Tips for better file organisation and naming

This is the third in a series of articles sharing tips that will help both individuals and business managers reorganise their computer files to increase productivity and reduce digital errors.

This time, we’re looking at how you and your co-workers name your files, which is as important as how you name your folders (which we discussed in the last article). Doing it intelligently, systematically, and logically from the start positions your business for success, long-term growth, and stability.

Many businesses considering a new organisational push likely have an enormous backlog of old files that they won't want to rename (at least not right away). That's okay. You've got to start sometime.

In many cases, it makes sense to implement a new system when starting a new project, team, fiscal quarter or year – whatever major landmarks your business has. It makes sense to start from a significant point in time partly because of how you'll deal with the disorganised archives. In a year, you'll be able to find and manage everything recent that you need effortlessly, but you won't be able to find older things that predate your new system quite as easily. I'll give you a few tricks for handling those archives without spending months (or an intern's youth) renaming them all.

File names

As with folders, file names must be:

  • Unique
  • Indicative of what the file contains
  • In line with how your business thinks about information (see the first article here)
  • Scannable (with the human eye) according to how you and your employees find information
  • Naturally ordered alphabetically
  • Consistent

Unique. It is absolutely crucial that file names are unique, especially if you work in a collaborative environment, and especially if you frequently copy files to a server. If you don't have a system for how you keep file names unique, you risk overwriting them and losing data. In collaborative environments, it's common to intentionally overwrite files. If, like me, you've grown inured to the pop-up warning ("Are you sure you want to replace the existing file with the newer one?"), nothing is going to stop you from overwriting the wrong file if it has the same name.

For example, let's say I have a new invoice from Gray's Electronics named Grays-invoice.pdf, dated yesterday. I might stick it on the server in the Invoices folder, and I might get a warning that a file by that name already exists. I might also assume that since the invoice came in yesterday, someone else put it there – but I just had the accounting department sign this invoice, so mine must be the most recent one, so I'll overwrite the old one. The whole thing falls to pieces when someone asks me later that day to pull up Gray's prior invoice, you know, the one from two months ago... the one with the same file name, which is now gone.

Indicative. It's seems silly to state that file names should indicate what they contain, but I've seen this done wrong plenty of times. Many people assume that when they nest a file within a folder, the folder takes care of the larger category name. They also falsely assume that the most relevant contents of a file which are obvious to them will be also be obvious to anyone else who needs to access the file. Let's take the invoicing example again. Say the accounting department finds invoices in three ways: Invoice number, tax ID, and the fiscal month in which it was paid. Accounting couldn't care less that it's "Gray's invoice."

I personally use two major identifiers for all my files: Numerical dates and codes. At home, I blog several times a month. All the text files and photos that I use on my blog are classified with a four digit date (YR MO) and the classifier "bg" for "blog." A photo of a market in Montreal taken during a trip in September 2012 is called 1209bg_montreal_market.jpg. The four-digit numerals work for my blog files because I only write four or five posts per month on average.

Sometimes, though, I might have dozens of photos from a particular month. In that case, I either code them with a six-digit number, adding the day to the end, or I abbreviate some other signifier to save characters so I can add more descriptive text to the file names. For example:

  • 1209bg_mnrl_mrkt_peppers01.jpg
  • 1209bg_mnrl_mrkt_peppers02.jpg

I know before I even open the files that these are both photos of peppers that I posted on my blog (bg), taken in September 2012 (1209), in Montreal (mnrl), at the market (mrkt).

Another trick, if you travel a lot, is to use the airport code to signify the location: YUL for Montreal, LAX for Los Angeles, LHR or LGW for London, and so on.

In-line with the business thought process. As you might have guessed from the above example, I know I can count on my memory to pull up information by date. In deciding how your naming conventions will work, you need to know how your business remembers information. But dates also kill two birds with one stone. They code the file for when it occurred or was significant and get you halfway to having unique names. I will never accidentally open pictures from my Montreal trip from 2006 when I really want the ones from 2012, even if I shot photos at markets both times.

I absolutely recommend including a date in your file names. The only real question is, which date is most useful to your business? The date an invoice was sent or processed, or the date the work was completed, or when the contract was signed? Business owners, team leaders, and department managers should be making the final call, but do talk to the people who do the most day-to-day work first. They're the ones who will know what really makes sense.

Scannable. When you open a folder, you want to know its contents immediately, without opening files or squinting at thumbnail views. Devising the right file naming convention includes figuring out what the key information is in each document. I cringe when I see someone's computer with the file CV.doc. Which CV is it? When was it updated? Is it a long version or a short one? Where will it be sent? 1102_CV_marketing_digital.doc might be the CV that highlights your digital marketing experience, whereas 1102_CV_short.doc might be the generic professional CV you intend to update when you apply for a law course.

Just think of how much more productive you and your colleagues could be if you knew with high certainty what each file contained before you opened it.

Naturally ordered. Another reason I like to use dates as identifiers is because everything will fall in chronological order when the folder is sorting files by name, which is typically the default. Sorting by actual file date only tells you when files were last updated, and that's unlikely to be the primary thing you want or need to know. If you always put the YR MO DA at the beginning of the file name, you will always have order.

Consistency. Previously, I made the analogy that being organised is like staying in shape. Change doesn't happen overnight. Rewards come in the long term, not the short term. You need to make changes that are right for you and that will last, rather than hop on a fad diet. When you get the sense that you've found a solution you can live with, stick to it!

Dealing with archives or older files intelligently

No one expects you to reorganise and rename your entire archive of data. It's not a valuable way to spend your time, and it's ludicrous to think that you could even pull it off. So what should you do with all those disorganised files and folders from the past?

Thinking about all your files at once is unmanageable. That's why they're disorganised! The easiest way to start tackling your archives is to think of two groups: Old and really old. How you define old and really old is up to you.

For me, "really old" means I am more than 99 per cent sure that I will not access the file ever again – but it could happen. "Really old" stuff, for me, needs to also be at least three years old. Files that meet those two criteria are ready to archive to disc.

Regular "old" generally refers to files that I worked on between one and three years ago. These stay on my hard drive or server, where I can access them if I need to, but get dumped into year folders. I have folders labelled "2013," "2012," and "2011."

Putting older content into folders by year lets you perform spring cleaning. Have you ever tried to thoroughly clean your closet without emptying it? It doesn't work. To get organised, you need a fresh start. Sweeping all your files into folders by year gives you that clean start without removing anything you might actually need. You need to see a clean and tidy window before you can get organised!

What do you do with a file that spans multiple years? Stick it in the most recent year folder. Did you work on it last year? Then it should be in last year's folder. If you're worried you won't be able to find it, why? Your files are already a mess! You probably have to search for the file anyway, so what does it matter if it's nested inside one more folder?


The important takeaway points from this article are:

1. The file naming convention that your business uses needs to be understood by everyone in the organisation.

2. File naming conventions should help people find information quickly by scanning names or by looking for dates or other signifiers in the name.

3. Files that are "naturally ordered" are easier to scan and sort.

4. Be consistent with naming conventions.

5. Avoid a huge overhaul project by simply archiving older data by year.