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Conventions for Naming and Storing Files

I’ve seen many a crazy way of naming files, and been guilty of a few myself, but I have come to find a few invaluable ways of keeping things tidy and easy to find. Some of these may seem pedantic, but in my ‘My Documents’ I have over 6,000 files in over 800 folders (and that does not even include any generic media like photos and music, or media-intensive projects I am working on) and I can generally find what I need in under 5-10 seconds.

The two main ways that these conventions provide benefits are:

  • They provide clear differentiation between different items. This makes it easy to quickly follow a path where it is always clear which branch to take.
  • They sort properly in the correct order. This makes it easy to scan down a list until you hit the region of interest. It also makes it easy to ensure you are looking at the most recent version of the file (as it is listed last).

The main benefits are:

  • Increased productivity - find files more quickly and reduce errors (of editing the wrong version of a document etc). It can even give you valuable ‘peace of mind’ to know that you can find any file in 10 seconds, which can reduce the syndrome of “I should really check that other file to make sure I am right, but I can’t be bothered trying to find it”.
  • Author independence - Its a basic fact that noone will be around forever. Therefore, it is important that you successor find it as easy as possible to carry on where you left off. Of course this is also releveant while you are still around, so that your colleagues can cover for you.

The biggest time and mental-clutter saver is a good filing system. This is heavily dependant on your own needs, but I encourage you to stop occasionally and get a more broad perspective of your filing, and try to make it more efficient. One general tip here is start with broad categories and become progressively narrower. For example, I have an initial division between ‘Work - Consultancy’, ‘Work - MindSpace’, Personal, and ‘General’ (stuff like info on seminars that I have attended that are not specific to one of the other categories). As another example, I have my employee pay details under
My Documents\Work - MindSpace\Finance\PAYE
and all documentation regarding my Imaginality product in
My Documents\Work - MindSpace\_Imaginality\Documentation

Also look at the other tips below with regards to folders as well as with regards to files...

Relevant Naming

If you haven’t learn’t by your own experience, then learn by mine - naming a file along the lines of ‘foo’, ‘things’, ‘list’ or ‘pay’ is a recipe for disaster. Make sure the name is relevant and contains enough detail to be understandable if you come back to it in a year’s time. Don’t be too concerned about having a reasonably long name - I routinely use 20 to 50 characters per name, and windows can handle up to 256 character.

For example, if you have created a word document that is a proposal for funding for a specific product, I would include the following keywords ‘Funding Proposal’, ‘Imaginality’ (the product) and ‘TBG’ (the type of funding).

General to Specific

As with folders, name a file starting with the most broad word(s), followed by progressively narrower words. Using the previous example, I would order the words as follows:
Imaginality Funding Proposal - TIF.doc

NOTE: a ‘-’ sign can help distinguish different parts of the name. Other symbols can be used, but quite a few are not allowed in file names (e.g. /\:*?”<>| ), as they are used in searches etc. Personally, whenever I use a symbol in this way, I put a space on either side to distinguish it from double-barrelled words like ‘double-barrelled’.

Be Consistent

This ensures that all files of similar revance will be clumped togeather. For example, if I was to then write a different funding proposal for the same product, it should be named like:
Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG.doc


If it is likely to have multiple versions, then number it - but never call it ‘...final’ because I guarantee you that more often than not you’ll have to come back and have a ‘final final’ or ‘really final’. To be more specific:

  • Number by putting ‘01’ after the common text at the start. E.g:
    • Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG 01.doc
  • Always use two digits for the numbering. E.g. ‘01’ instead of ‘1’. This is because if you get to a version 10, some systems will sort this wrong, and put ‘10’ before ‘1’.
  • Feel free to add comments specific to that version of the file after the number. E.g:
    • Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG 02 - Mentor’s Comments.doc
    • Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG 03 - Eric’s Changes.doc

In order for dates to be sorted properly, you should follow the ‘general to specific’ rule, which just so happens to also be international date format, which is:

Year-Month-Day (and the optional) Hour:Minute:Second (though ‘:’ is not valid in filenames).

