In this article, I will share my favorite way to name computer files in a descriptive and ordered way. I will offer easy and convenient advice tailored for a home office scale operation.
File and folder names can get quite complex and sometimes with good reason in large scale corporation context. However, in a home office scenario there is no need to complicate things and finding the best ways to name your computer files is uncomplicated. Larger operations often need to put more information into the file name than we do in our home offices.
Nevertheless, even when keeping the scenario of a one man operation in mind, your file naming convention still needs to accommodate some basic criteria.
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Best ways to name computer files
Your file name criteria shares some of the criteria that I discussed in the previous data management article on folder organization; Organize Computer Files Wisely and Be More Productive. Your file names should ideally meet the following criteria and be:
A: Descriptive and easily readable. The file name must be constructed in a way that makes it easy to read and decode. By using abbreviations and numbers there should be no doubt about what the file contains and the chronology of the versions.
B: Unique. Whereas certain folders can have the same filename, no file should ever share a name. You want a filename to represent just one entity in order to be easily search-able.
C: Ordered naturally by number or date. Chronology in your file system is easily one of the best ways to name computer files and ensure well structured data. Whether you choose the number- or date format is a matter of personal preference and the nature of your work. Personally I never lead with neither date nor number because these factors does not hold any content description. I often include the date in the file, but I never use it to control the file order. However, having your work ordered by date may be perfect in certain scenarios, such as in a publishing environment.
D: Consistent. Consistency is a very important aspect and should be of high priority. If you stay with your chosen file name structure/s it is easy for you to search for files and re-cycle previous work.
Principles and habits
Take a moment and read through the following list of file name principles and good practical habits to ensure that you find the best ways to name computer files. These tips are valid for both files and folders. Some can be regarded as inspiration but principle 1 and 2 should be avoided at all cost.
1: Never use empty spaces as dividers. Using an empty space will seem to work initially, but you never know how it will react to things like de-fragmentation and backup software. Use the underscore ”_” to create spaces that appear to be empty. Such as ”file_name”.
2: Never use special letters and signs. Such as; ! ? & # ¤ %”* etc.
3: Number your files. This way you can easily save ongoing versions of your work. Use number structures like; 01, 001, v001. Using plain numbers like; 1, 2, 3, will result in weird list jumps and break the chronology if you save more than 9 versions.
4: Use lower case letters with one exception. It is a good general habit to use lower case letters. However, the oddly named ”Camel Case” is a clean and easy way to signify word changes in a string of letters. This is perfect when you have more elements in a string of letters that you wish to make more readable. By using a capital letter to indicate a new word you can save space and still have a readable word combination.
Example: Instead of ”filename”, “file-name” or “file_name” you could use ”fileName”
5: Avoid long names. Find the sweet spot between adequate and overly descriptive. Use abbreviations without loosing the big picture. A maximum of 30 characters for the file name itself is a good length indicator.
6: Limit the amount of files. The amount of file versions you save is very much a matter of taste and the kind of work you do. If you work with large file sizes, disk space is surely an issue. But initially you should create the amount of versions that you need for the job and clean up when the job is done if you wish.
Of course it is practical to only have a few files in a folder, but having a large amount of files is not a problem in itself. If you name your files well, you always know where to find the latest file. If the folder feels cluttered you can create an archive folder for the early versions.
File name structures
In the following I will offer suggestions on how to name computer files with a small collection of structures that has worked well for me over the years. You can choose to adopt one or more of these, or simply use them as inspiration to create your own naming convention.
Case example for the name structures:
An advertising company “ABC” is working on a commercial for a returning client. Let´s call the client ”Johnson Motors”. I will use ”jm” as an abbreviation for the client part of the file name. You could leave it at that, but as this is a returning client you could add a job distinction to the name. This could be a description or a number. This is the 14th time Johnson Motor returns to ABC with work and in this case I feel the chronology of the submitted jobs is the best choice. I will use 014 as the job distinction.
jm014 – Client name and job number. This part should never change after saving the first time.
001 – By placing the number up front, you get a nice natural order. I have chosen the 3 digit version because I actually sometimes go beyond 99 versions.
140725 – Sometimes I include the date in order to have it visible no matter where I am looking at the file. As it is placed after the chronology controlling number, it no longer controls any ordering.
draft – This is your space to define. The main description and order has been taken care of at this point. This is where you can make notes of your progress or leave it out all together if you prefer to save the space. I find this part immensely helpful when I need to find something in an earlier version or simply to keep track of the steps in my work.
Same thing as above but without the date if you choose a shorter file name and/or prefer to rely on your file browser for dates.
If it fits your purpose or preference better, putting the date up front will of course give you a time chronology. If you keep the date format “reversed” the files will behave naturally even if you work on the file into the next year of if you return to recycle some of the work in later years.
If you simply want to rely on the folder to categorize the file you can leave out the customer information and implement a subject element instead.
001/date – Start with the number or date in case you want to change the subject element. That way the chronology is set no matter what.
subject – This element could be a main subject that does not change over the course of the work, or it could be used for distinctive stage or milestone description.
description – As described in structure 1.
Point of no return
Implementing new work-flows like these will take some getting used to. But once you find your favorite, structured way to name computer files, I am willing to bet that you will never want to return to a loose file naming discipline. By all means, use the sandbox option that I suggested in “Best Ways To Manage Files And Folders”.
If you commit to these or other structures you will be able to return to old files years down the road. You can go back and recycle old work without having to figure out things out all over.
Try it out in a test environment to decide how to name computer files and have fun naming things!