Raise your hand if you know someone whose computer’s hard disk suddenly died resulting in losing their data. Keep your hand up if it was you.

Next Question… Raise your hand if you ever lost, misplaced, or accidentally deleted a file, and didn’t have a backup of it. (Did anyone NOT raise their hand?)

I will share with you how I make sure I can find my data, and that it will be available to me regardless of whether or not a computer is lost or stolen, or its hard disk rolls over dead. While I did this I also consolidated all of my files into fewer places, de-cluttered what I kept, and then organized what I retained into a logical storage scheme.  Disclaimer—this is what works for me, and your mileage may vary.

I’ve accumulated a LOT of files over 35 years of consulting. My files moved along with my computer upgrades over the years as I went from diskette to hard disk storage, then added local area networks, USB portable hard disks, mobile devices, and Internet file storage. During all of this time I never really re-organized all of these files or re-thought how I stored them—instead I just copied them over and “patchwork added” files to storage locations that made sense (at the time). I didn’t delete much either. (Sound familiar?)

Over time I ended up with data stored on:

  • My desktop computer’s hard disk
  • My laptop computer’s hard disk
  • Various SD cards in my camera and my laptop
  • My local area network’s primary file server’s hard disk
  • A NETGEAR network attached storage (NAS) device on my local area network
  • Various USB hard disks and thumb drives
  • Cloud file storage (Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, iCloud, Google Drive) for files I access remotely or share with others
  • The MozyPro cloud backup service

Eventually I woke up and decided to sort thru this mess and come up with a rational plan to clean it up. I wanted one “home base” for all of my files, with one scheme for organizing them. I also needed mobile device access and to be able to share selected files. Finally, I needed off-site backup.

I decided to make my NAS my files’ permanent home base. Why the NAS? Three reasons: 1) it’s on my local area network so that my multiple networked home computers and home theater system can access it from home, 2) the NAS has pretty good fault tolerance at a bargain price, and 3) I can expose files for remote access from it via Dropbox or Google Drive. A copy of anything remote is also automatically duplicated on my NAS if it’s in the right folder, and vice versa. Pretty slick. I prefer Dropbox so I selected that for cloud file storage where I need it.

I’m old enough to be considered a “digital immigrant” and not a “digital native.” Some of you are probably wondering “why not just put all of your files on DropBox (or some other cloud storage provider) and be done?” I may eventually get there, and fully trust my data solely in the cloud (and also have a fast enough Internet connection to support all of my home devices). In the meantime, “redundancy is good—redundancy is good.”

There’s a fourth reason for the NAS… I still have, even after clean-up, a LOT of files (terabytes!), and the cloud file storage providers do charge for storage above what their free tiers provide (and I’m WAY above the free tiers).

With home base decided I could now clean out everything else except for my cloud backup service. Even if I had all of my files on a cloud storage home base I would still use a cloud backup provider. Why? It’s all about redundancy peace of mind. It’s that “digital immigrant” mindset again.

Next step: de-cluttering and organizing my data. One of my favorite lifestyle books is “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” by Marie Kondo. This author’s approach to de-cluttering life resonated strongly with me, and I decided to use it as part of my strategy in de-cluttering my files. Draft copies of documents I delivered in final form from 20 years ago? Gone! Training manuals I wrote on how to use Windows 95? Gone! Backup copies of my financial software data from more than 10 years ago? Gone! With few exceptions most anything of a business nature more than 10 years old was gone. Personal files were a little different, of course — there was still a lot to clean out but stuff like photos and some letters I kept.

The last step is organizing files in a way that makes sense (really, you would do this in parallel with de-cluttering). If you read my article on time management you’ll recall the “brainstorm list,” which provides a lean and structured approach for managing your to-do lists. Remember those natural groupings and hierarchies? Why not use the scheme for organizing your files? My hierarchy started with two top-level items: Work and Personal. Within Work, for example, I have folders such as Customers, Publications, Vendors, and General Information. Within Customers I have folders for each customer, and then folders within each for Contracts, Projects, and so on. Similarly, within Personal I have folders for Cars, House, Photos, Vacation, and so on. I think you get the idea. I use this approach not only for the NAS and in Drop Box, but also for my physical files too.

So that’s what works for me. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but it’s good enough, and that’s what counts. I hope you find this helpful.