Obviously, introduce a date into the naming if it is relevant. In the previous example, a date may not initially be relevant, but if it becomes a fund that is applied for more than once, or on a yearly basis, inserting a date will become valuable.

Sometimes, the whole date is not necessary - you can drop off less significant details. For example, if you are doing a filing a monthly meeting, including the day in the filename may be unnecessary. But don’t drop off the more significant details (like year) as your sorting will not longer work.

Where you insert the date can also make a difference to differentiation and sorting. As a general rule, if a date is used in all files in the folder, and you want the focus to be on sorting, then add the date at the start of the file name, for example:
2004-08-24 - Invoice - Consulting to Acme Ltd.doc
However, if you want the focus to be on clumping similar files, then insert the date before the numbering, or even replace the numbering if you are sure you won’t create more than one version per date. For example:
Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG 2004-08-24 03 - Eric’s Changes.doc

For things like proposals and presentations, either use the dealine as the date, or only date it down to significant details. In this particular example, I would only submit one TBG per year, but would have multiple revisions, so I would name it:
Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG 2004 03 - Eric’s Changes.doc

_Underscore and Shortcuts

Sometimes you may have the desire for a particularly important file to be at the top of the list of files in a folder. If this is the case, simply add an underscore (‘_’) to the start of the file name.

I also do this to all shortcuts that I make. Often, if there is a folder that has relevance to another folder, but should still be kept distinct, I create a shortcut to the other folder. For example, the TBG funding guidelines will not change, so should not be duplicated for every folder that involves funding (for example, the funding folder for the X-Stream product). However,


Finally, don’t hesitate to revise your naming when circumstances change. If it turns out you are going to have multiple version of a file, go back and name the first one ‘... 01’. If you reaise a file name could now be confused with another one, go back and add a more specific word. I’m sure my naming conventions are not perfect yet, but I know they will only continue to improve if I keep revising my methods.

NOTE: It is somewhat redundant to have an explicit folder system and an explicit file name - both will share some keywords. However, I find this advisable for a few reasons.

  • It still aids in clumping similar files tograther.
  • It makes it easier for searches to find the file.
  • When you have to send a file to someone else ‘TBG.doc’ will not be as clear to them as ‘Imaginality Funding Proposal - TBG 01.doc’, especially if they are from a different organisation and have different perspective on the data with different prioirites of keywords. To get a feeling for this, try thinking from the perspective of a Funding organisation, or from the perspective of your accountant.

Sometimes, you have to draw a line between differentiation that comes from the folder structure versus that which comes from the file name. As a general rule, more than 50 files in a folder can get unweildy, so it may be time to consider more folders.

General Notes

Sorting can be different on different operating systems. Even Windows has changed, so that ‘...10’ now gets listed before ‘...1’, which is good. The soon to be released Windows Vista may change again, and is supposed to be introducing ‘Virtual Folders’, but these Conventions for naming and filing will still be relevant.

If you are renaming a lot of files, you may want to consider using a tool like Irene - Rename Wizard, which is free. If you are an more confident computer user, get to the command prompt and use the ‘ren’ command. Type ‘ren /?’ for help and try wildcards like ‘ren *.txt *01.txt’, but be aware that it does not handle spaces in filenames very easily.

If you are really stuck, and are struggling to find a file you need, you have two options. You can use Windows Search (Windows Key + F) or install Google Desktop Search, which is free. Both can search both file names and the contents of files, but Windows search is quite unreliable, can not search the contents of many file types and is incredibly slow (I reccommend only searching the contents of files for a small subset of your harddrive or it will probaly crash). Google Desktop Search 2.0 Beta is great, and amazingly fast, but still will not sort the search results or clump related files togeather, so there is still no substitute for good naming and filing.

In Windows XP, it is easiest to see the list of files sorted in their correct order by switching to ‘Details View’. In Windows Explorer, go to ‘View’ and click ‘Details’.

Windows Explorer can try to be helpful by arranging files in groups. Personally, I just find this distracting, so I turn it off by going to ‘View’ -> ‘Arrange Icons By’ and unticking ‘Show in Groups’.

Windows Explorer has some other useful ways of sorting files. For more details on this, see my tech tip on ‘Getting the Most out of Windows Explorer’.

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