Taking the Straight Line: Part 2 The File System

Files and file storage have come a long way in the last decade, but have not advanced at the same rate as other Information Technology (IT). There's been huge developments in media file types (PDF, MP4 etc.) and as a result file sizes have swollen to levels where a PDF can now be bigger than the storage that shipped with a desktop computer less than 25 years ago!

As a result, hard drive sizes have advanced to previously unthought astronomical levels. Where we once talked in Megabytes (MB) we are now more comfortable talking in Terabytes (TB). Technology has advanced but the way in which we use it hasn't . Habits and 'Conventional Wisdom' mean we are still storing files the same we did 20+ years ago.

So, where are we currently at, and what makes a more efficient file storage methodology?

Conventional Wisdom

We haven't yet made the transition away from the traditional file system, so every reader should be familiar with nested folders and will no doubt have experienced the frantic clicking through various depths of folders looking for a particular file. How about the dilemma when one of your files actually matches the topics of a couple of your folders, which one do you put it in? If you've been reading my 'Take the Straight Line' series you will know that I am an advocate of doing a task in the minimum amount of steps, not only making your life simpler but saving you time.

Consider this example, you take 6 seconds to decide which mail client folder an e-mail belongs to, and then you drag and drop it to the folder. You do this for 50 e-mails each day, that's 5 minutes of your life that you will never get back. It's 25 minutes a week, or almost 21 hrs a year! Let me say this again, 6 seconds to think and move an email for 50 e-mails a day equates to 21hrs of your life lost over 1 year, this is based on Monday-Friday for 50 weeks of the year.

I don't think I need to say anymore, every single one of us would rather spend our time on better things than filing emails or digital files. We often ignore how each little chunk of time can add up into more significant time over a longer period. When this is time taken from a business, the cost saving potential can be huge. The size of the prize is huge, so 'Take the Straight Line' people!

Let's break the conventional wisdom down by briefly looking at common legacy ways of working.

Nested Folders

Nested folders have existed since the dawn of the file system. They consist of named folders designated by the user which usually have folders within folders breaking down a particular subject. For example a folder called 'Bills' which contains folders called 'Gas' and 'Electric'. Each of these folders would then contain the respective PDF files for the bills. People use nested folders as they see it as a 'digital filing cabinet' and are used to the bucket segregation method they had when our media was normally physical. There is technology that would allow you to use nested folders efficiently but ask yourself a question; 'If I need technology to make an existing way of working more efficient, should I invest time and money in doing so, or should I rethink how I work without the need for additional tools?'.

This point will always be contentious, humans are creatures of habit and this one is a huge one to break. Apple are trying with iCloud, which has proven to be contentious, though I am sure as always, Apple will already be in the place we are all moving too in the future.

File Duplication

File duplication is huge, I see this in both my personal and my business life. People seem to struggle with the concept of a single controlled copy of a file. As soon as you copy a file to another location, it exists in two places. Therefore, when you edit one the other is not edited. When people then search for a file they find two different versions. Don't do it people! Use a single file, if you need to see it somewhere else the put a shortcut to the file in the new location. This is easily achievable in any operating system and even online systems like SharePoint allow for this.

NOTE: Have you ever thought what the Internet would be like without all the duplication of both content and files? Imagine all the resources going into people storing movies and music at home as well as on multiple servers around the world - imagine if there was just a single instance of every file! crazy.

A New Era: File Storage in the Modern World

Reading beyond this point requires an open mind, even I was hard pushed to grasp this new way of working. Let me start first with how I arrived at this point. There was a collision of what I was seeing at work and what was going on in my personal world.

At work I was tired of file duplication with multi versions in multiple locations and when working with others, having to manage a folder structure. Folder structures simply DO NOT work in any circumstance where multiple users need to use it. On this particular point, I don't care what anyone reading this thinks, it might work for you but it doesn't work for all of your colleagues and here is the simple reason why. If you were to sit down with one or two of your colleagues and tell them to create a simple folder structure to organize the files you all work with on a day to day basis I will bet you any money that there will be a different solution from each person. Either the structures will be different, the folder names will be different or both. The simple reason, as human beings we are all highly individual and different data relationships and naming conventions mean different things to different people.

So how do I organize my data? Simple, in a single folder, well kind of. I use the standard Mac home folder structure; Music, Movies, Pictures and Documents. I tried everything in one folder, and whilst it was fine I decided to maintain those 4 buckets as iTunes itself still liked to have sub-folders in the 'Music' folder and I was determined to have only a single folder level for my documents.

So currently when I need to file anything it goes to one of 4 buckets, they are all very clear and distinct and have no levels of depth beyond the root folder. Remember the point I made above about wasted time when filing e-mail? Well imagine how much time you waste creating, thinking about and maintaining a nested folder structure. Thats before we even get onto the digital clutter discussion, which will come later in the series. In the single folder method there is no further filing past the top level folders.

How do I work effectively with a single folder full of various documents?

File Naming Convention

The file naming is critical (at least in my opinion) to any successful file storage. Bad or inaccurate file names is a sin and you should work out a standard format that works well for you. My personal format is:

YYYY-MM-DD - very descriptive file name goes here.filetype

Not only does this structure allow for filetype filtering if your file naming is good it aids in file search and the date can be used in finder/explorer to order in terms of file age/date. This last feature is handy for data clear out, I can easily delete content older than a certain point in time.

Tagging

I've never been a huge fan of tagging, however, with the native introduction in OS X I have started using a few basic tags e.g. I have a tag '999' (UK emergency services number) which is attached to files like my car insurance, medical records and will. This not only allows me quick access but anyone access in the event of my eventual demise. Tagging is a very individual thing, so I won't dive into its depths in this article.

OCR

I remember listening to a Mac Power Users podcast once where David Sparks mentioned that once upon a time it didn't always make sense to Optical Character Recognition (OCR) but today it is a no brainer. I can't remember the reason for not doing it, but I whole heartedly agree that OCR is a no brainer and I also believe that the majority of documents should be written in plain text (markdown) or stored in PDF for the sake of data access and longevity. I will write more on this subject in the future.

NOTE: If you are looking for a good reference for learning Markdown, I'd recommend Markdown by David Sparks.

Search

Search is king, and is underused today. Search has come a long way on all platforms and this is what makes a single folder strategy really possible. Beyond a simple search box, most search systems come with filters, allowing you to not only search for an item but then to filter down those search results based on a number of criteria including filetype, file size etc.

There are several apps on the Mac that allow you to not only search but take action on the files you are searching for. Check out Alfred |Mac| and Launchbar.

Smart Folders/Saved Search

Smart folders (Mac OS X) or saved searches (there maybe other names) on other platforms is exactly as it sounds. For example, I have a smart folder searching for my tag '999' so that I or anyone else need only click on that folder to see all the emergency or important files relating to me. You could make one that shows certain file types created or modified in the last 7 days, this will allow you to quickly see the files you are actively working on.

Conclusion

Taking the Straight Line is all about getting from A to B in the most efficient way possible. Small increments of money or time often do not show the large effect of their summation. Shaving small amounts of time off of repetitive tasks can add up to a significant time saving over a time period as well as increasing personal productivity. Reducing the file system to a single level and utilizing technology to find what you need can and does save you a significant amount of time.

How do you manage your files? What do you think of the traditional filesystem?