershortly which this folder will sync with making the contents available on the road but not to the world and the CIA! Without the File Transporter I still have these files on the go at the moment via the Backblaze App.

  3. Other Folders - I have three other folders for all my other data, music, movies and photos are in their standard respective OS X folders.
  4. Backing Up - All folders are backed up to Backblaze, which is encrypted. In addition to Backblaze, all the files in 'File Store Cloud', music, movies and photos folders are backed up to Amazon Glacier. I also implemented a suggestion by Katie in making an emergency backup USB key. Using Keyboard Maestro I can insert an encrypted USB key and it automatically copies my 'Working On', 'File Store Cloud', 'File Store Local' and 'Apps' (Dropbox Apps) folders to the key then auto ejects the key.

So there we have it, a simple system that in essence requires no software outwith the OS, but can be glammed up for automation, backup and mobile access with only two small preference panes and a couple of free iOS apps. So far I have found the following benefits to this system:

  1. Speed - This system is so rapid at locating exactly what I need, everything is built into my OS. It is also rapid to file things away, as I only need to worry about one folder!
  2. Automated - Not only is the system automated but the automation is simpler as I am only dealing with a total of 3 folders!
  3. Backing Up - My backup is automated, but this system makes it very simple to backup all of your data. You know if it isn't in these three folders, then it isn't anywhere else (Excluding Music, Movies and Pictures).
  4. Access Anywhere - I can access all of my data anywhere via Dropbox and Backblaze iOS apps. I can also access them via the browser.
  5. Easy De-Duplication - I have found that it is much easier to de-duplicate your files when your only using a single folder file structure.

I will update this post with the graphic flow chart of this workflow when I have completed it and also any updates as the system progresses. How are you managing your files?