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Put Order and Information into File Names

Written By: Mark Meshulam

Unless you place your faith in internal search engine software or document databases to track your work, consider a relatively low-tech enhancement to your work methods. I promise it will pay big dividends.

Consider how you name your files and folders. Have you missed an opportunity to clear the clutter and make your work more accessible? When you look at file names within a folder, do they sing out to you with sweet meaningfulness, or are they a cacophonous jumble of confusing heiroglyphics?

The eye likes symmetry. The mind loves order. When you create files and they pile upon one another over time, does their accumulation reflect a master plan or a disaster unplanned? When you view your list of files, is your eye happy, your mind content?

Basically, filenaming is an unrecognized art. Most of us are left to our own devices to figure it out. The good news: with some thought, you can be the artist of a system which will resonate with function.

Let’s start by considering the basis upon which files should be ordered. I will jump to the punchline and say it out loud: chronologically. To order files chronologically, have the filename start with a datestamp prefix such as YYYYMMDD- or YYMMDD. If you do this, your files will always sort themselves chronologically and you will have no trouble finding the latest and greatest work within a folder.

What you do following the datestamp prefix depends upon how the file will be used. If the file travels to someone else as an email attachment and then returns back to you after some sort of review, I recommend having the second portion of your filename be a locator.

The locator can be a 3-5 character abbreviation which will give you a solid hint about where the file needs to be refiled upon its return. You develop the locator so that you and others in your group recognize it as an abbreviation for a project. When they see the datestamp prefix and locator, they will already have much information about the contents of the file.

After entering the datestamp prefix and locator, now you can write a nice, meaty descriptive text (descriptor). Use as many characters as you like, just beware that beyond a certain length, the filename will be truncated during display, and you will lose, rather than gain information. Consider 30 characters to be a maximum filename size.

Subtracting 7 characters for the date stamp and 3-5 characters for the locator, this gives you 18-20 characters to tell your story. The way to know if you are doing a bad job with descriptors, is when you see the identical descriptor in multiple files. Don’t repeat descriptive text unless you specifically want to highlight the similarity between the two files.

Tip: NO spaces in names of files or folders. Spaces are not FTP-friendly and you may be FTP-ing sooner than you think.

Tip: NO unnecessary capital letters and DEFINITELY NO TEXT WITH ALL CAPS. It’s not only irritating, but it also takes away a useful tool, that of using upper and lower case text for better conveying your message.

Tip: Find a style and stick with it. For example, if you like the looks of hyphens separating datestamp, locators and descriptors, then do it that way every time. If using underscore between words in the descriptor feels right, then make it a habit. Even artists can have discipline, you know.

Tip: Use language to the greatest extent possible. In other words, use words more than acronyms. Cutsey corporate acronyms, after the first dozen or so, get pretty boring.

Examples of good file names:

050727-par-FieldTesting.doc
2004-o4-21-oak-Access_to_site.xls

Bad file names:

article.doc (too vague – what article? )
Work Project.xls (too general – what work project? when? )

Copyright 2005 Mark Meshulam

About The Author

A versatile denizen of Northbrook, IL, USA, Mr. Meshulam is an owner of a productivity software company (http://www.poingo.com), a construction company (http://www.buildersarch.com), and a document scanning/reprographics company (http://www.repro.docsys.us). His software product Poingo Email Printer has a feature which adds timestamps to filenames.

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