Operations Fundamentals: File and Folder Naming and Hierarchy System (with Samples)

Do you spend too much time searching for files on your computer? Do you sometimes never find things at all?

Two of the most important metrics of success for your business operations are the amounts of wasted time and wasted brainpower by your team.

If you could track the amount of time and brainpower your team wasted looking for files, and measure the value of that time and brainpower, you’d immediately do something to fix it.

To solve this problem, create a file and folder naming system that ensures you quickly and easily find the files you’re looking for.

Then, every time you need a file, you’ll find it in under ten seconds with a quick search or navigation.

I. File and Folder Naming Guidelines

The guideline that gives birth to all other file and folder naming guidelines is: Name every file and folder with searchability and sortability in mind.

Here are more detail and examples:

A. Name Files with Keywords and Markers

i. Keywords

When you name a folder or file, name it precisely and be over-inclusive by including in the name of the file all the terms you might search for. Naming well will take three seconds more than naming poorly, and it will be a massive net time saver in the long run.

Example 1. If you’re naming your receipt from dinner, don’t call it “dinner receipt” because you’ll never find it again. Call it something like “dinner receipt December 2017 Client A at Red Lobster”.

Example 2. If you’re naming an invoice, don’t call it “December Invoice”, include the client name, month, year, and project name.

Example 3. LOOK AT THE NAME OF THIS FILE!

PNL Budget Monthly Report by Business Line Notes Commentary 2020 Budget  – CURRENT (Financials)

It’s ugly, but do you think I’ve ever have a hard time finding it? With a name like that, you can’t NOT find it. You can search for it (or if it’s a google doc, you can type any of those words into the browser URL bar), and it will come up right away. So, even if that file could belong in any of two or more different folders, you can still find it quickly and easily by searching for it.

ii. Markers

You’re going to have many files and folders that are named with people’s names, customers’ names, vendors’ names, and other terms that will be repeated on lots of other files and folders. So, use markers in folder names to help find the right file or folder faster.

Some examples of markers are:

  • “ – Employee File”
  • “ – Partner File”
  • “ – Customer File”
  • “ – Main Folder”
  • “ – CURRENT”
  • “ – FINAL AND SIGNED”
  • “ – OLD”

If one of your employees is named Michelle Smith, then name her employee file “Michelle Smith – Employee File”. That way, when you want to pull her employee file, it takes three seconds to search for “michelle file” and the result you want comes up. Without that marker, you’d search for “Michelle Smith” and you’d get every file and folder that have her name in the title (or even the body of the file, in many cases).

Consider whether to put other markers in file names that make sense for how you work. For example, if you like to save old versions of files, put the date or version number in the title and the word “OLD” for old versions, “CURRENT” for the current version, and “FINAL” for final versions.

B. Name with sortability in mind

Name files and folders based on how you want them to sort in a folder or search results. Some examples:

  • Start a file name with a date in YYYYMMDD format, so that it sorts by date. (MM/DD/YY won’t sort by date.)
  • Use folder numbers, as you’ll see in the next section on Folder Hierarchy.
  • In Michelle Smith’s employee folder, don’t start file names with “Michelle Smith”, start them with what you’d want that folder to sort by, such as “Performance Review” or the date of the file. If every file starts with “Michelle Smith”, then the folder will likely not sort well.

II. Folder Hierarchy

As a complement to your intuitive file and folder naming system, you need a folder hierarchy that makes navigation easy. Searching for a file will almost always be a faster way to find it than navigation. But on occasion, you may need to navigate to find that file that someone else on your team named poorly or just to browse what’s in a folder.

Think about your folder hierarchy system in terms of what hierarchy is intuitive, who will need access, and what the use cases will be. Most people on your team should be allowed access only to certain folders, so organize your system in a way that makes permissioning easier. Make the folder system the most intuitive for the most people. Try not to have folders where someone has access to a sub-folder but not a parent folder. That just gets confusing for everyone.

Below is one sample of a folder hierarchy. And here’s a link to a sample google drive folder system in case you want to copy that to save some time. You should adapt these samples to fit your business and style.

III. Other Tips

Some other ideas that can help you find what you’re looking for faster are:

  • Iterate on your file and folder names and hierarchy. If you search for a file and it doesn’t come up because it was missing one of your search terms, then immediately fix the title so that next time it will. If the first place you navigated to find a file or folder was wrong, consider whether that place is actually where it belongs.
  • Have a document with a table of contents for the files you use the most.
  • One version of a table of contents is a wiki. You almost definitely need a wiki for this and other purposes. A wiki is a central knowledge base for your organization that has documentation on all your important processes and answers to questions about how your organization works. The wiki should be the go to place for everything related to your organization. If you have a question, before asking a person, ask the wiki. If the answer wasn’t in the wiki when you asked it, add it there.
  • Use bookmarks in your browser as shortcuts to get to web-based files. For example:

Please share and give feedback!

If you found this helpful, here are some other resources you might like:

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