Files multiply like rabbits. We create them daily, whether they are word processing docs, PDFs, photos, videos or music files. We make notes to ourselves, store our logins to websites, wifi hotspots and more. Over time, these files just pile up, and they may even become hard to find — or worse, at risk of loss. I'm writing this near the end of the year, a great time to do some annual clean-up of your file storage, to make sure your back-up strategy is working, and to do better file sharing. This article offers tips for each of these.

Storing and Finding

Disk drives are larger and less expensive than ever before, and truthfully, unless you are shooting a lot of videos, your files take up a very small amount of space. More important is the ability to find what you need.

One time-honored approach is to keep files neatly stored in their appropriate folders. And if you are the neat and organized sort of person, you're likely already doing this.

However, it still can be hard to find a file (perhaps you look for a file that is over a year old), because you aren't sure into which folder you placed it. What seemed like an obvious spot a year ago, is now a mystery.

Or, you may be the messy type. Moving fast, you drop files on your desktop with abandon, and then, when the clutter becomes overwhelming, you shove the pile of files into a folder and promise to go look through them later (which seldom comes).

The good news is that search tech has gotten really good, and really fast. Whether you are the organized or the messy sort, powerful file search tools are really handy.

If you are on Mac OS X or Windows 7,  you have access to the built-in search tools. (In OS X It's the little Spotlight magnifying glass in the upper right corner of your screen. In Windows 7, just use the search box in the Start menu). Whatever you type in the box is searched across all file types, and not just the file names, but what's inside the files too. So if you can't remember a file name or where you placed it, you can just search for a word (or set of words) that you know are in that file, and boom... it's found. These work on connected external drives too.

Storing Other Data

All of us generate a ton of login data across time. Logins for websites, licenses for software, logins for wifi hotspots, and on and on. Keeping up with these can be a real chore. Rather than seeing each item of data as an opportunity for a new file, I recommend using a program that's designed as a catch-all for these bits of info.

There are a lot of good programs out there to help with this task, and most allow you to not only store login and license data, but also webpage content, screenshots, URLs, graphics, recipes, how-to steps, model numbers and pretty much anything else you can think of.

My favorite tool for this is Evernote. Evernote has a free version that's great for most people, and if you are a heavy user (or want enhanced data security), there's a very affordable upgrade. Evernote will capture and hold files, text, images, photos, webpages, audio recordings, and more. When you name an entry, you can also tag it. Or, you can be lazy (like me) and just make sure the main words you'd use to later search for this info are somewhere in the note. When you search, Evernote searches the full contents of your notes, and not just the titles or tags. If you have multiple computers, Evernote will keep your notes synced across them. There are also mobile versions for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android and more. Check it out.

Backup. Backup. Backup.

Any hard drive can fail. Most eventually do. Even the new SSD drives can fail. The only way to prevent data loss when a drive fails, is to have a good backup handy.

Setting up an automatic backup routine is the best way to ensure your data will be protected. There are tons of programs for any OS that will allow you to schedule a regular backup to an external drive. And, external hard drives are really affordable these days.

Laptop users have a harder time with automatic backups than desktop users, since the laptop may or may not end up at the same location each day. In that case, get one of the smaller, more portable drives (some are smaller than a deck of cards) to keep in your laptop bag, and choose at least one day a week to do a backup.

Another approach to backup is to use an online backup option. If you are only wanting to backup files, DropBox is a great option. For larger backups, you can try a service such as Carbonite.

When You Want to Share

In the good old days, sharing files with others usually involved a floppy disk of some sort. Then, flash drives became popular. Or, you could email files.

I've become a Dropbox fanatic. That's because I share a lot of files. Sometimes I share files with others, and sometimes it's between my desktop, my laptop and my iPad. Dropbox is the easiest and fastest way I've found to share files. There's a free version that will do what most people need, and if you want more space, it's available for a modest fee.

Here are some ways I use Dropbox:

  • I keep all of my current working project folders in Dropbox. This way, it doesn't matter what computer I'm working on, I can get to the same files. No moving files around or worrying which is the latest version.
  • I share files with others. Last week my 16 year old daughter was working on a photo slideshow for church, and she needed some photos from me. Too many to email, and (since I'm lazy) I didn't want to get off the sofa. So I just dropped the files in a folder called "Photos for Megan," and shared that folder with her. In minutes, the photos were in her Dropbox folder, and she just dropped them in her slideshow.
  • Peace of mind. Because Dropbox keeps a copy of the files both on my computer(s) and on their server, I don't have to worry about losing those files. If my hard drive crashes, I just pop a new drive in, and login to Dropbox. In minutes, my files are available to me again as if nothing had happened.

Files, files, files. They're everywhere. But they don't have to create chaos. I hope some of these tips help you tame your files!

Got your own file tricks and tips or favorite programs? Please share your thoughts in the comments area.

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