File-Naming Convention

The late Mitch Helberg, my favorite comedian, has a joke about filing a receipt he received for a donut… “I’ll file it under “D” for “delicious.”  Part of the reason this is funny to me is that my filing system has been that bad in the past. Many years ago, I lost my administrative assistant, and had to manage my paper files on my own. I thought I’d try to find some good advice on how to create a functional filing-system, but in fact found very little in the way of resources.

This problem is significantly exacerbated in the digital context - it is very easy to become a digital hoarder, in part because the cost is extremely low. When I read Merlin Mann’s suggestions on file naming, I started looking for ways to develop my own system. I now have everything pretty-well streamlined, and have applied similar strategies to my notes in Evernote as well. For now, I’ll focus on my files in Dropbox.

Step 1 - Take Stock

Before one embarks on renaming a whole bunch of files, it is well-worth the time to take some time to think about what kinds of files are represented in your system. In Higher Ed., we’re usually talking about a lot of text, data, or presentation files. There may be some video and pics strewn in as well. I took about a day to look through all of my files, just to see what patterns were emerging. I put all of these different “genres” on my whiteboard, so that I could edit and revise the list as I explored. For example, I have a lot of expense reports, recommendation letters for students, final student projects, research projects, policies and procedures, and disability documentation for students. As I compiled this list, I tried to find categories that would describe >20 files.

Step 2 - Develop Category Names

Once I had this list of categories, I started working on finding a name for each. Whenever possible, I wanted a single word - but it’s more important that the “category” be broad enough to describe the types of documents. I came up with a list of categories that I felt would stand the test of time. For example, I have a lot of grade books that I exported from the LMS for my own records - most of these are Excel spreadsheets, but some of them are PDFs. No matter - I categorized them all as “Gradebook.”  For letters of recommendation, I nominated them “Recommendation.” Other category names are Presentation, Policy, Accreditation, and Evaluation. I have a couple that are more than one word - “Student Artifact” and “Annual Evaluation” are examples where I just felt that one word didn’t do the trick. 

Step 3 - The Naming Convention

Once all of my files met some kind of “category,” it was time to start renaming the files. I like to name them according to the following method…

<Category Name> - <Specific Identifier> - <Date Created>

The specific identifiers change depending upon the category. For example, when I do annual evaluations for my staff, I name the file...

Annual Evaluation - Smith - 15-06-01

When I have a student project that needs to be kept, I name the file...

Student Artifact - Doe, John - 15-06-01.

The identifier for my presentations is slightly different - there they are the tile of the presentation, like...

Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01.

The “Date Created” tag is an important element of organization as well. By listing by Year, Month, and Date, files that have the same Category and Identifier can be listed by the date they were created when the files are arranged alphabetically. For example, Mr. Smith’s annual evaluation is going to happen every year - so I will have a number of files that have the same category and identifier, but unique dates…

Annual Evaluation - Smith - 13-06-01
Annual Evaluation - Smith - 14-06-01
Annual Evaluation - Smith - 15-06-01

The real value of this system is that I can have multiple versions of the same file…

Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 14-12-01
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-03
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-12-02

If I have several versions of the same file on the same day, I just add a version number on the end of the date…

Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01.2
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01.3

Many of the suggestions that I see on the internet involve putting the dates at the beginning of the file name. I have found that I prefer them at the end, especially because they become the final organization structure for files with the same category and identifier information.  

4. Batch Renaming

Before I discuss batch renaming, let me suggest that you hold off on renaming old files for at least a while. When I have consulted with colleagues to revamp their filing systems, I have recommended that we really just develop a plan for going forward. One can always go back later and fix old files when one has time.

If you’re using OS X Yosemite, batch renaming files can’t be easier these days. I used Hazel from Noodlesoft to change the names of all of my files throughout my system, but you can right-click on a group of files and add text before the filename, after the file name, or even change the format of all of the files. I recommend that you use the “add text” before and after names - it’s the safest way to batch rename files. For example, I might add text before the name with my “Category,” and text after with “Date Created.”

If you have a lot of files, and you are willing to take the time to develop a process, Hazel can be useful.

5. Enter TextExpander

I can’t recommend TextExpander enough. This app runs in the background and “expands” shortcuts into text (it does a LOT more than that, too). I have a series of snippets for naming files according to their categories. For example, I’ve a snippet with a shortcut “.pro” to conduct the following snippet...

<Proposal - %| - %y-%m-%d>

This snippet will expand to create a document title - and it will move the cursor into the middle of the file name so that I can add the unique identifier…

Proposal - | - 15-06-05

At this point, I have a number of snippets for my most used categories, and name files with immense speed.

6. Smart Folders & Tags

Once these categories are arranged, it is really easy to set up a smart folder that searches for filenames that start with a category. You could do a saved search for “Presentation - “ and get a list of files that have the category name listed into one location - no matter where they are stored in your system. I use one of these for “Forms,” since I have different forms spread out across my entire filing system. Another option is to have Hazel search for and apply a tag color to the category - all of my “Presentation - “ files are blue.

One of my favorite smart folders is the “Syllabus” folder - it searches and finds all of my syllabi from across my filing system, and lists them alphabetically. When an administrator or former student asks for a copy of a syllabus, it takes only a couple of seconds to respond.

7. Fewer Folders

If you use this kind of naming system, you can avoid the nightmare of nested folders. For example, my Recommendations folder has literally HUNDREDS of letters of recommendation - some for the same student. I was able to move them all into one folder, since I know that I can quickly scroll to the student’s name and find the most recent version of my letter of recommendation. As a result, I am using a lot fewer folders, and finding that I have folders holding lots of files - making navigation and retrieval a breeze. I do have a series of nested folders for my courses (Courses —> Coursenumber —> Section), but this is one of the few nests that I still employ.

8. Just Start

I can’t stress enough the importance of getting started, regardless of whether you have the time and/or automation skills to go back and rename old files. In short order, you may discover that it is worth the investment of time or development of automation skills to get the old files into your new system - which may be evidence that the new system has become valuable.

Image Credit:

Posted on June 5, 2015 and filed under General.