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Document This: How to Organize Computer Data

Add-ons, backups, and plug-ins make sorting and storing e-mail and other computer documents easier than ever, even for the most organizationally challenged.
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Want to know the secret to organizing your office computer files?

You don’t have to.

Thanks to full-bodied e-mail programs, online backup, software add-ons, and search tools like Google Desktop that work equally well for small company computer networks or individual PCs, you never have to file anything again.

Of course, that might not be the best way to run a business. There’s a lot to be said for keeping spreadsheets, Word documents, e-mail, and other digital information in some semblance of order. But today’s crop of  electronic information management tools make it a lot easier than it used to be, even for the most organizationally challenged.

When it comes to sorting and storing e-mail and electronics files, Clyde Lerner, computer organizer extraordinaire and owner of In the Moment Computing in Sunnyvale, California, offers the following rules of thumb:

Make full use of your email program -- Whether it’s Microsoft Outlook, Exchange, Entourage, or Mac Mail, take advantage of the organizing tools built into your e-mail program. Create e-mail folders for specific topics, projects, or clients and regularly empty your inbox into them. Archive e-mail monthly, either using the e-mail program’s built-in archiving function, or by copying everything from that month into a folder and storing it elsewhere on your computer, such as in “My Documents,” Lerner says.

Pick a name -- Use the same names for related material across multiple software programs, and file data together. So files for “The Bridge Project” or your client “Miller Hardware” would all be stored in folders by those names whether they’re e-mail, spreadsheet or Word documents. Lerner also recommends keeping data files in one area of your computer, such as in “My Documents” instead of mixing data files with program files for whatever application you used to create the file.

Use online backup services -- If you’re a sole proprietor or very small business without an IT department that does regular backups, don’t trust yourself to remember that task. Use an online backup service, which have become abundant and cheap. Lerner favors Mozy, whose MozyPro business backup service starts at $3.95 or $6.95 a month for desktop or server licenses respectively, plus additional fees for storage space. Vendors such as EVault, and Iron Mountain also offer online backup for small and mid-sized companies.

Use desktop search software -- To make finding files easier, Lerner recommends installing desktop search software on your PC, either Google Desktop, or Windows Live Search. But only use one. “Installing either one slows down your computer,” he says. Larger companies can use the enterprise version of Google Desktop, which is also free, although larger enterprises can pay for additional tech support starting at $20,000 for two years for unlimited users.

A note of a caution: if you use any kind of proprietary software to organize files, check out who’s making it first, Lerner suggests. Once upon a time, “I used a cool product that worked well, searching was great, but they went under and weren’t supporting it and when I had to get my documents out it was a mess,” he says.

SIDEBAR: Resources to Get Organized With

Here are some additional resources for learning about organizing electronic documents:

4 Ways to Take Control of Your Email Inbox -- This article from Microsoft’s series on managing information at work, is written by productivity expert Sally McGhee and includes tips such as process email the same time each day.

Take Back Your Life Using Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 to Get Organized and Stay Organized -- The latest version of McGhee’s handbook for using Outlook to schedule appointments, prioritize commitments and ultimately get more done.

Xobni -- The name of this free software plug-in for Outlook is “inbox” spelled backwards. Xobni trolls through Outlook to find people, contact information, email threads and file attachments. The service debuted in May and a month later announced a partnership with LinkedIn that makes it compatible with the 23 million-member business social network.

The Paper Tiger -- Professional organizers swear by this software program that uses a unique numbering system to keep track of paper and electronic documents. Version 4.1 also works with Google Desktop. Prices for the business edition start at about $170.




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