There are an infinite number of different formats online for naming your files. However, most of these systems are complex and time-consuming. That doesn't have to be the case!
Naming and saving files should be as simple and quick as possible so that you can get on with the really important tasks. After asking myself some basic questions, I was able to develop a simple system that I will present in this article.
Why Do We Name Files?
This fundamental question puts its finger on the goal of all file systems: We name files and create folders so that we can easily find our files later.
In the age of AIs and search algorithms, it may seem tempting to simply save the files without a system and find them again later using the search function. This may work, but this approach has two disadvantages. Firstly, you lose the opportunity to find cross-references (for example, between files in the same folder or context that remind you of other tasks or ideas) and secondly, the organization of your own files in folders reflects to some extent the organization of your own thoughts and ideas in your head.
On the other hand, no one wants to spend hours categorizing files. It's not worth the time and the mental energy would be better invested elsewhere.
In summary, the goal is to find your files quickly without having to invest too much effort in organizing them. In economic terms, we want to invest a little time in the file structure and save a lot of time searching later.
Basic Principles of File Organization
Before I introduce my file system, there are three basic principles that you need to follow in order for file organization to have any effect at all. If you apply anything from this article in your life, it should be these three basic rules.
- You must name files and folders correctly immediately. It is okay to rename something later, of course, but you should never put off the correct naming.
- You must save files immediately in the correct folder, not on the desktop or in the Downloads folder. Anything else will slowly undermine your file organization.
- Your file system should not have too many folders or layers, otherwise it will become too complicated. I usually limit myself to three folder levels.
My File System
The First Folder Level
There are only five folders on the first level of my file system, which are based on Tiago Forte's PARA Method:
- 0 Inbox: Files or notes that I am currently working on or for which there is not yet a folder can be temporarily stored here. This is the only exception to the second basic rule. This folder should be cleaned up once a week.
- 1 Projects: Folder for my active projects that I am working on and that have a specific goal.
- 2 Areas: Folder for permanent areas of responsibility without a clear goal, for example household, my website or university.
- 3 Resources: Folders for my diary, my literature notes and ideas on my interests.
- 4 Archive: Folder for inactive or irrelevant files from the previous categories, for example completed projects, press photos, old tax returns, etc.
Limiting the number of folders on each level helps to keep things clear and forces me to limit myself to the really important projects etc. These restrictions can be extended or removed as required.
Further Folder Levels
The five folders on the first level are structured differently, but the names of the nested folders are always the same:
- Folders on the second level are numbered in single digits and begin with the letter of the parent folder. This is followed by the title of the folder. There can therefore be a maximum of 9 folders at this level. For example, the first subfolder in the project folder is called “P1 Title” and the third subfolder in the resources folder is “R3 Title”.
- Folders on the third level retain the name of the previous folder and are numbered consecutively with two digits. There can therefore be up to 99 folders at this level. The consecutive number is separated by a dot. For example, a folder could be called “P1.04 Title” and would therefore be the fourth subfolder in the first project folder.
- In 90% of cases, the files are located at the next level. If a further folder level is necessary, which is normally the case at most in the archive, then a further point is added and the folder is numbered consecutively with a letter of the alphabet (e.g., “A4.03.C”). However, these folders should be the exception so that the system does not become too complicated.
Limiting the folders to one level helps to keep things clear and forces me to limit myself to the really important projects etc. These restrictions can be extended or removed as required.
The advantage of naming folders is that you can see where you are in the file tree at each level. If you remember the numbers of the projects or areas, you can also navigate between them more quickly and name them as a reference in other areas, for example in emails. This is particularly useful when sharing a cloud file system with other people.
My File Naming
The naming of the files themselves is not so strictly regulated in my case. The advantage of strict folder naming is that I will probably be able to find the files quickly. Nonetheless, I still have a file naming convention so that I don't have to open all the files in a folder to find something specific, and so that I can use the search function, if necessary. I name my files with a title that is as concise as possible and that contains important keywords. For example, a project report should have the phrase “project report” in the title.
I also prefix some files with a date. This applies in particular to invoices and time-sensitive files, of which there are several in a given project. Depending on the file, the date prefix may look like this:
- Year only: For files such as annual overviews or tax returns, the year is sufficient because they are only created once a year (e.g., “2023 tax return”).
- Month and year: For paychecks, monthly reports or other files, I add the month and year so that the files are sorted correctly (e.g., “2023-11 monthly report”).
- Full date: Diary entries, invoices and other time-sensitive files are provided with the full date. This also applies to folders in which there are many files that are marked with the same month (e.g., “2023-11-01 Daily data export”).
With this simple system, you should be able to find all your files quickly and efficiently. The initial setup of the system also doesn't take long with a simple trick: Move all your current files to a folder in the archive and only sort the files into the new folder structure that you are currently actively working on. There's a good chance that you will only rarely need the old files and can sort them later or simply not at all. You also don't have to create a complete file system with lots of empty folders straight away, but can let the system grow dynamically as you work.
In addition to the naming conventions, it is important to adhere to the three basic rules of file organization so that your system does not require too much maintenance. If you follow these rules, you will always have a clean and functional file system that you can work with efficiently.
 The system is based on Tiago Forte's PARA Method and the Johnny.Decimal technique and combines the advantages of these two approaches.