Computer search tools are very powerful. It is relatively easy to search all the digital files on your hard drive for specific key words or phrases. Newer scanners with OCR (Optical Character Recognition/Reader) allow you to search pdf documents as well.

Strong search capabilities allow you to design a fairly flat folder hierarchy with fewer subfolders. However, the best tool to finding files quickly is a strong naming convention.

A naming convention is a standardized system for labelling your digital documents. (I’m using documents broadly to include spreadsheets, pdfs and photos.)  A strong naming convention makes it easy to name and retrieve documents. Like folder names, your naming convention must make sense. There is no perfect system. Use words, phrases and abbreviations that mean something to you.

If the documents are shared, the naming convention needs to be consistent among all users.  Agree how to name files.  Let common sense prevail, but there are considerations to take into account:

1. Consistent

Once you have decided how you are going to name files going forward, make a note in a README document to explain the convention and any abbreviations or codes you are using. Make sure everyone who accesses the files knows the system or where to find it.

2. Descriptive

The name needs to be indicative of the contents. If it refers to a project, use the project name or an abbreviation. If there is a topic, include that in the name. Make sure you indicate what type of document it is – statement, newsletter, agenda, report, form, template, article, blog post, minutes, etc.

Instead of: March meeting minutes

Use: 2017-03_POC_MeetingMinutes

3. Concise

Don’t try to be all-encompassing with the file name. It becomes unwieldy. The name should be short, but meaningful. Use initials and abbreviations if clear. For example, if you are referring to a city, use the standardized airport code for that city.

Instead of: Los Angeles Poodle Obedience Club premium for May trial

Use: 2017-05_LAPOC_premium

4. Spacing

Don’t use special characters in your file name. Some software and search functions won’t even recognize spaces. To delimit words, topics, and dates, use underscore, dash or camelcase (using upper and lower case) or no spaces at all.

5. Date

It’s important to use a date in the file name. The date attached to a document is the “Date Modified.” Every time you make an edit or change, the date changes. Always use the date format: YYYY-MM-DD.

Instead of: December13 agenda

Use:  2013-12-06_MusicGuild_agenda

6. Priority order

Order your fields from general to specific. If chronology is important, put the date first. If chronology is less important, put the topic first. You want your files to be naturally ordered according to the type of file. If you include people (author, reviewer, recipient, etc) decide on a format for names. A standard format would be surname then first initial. Alternately, you could use the first three letters of the surname and the first three letters of the first name to keep all names a standard length. I would be SmiCyn.

7. Version

Always use at least two digits to indicate different versions of a document (V01, V02, V03…V10, V11) to keep them in numerical order. Note the final version as “FINAL.”

8. Photo files

Treat your images as you would any document. Use folders, sub-folders and name each image. You can set up folders by year, sub folders by month or event, then name each image. For example, images in the “2016_08_Durham” folder would include photos of Hadrian’s Wall, of the cathedral, and of Lindisfarne Island.

I could set up sub-folders for each location, but it is easier to simply name the image using a format like:

  • YYYY_MM_Event_Location_People
  • 2016_08_Durham_HadriansWall_Cynthia

If there are multiple images of Cynthia at Hadrian’s Wall, add a number to the end (01, 02, 03). As you edit and winnow the raw images, save them with a name. Then you know that the named photos are the ones to keep.

Start Now!

Don’t worry about your backlog. Start your naming convention going forward. You can work on the older files as you have time, deleting or archiving those you no longer need.

Below is a folder of meeting agendas and minutes using inconsistent file names. When sorted by name, it is difficult to find the document you need.

Below is an example of a consistent naming convention. For board meeting minutes, the most important piece of information is the date. Next, the name of the group and last, what kind of file it is.


There are tools to help you rename files in bulk, especially photo files:

  • Renamer (for Mac)
  • Bulk Renamer utility (Windows)
  • PS Renamer (Linux, Mac, Windows)



I’m often hired to help a client dig out from under an onslaught of disorganized papers, untidy or non-existent files, unpaid bills, missed appointments, and general office chaos. We sort and categorize the piles, throw out reams of unnecessary documents, develop an effective workflow, and set up a paper filing system in a drawer or file cabinet.

The client thinks we’re done. Then I ask, “How do you organize your computer files?” The response is a blank look or an embarrassed, “I don’t.” When they switch on their computer I usually see a confetti of icons scattered across the desktop, not unlike the papers on the physical desk we just cleared.

It seems easy to simply use the search function to find a document, or use your email as a to-do list replete with attached documents. But it’s not the most effective way to organize your information.

You need structure.

Think of your folder structure as the backbone of your operations – be it running a business or a household. If your physical folder structure works, reflect that system in your digital structure.

Keep your digital folder structure broad and fairly shallow, perhaps folders for home, work, projects and activities. Since files are searchable you won’t need a lot of sub-folders. A uniform naming convention for the files within your folders will keep the contents organized.

Think about the words you use to describe the basic structure of your life. Draw out your folder structure on a piece of paper or in an outline. Decide what will live on your desktop – things you are currently working on or refer to frequently – and what will be kept in your documents.

You can create folders and your hierarchy in the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer. The Finder and Explorer are indispensible tools in managing and finding your digital files.



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