Collection, Mission, Archive

Managing Files And Folders Consistently

Imagine a folder structure on a computer. Your inner eye may now be wandering through a list of projects you are working on these days, blended with things that have been there for a little while, but might still be good to have every couple of months — or not. Maybe.

This described my way of organizing files and if this seems familiar to you, I’d like to offer an alternative approach. It is chaotic, but that’s the beauty of it. The system described here helps me keep track of everything I do, did, and am doing. It also works on every computer.

The approach is rooted in the fact that every project is different and may be hard to sort into existing folders; it is also based on the powerful search our computers offer these days; and it takes into account two fundamental issues, namely visibility and consistency. It shows current projects and hides finished ones. And it has strict rules so that each project will be filed in well-defined places.

The story begins with a mission.

Missions

At the very core of the system, there is a concept I call Missions. Projects that have explicit goals for a given time are a Mission. If you are familiar with project management, you can think of Missions as a project that (loosely) meets the SMART criteria. Important for the following appraoch is that each Mission has a deadline and a title. There is one folder in this system labeled “missions”, containing all Missions you would like to achieve. I will continue to capitalize the concept and will not capitalize the actual “missions” folder.

In order to start a new Mission, you create a new folder within the “missions” folder. The two ingredients in naming this new Mission are a deadline and a description of what exactly you will be doing. When working on an article on how too much sugar is bad for humans, due on 6 June 2017, name it “2017–06–06 write article on sugar”. When you are about to apply for universities for your next degree prospectively starting in September, name your Mission “2017–09–01 apply for universities”. This image illustrates the content of a sample “missions” folder containing four Missions:

The “missions” folder contains four Missions, sorted by name. As all names begin with the deadline of their Mission, they are sorted by deadline.

The date format is an international standard in the form of YYYY-MM-DD. This standard allows the Missions to be neatly ordered by deadline when sorting files by name in your file browser (being Windows Explorer, Finder, or whatever you use).

A Mission may be seperated into Sub-Missions, similar to project management having its milestones. Sub-Missions are smaller tasks which need to be accomplished in order to finish your main Mission. To create a Sub-Mission, enter your specific Mission and create an appropriate folder within it. Just as with a Mission, choose a deadline and a precise title for your Sub-Mission. Stick to the date format. Make the objective clear. You could have Sub-Sub-Missions, but I personally prefer flat hierarchies. In my example there are now four Missions with one of them containing four Sub-Missions:

The “missions” folder still contains the four Missions from above, one of them being a Mission for university applications. However, Missions can contain Sub-Missions as illustrated by the applications to individual universities here.

While it is not a bad idea to have a fixed deadline, some Missions’ deadline could be more loosely defined than others. In this case I suggest using estimated dates or leaving away the day as shown in the Sub-Mission “2017–09 apply for scholarships”. Store all your related files within the appropriate Mission. If these forms have a deadline themselves, use the naming scheme above. (macOS users may have a little advantage here: You can decide to mix folders and document in Finder so that they are only sorted by their due date, not “folders first”. ls does that anyways.)

As soon as you finished a Mission, you should get it out of your sight to remove visual clutter. The next section proposes how to deal with finished Missions and Sub-Missions.

Archives

Within a Mission or Sub-Mission, create an “archive” folder. You may have guessed it from its name: This will be your Archive for finished Missions. Look at how the Archive is on the same level as your individual Missions in this example:

The “missions” folder contains an “archive” folder on the same hierarchical level as individual Missions. A finished Mission will be moved into this Archive.

Your Archive is also neatly separated from your Missions, as sorting by name separates items beginning with a number (all your Missions) and items beginning with letters (which would only be the Archive).

Whenever you are done with a Mission, move it into the Archive. This way, you will have your files for future reference, but it is out of your sight as you are no longer actively working on it. Suppose I finally finished the article you are reading right now and want to archive my according Mission, this is how I would do it:

The finished Mission has been moved to the Archive.

Even though there will be only one Archive in your “missions” folder, you can have additional Archives within individual Missions. Looking into my university applications folder, I finished my application for UiO, but am still working on the other applications:

Not only can you have an Archive in your “missions” folder, but individual Missions can have their Archive to hide finished Sub-Missions from sight.

Note how my application for UiO is now in the Archive, which is itself contained within the Mission. It is still there for later reference, but not cluttering the Mission on which you are still actively working.

Collections

Collections are the last piece of the system. A Collection may be information you are keeping for your career: an up-to-date CV or helpful emails with tips from clever people (I hope you invited them for coffee!)—this collection could simply be called “career planning”.

