Naming Your Computer Files Well

It is so completely strange to me that really odd naming conventions for computer files continue to persist to this day.

I have probably over 10,000 documents on my computer (Word documents, spreadsheets, keynote presentations, PDFs, and so forth). If I followed the usual naming conventions that most people seem to use, I would be totally lost. I’d never be able to find anything.

For example, one of the things I do in my consulting is write business plans for people. Sometimes, when the client takes the first attempt at writing the business plan, the file will be named something like “plan234.doc.”


It’s as though we think we need to intentionally give our computer files cryptic, obscure, hard-to-grasp names. This, in turn, makes it really hard to find the file when you are going to work on it, since it’s not like it’s the only file you have.

Far better to call it what it is. In this case, the best file name would be: “Business Plan for [Name of Company].doc.” Then, you know what the document is right away when you see it in your files. You don’t have to guess or, worst of all, open it in order to know for sure what it is.

I see this type of mistake made over and over again: people continually give their computer files names that are hard to decipher. I don’t know if the aim is to save space or what; if the aim is to save space, the need to do that went away about 20 years ago. It used to be that file names had to be kept very short, because we were limited to just a few characters. Those days are over.

And, spaces are OK!

In one of the call-out boxes in What’s Best NextI summarize these principles as one of the immediately-applicable productivity tips I give. Here’s the box:

How to Name Your Computer Files Well

  1. Give the file a name that actually means something.
  2. Don’t abbreviate (it makes no sense and makes it harder to know what the file is at a glance!)
  3. Make the file name the same as the title of the document in the file.

Good name: “Bookstore Procedure Manual.” Bad name: “Bkstr_2305.”

If someone says: “The type of file name you suggest is too obvious,” my response is: That’s the point! If you don’t make it obvious, you’ll forget what the file actually is down the road or the next day. By making it obvious, you save time.

The principle for naming your computer files well is the same as the principle for making websites effective: “Don’t make me think.” That is, minimize your cognitive workload by making the file name something obvious. The aim is to know right away, at a glance, what the file actually is so you don’t have to spend time trying to figure out which file you are looking for after all.

  • Terry

    I agree with your naming strategy, but I have one tweak that I have found very helpful. I always start the name of the file off with today’s date in yy/mm/dd format so that all the files in a particular folder sort chronologically. That helps me immensely in finding a file quickly.

  • Matt Zion

    Excellent advice, Matt. This resonates well with the best advice for computer programmers when it comes to naming variables, methods, classes, etc.: call it what it is. I had a college roommate who asked for my help with a programming assignment. My first question was, “What does the variable x mean?, ” followed by the same question for five other letters of the alphabet. Giving variables (or files) names that are cryptic or which have no relation to their meaning or purpose forces you to remember not only what the named item is for, but what nonsensical name you gave it so you can find the named thing later. Why remember two things when you only need to remember one?

  • Sheila

    Good tips Matt. I was thinking the other day how much time I waste trying to find documents. Part of the problem is they’re on a share point site where multiple people are naming the files and they are in folders that make no sense to me. Could you explain how to maximize file tags and subjects too?

    • Matt Perman

      That is an important question. I hope to do a series on filing well in the future. The main thing I’d say right now is that I find filing by area to be the most helpful.

      For example, when I was at DG I had a folder for each area of the organization: web, resource development, executive leadership, marketing etc. Then within each area I had folders by sub-area. For web, for example, I divided the department according to the main functions (management, design, information architecture, etc.) and there was a place for everything. This approach gives an objective basis that is also intuitive, and so not something a person has to re-think all the time.