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Organize Your Digital Academic Life

A guide to help students start getting digitally organized, and stay that way.

Where To Begin

Two angels in heaven observe a landscape of clouds

Image by Mick Stevens / New Yorker via Artstor 

The best place to start is with your new data, if you have time later you can worry about organizing your old work. Developing a folder system and naming conventions are the two most important ways that you can set yourself up for success. From there it is important to not only keep track of the documents you create, but also those that you use. This section will give a brief introduction to software called Zotero, which can help you organize your research data, and some tips for keeping control of your email inbox.

File Names & Folder Structures

File Naming:

Consistent, descriptive file naming is important for personal organization. Develop a system now, and stick to it! These tips and tricks will help you avoid file names that make a document nearly impossible to find again, like:

Essayfinalactual

The file name doesn't tell you any information about its contents, other than the fact that it's an essay. This will make it much harder to find later should you need to.

Here’s an example of a well-named file:

2019-12-01_IntroLit_Essay_03.txt

We know at a glance the date it was created, the class it was for, and which assignment it is. And, we can easily search for it if we need to. Dating your files is also useful if you have multiple drafts of the same document.

Folder Structure:

Folder names are important, but structure is key. If nothing else, you should remember that subfolders are your friend! Here is an example of one possible folder structure:

01_Fall2019

01_IntroToLiterature

02_IntroToBiology

01_Syllabus

02_Readings

03_Notes

04_Assignments

04_01_Assignment1

04_02_Assignment2

04_02_Assignment2_Research

Numbering your folders is one way to keep everything consistent and showing up in an order that works for you. And while this many folders and subfolders may seem like overkill at first, you will kick yourself later when you are scrolling and scrolling trying to find one file in a sea of many.

For more information:

Smithsonian Data Management Best Practices
This provides detailed information about how and why it’s important to include the date, not to include spaces or unusual characters, and to be consistent. It also gives some more examples of possible patterns to consider.

Keep Track Of Your Sources

As you look for articles you may reference in your papers, Zotero (pronounced "zoh-TARE-oh") is a useful tool you can add to your web browser to help you collect, manage, and create citations for your research sources. Zotero allows you to attach notes, images, and entire PDFs to your citations, and allows you to organize these citation sources into collections for different projects, and to export these citations into bibliographies for different assignments.

Zotero has two parts: the desktop application and the browser extension (available for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari). You can also view your Zotero library when away from your computer by logging into Zotero.org. It's easy to use, completely free, and will save you thousands of hours of time over the course of your research.

This is what the Zotero desktop application looks like:

Screenshot of the Zotero desktop application

Image by Zotero

To get started, first you'll want to download both the Zotero desktop application and the Zotero browser extension here. If you are having trouble downloading Zotero, this video tutorial can help you.

Video by Georgia State University Library

After you've downloaded Zotero, this next video tutorial will introduce you to the basics of using it.

Video by Blair Talbot

Organize Your Email Inbox

Throughout your undergraduate career you will be sending and receiving thousands of emails. But don't worry! With some simple organizational tools, you can filter, sort, label, and store your emails in a way that will help you organize your email inbox.

Here are some general guidelines for keeping your email inbox organized:

  • Only use your school email for school-related work. Use another email address for personal and work correspondence. This simple rule will automatically help you keep your inbox organized by eliminating irrelevant correspondence.
     
  • Set aside time each week to organize your email from the previous week. Batch-organizing is much more efficient than labeling emails one-by-one. Organizing your email is an ongoing process!
     
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters that are clogging your inbox. This may sound obvious, but so many of us get stuck in a cycle of constantly deleting emails instead of simply unsubscribing from the mailing lists in the first place. Do yourself a favor and use the tool Unroll.Me to batch unsubscribe to the hundreds of newsletters the average email user is signed up for.
     
  • Set up automated filters and labels for messages. For instance, you can apply settings that will automatically apply the label "Biology 101" to all emails sent from your biology professor, or you can filter all your emails from mailing lists for job announcements you're subscribed so they skip your inbox and go directly to a folder named "Job Listings." Here is a guide on how to use filters and labels in Gmail

More Tools

Tips to Optimize Your Gmail - 10 tips for organizing your Gmail inbox from Gmail.

Best Practices for Microsoft Outlook - A guide to maintaining your inbox from Microsoft Outlook.

Unroll.Me - A free service that helps you identify all the email newsletters you're subscribed to and unsubscribe from them all at once.

Maildrop - A free service that helps you avoid spam messages and unnecessary newsletter subscriptions in the first place by providing you with a "fake" email address to use instead of your real email for quick email signups.

SaneBox - A free service that prioritizes and summarizes email messages for you by analyzing their headers.