Or you may like to write novels in your spare time, incrementally writing your way through life, ready to share bits and pieces with your peers—this collection could be called “writings”. The advantage is that active Missions don’t get lost in here. This folder houses all those sleepy projects, inspirational albums, tutorials and other things you like to work on every now and then. The separation between those Collection projects and active Missions is what drives this concept.

Note that if you are actively writing a novel towards a sort of deadline, you should consider upgrading it to a Mission.

My way to organize Collections may be unsuitable to you because your life could be completely different from mine. Personally, I like to write prose in my spare time. (Before you judge my style: I don’t write English prose.) In order to keep my writings in one place, there is a Collection dedicated to prose, poetry, and other writings in my “collections” folder. I used to keep all my writings within this folder without further structuring. This worked fine for some time, but I started writing poems and short stories in addition to my novels, so the “writings” collection is now structured appropriately.

Or assuming you are into music and like to collect different files this is how a “music” Collection could look like:

There are three Collections in the “collections” folder. One of them, the “music” Collection, contains Sub-Collections with guitar chords, ukulele chords, and tutorials.

The Whole Picture

Your “missions” and “collections” folders live in the same folder with nothing else disturbing their mutually exclusive togetherness. This way you are always aware of the strict separation between things that go into Missions and things that go into Collections; it will encourage you to embrace the difference.

The system as described may or may not work for you. If you feel like it doesn’t account for separated work and private projects, try creating individual folders like so:

Instead of one “missions” and one “collections” folder, there can be multiple folders containing Missions and Collections, e.g. for work and private projects.

This is how the whole folder structure would look like for me:

The first level (the Documents folder in my case) contains a “missions” and a “collections” folder—nothing else.

If you are not sure whether something is a Mission or a Collection, try making it a Mission first. If you can’t make up a deadline, it’s potentially a Collection. Mind that you can also have Missions which are due very far in the future (remember the case of a novel). If you can’t decide, do remember that it is easy to move something you thought was a Mission to your Collections. In contrast it is much harder to notice that there is a Collection somewhere in your “collections” folder which should actually be a Mission in your “missions” folder.

Additional Thoughts

(Some of these may be a no-brainer. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.)

Keeping Track: In order to keep track of what I am currently working on within a very long-term Mission, I like to create a summary file containing exactly that — a summary of what needs to be done and, maybe even more important, what has been done already. This file will live right in a Mission. It may seem like a waste of time, but it can be very handy to have an overview when you need to check back a year later. You don’t need to write a whole essay; often a few bullet points will do. I also frequently add tags or keywords to this file. While my current operating system supports tags for individual files, I still like to bundle them in this summary file as it may happen that a future operating system won’t support this. In contrast, and despite being less fancy, plain text files are supported throughout operating systems.

Working With To Do Lists: To do lists are very important to me. It may be impossible or at least somewhat of a hassle to create a new folder on the go just because you remembered that something needs to be done. Instead, use your to do app or (Bullet) journal in order to remind you to structure this Sub-Mission as soon as you get to work on your computer.

Use Search: Every computer today comes with a powerful search. I am not sure if the above system would have been a great idea two decades ago, but navigating the Archives is very convenient by simply searching for what you need. After having used the sytem for well over a year with hundreds of finished projects, I always remember keywords that guide me to the right folder within seconds. Tags and keywords in a Mission’s summary file, as described above, have been helpful.

Conclusion

Yes, I am biased—the above system is tailored to my needs. If you like parts of it, feel free to use and share them. There are elements in the system that some people may not like. For example, your Archive may eventually contain a whole lot of finished Missions; mine certainly does and I am fine with that. However, if you are uncomfortable with a large number of items in a folder but don’t mind deeper folder structures try putting them into folders named by year of completion. If that still doesn’t help, you probably want to search for a different system.

Do you have any additional thoughts on how to handle files in a better way? I am eager to read improvements or different concepts. Especially the concept of Collections could make use of a more rigid definition.

Personally, I use many other macOS features like Services and Folder Actions in addition to the system described here. For example, I frequently use an Automator Workflow that simply adds today’s date in front of a folder name, making it a Mission for today — I do indeed handle short-term projects in the same way as any other project. Those are only little things, but many of them add up while walking the puzzling path towards productivity.

tl;dr

  • My goal was to find a system that keeps track of current projects such as learning a special piece of music while also allowing for projects which may never end such as a collection of guitar tabs.
  • The “collections” folder contains ongoing projects, called Collections, that may or may not be part of my life until the very end.
  • The “missions” folder contains current projects, called Missions, sorted by deadline.
  • The “archive” folder, called the Archive, contains finished Missions.
  • Work in your “missions” folder and move finished Missions to the Archive and out of sight — but still available for later reference.
  • Use your computer’s search instead of clicking through folders to find past Missions in the Archive.