How I name files on my Mac

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The following is an excerpt from David Sparks’s ebook, Paperless (2012, available from iTunes or as a PDF from the author’s website), in which he explains his "paperless" workflow. File-naming is just one part of that workflow, but it enables him to find files and to automate the process of managing them.

I once actually named my scanned water bill Invoice.pdf. What was I thinking, naming a file Invoice.pdf? Looking at my water bills folder, there was no standard naming format; for some files, such as Invoice.pdf, there was no way to tell if it was even related to the water utility. To make matters worse, my telephone, electrical, and waste management folders for the same year also had files in them called Invoice.pdf. So I had multiple documents from about the same time with exactly the same name. Just swell.

The fact that I am a reformed sinner explains why I’m about to get all anal retentive about naming files.

Descriptive and consistent

The first part in a filename is always the date in a YYYY-MM-DD format. For example, November 12, 2012 appears as 2012-11-12. This format is really computer-friendly. If you have thirty files named this way then sort them by name, your computer will automatically sort them in date order. I use a hyphen between the year, month, and date. Some people use underscores (2012_11_12), which I find harder to read. I’ve also seen people use blank spaces (2012 11 12), which gets confusing when combined with other data. If the date or month is a single digit number, I always use leading zeros. (01 for January, not just 1.) If you don’t use leading zeros, the sort order gets wonky.

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Longer filenames can make those files easier to find and to manage.

Now that I have a date format, the next question is which date to use. One possibility is the date the file was created. But that doesn’t usually make sense. The file-creation date is the day that you scan the document or save the PDF file. That date may not correspond with the actual document date. For example, someone may sign a letter to me on May 18, which gets delivered May 23, and gets scanned on June 5. Saving it as 2012-06-05 doesn’t make sense. The proper date-name is 2012-05-18. For recurring monthly invoices, I leave off the day and use a yyyy-mm format: 2012-05 - electricity bill, for example.

After the date, I place a space followed by a hyphen followed by another space. You could skip this and simply use a space, but I prefer the extra space for readability. Next, I try to describe the document. For example, 2012-05-15 - property insurance declarations page or 2012-05 water bill.

For correspondence, I put the name of the sender and recipient after the date separated by an arrow (->), followed by re- (for regarding) and a brief explanation. So, for example, a letter from Brett Terpstra to me on May 16 about a new iPhone gets named 2012-05-16 - terpstra->sparks re-iphone 7.pdf.

You can add more. If you are in the service business for example, you could add the client name after the date: The February 7 service agreement for a company named Area 51, Ltd. would be named 2012-02-07 - area51 - service agreement.pdf. You could code documents as proposals, offers, contracts, marketing, or any other sort of document you routinely bump into. This serves, in essence, as a rudimentary tagging system in addition to a naming convention.

How to do it

There are several ways to rename a file on your Mac. You can select the file, hit the Return key, and type in the new name, for example, or contextually click the file and change the name in the file’s Get Info window.

If you have a large group of files to name or decide to change your file-naming conventions, you could open and manually rename each file, one at a time, but that would drive you nuts. In those cases, a renaming app makes a lot more sense. There are several such applications available in the Mac App Store. I use Rename It ($0.99), and it got the job done the few times I’ve needed it.

Using the naming convention from this section, I recommend you follow a few rules:

1. Assume Senility: Don’t get cryptic. Pretend future you will be drunk or senile (or both) when looking at these filenames and make the name easy to understand.

2. The Date Always Goes First: Always. Putting the date first guarantees your documents are date-sorted, no matter what platform they eventually land on.

3. Use Lower Case: If you start capitalizing letters, you will not remember when to capitalize. Your files will have inconsistent names or you’ll spend a lot more time than necessary keeping it straight. Just always use lower case and forget about it.

Take some time setting up your own filename taxonomy. Make sure you are comfortable with your rules because you are going to be living with them for a long time. Changing filename conventions mid-stream is a lot harder than doing so at the beginning.

Automating the process

Consistent file naming is a big deal. Whenever you hear the word "consistent" in relation to a computer task, a small part of you should consider automation; while we humans are creative animals, consistency is not one of our strong suits. You could create an Automator workflow to rename files when they’re first created. But that’s not the only way to help yourself out.

Using TextExpander, you can make sure your filenames are structured consistently.

Smile Software’s TextExpander ( ) is one of my favorite productivity apps on the Mac. While most users think of TextExpander as a way to replace a few words with long snippets, it is also useful for inserting small snippets. Used for naming files, you can make certain your files are always named the same way.

Moreover, TextExpander can also automate date entry. For example, a snippet with %Y-%m-%d in it inserts the current date in the YYYY-MM-DD format. I use the shortcut .ds (meaning “date stamp”) to insert that snippet. Using this snippet, I can quickly insert the date in the proper format in filenames or anywhere else. (I frequently use this same snippet when recording notes of communications with other lawyers and clients.)

You can go further by creating custom snippets for specific documents. For example, I have a snippet, triggered by h2obill that automatically inserts the current year, month, and the words - water bill. While the inserted phrase isn’t much longer than the shortcut, this guarantees that my water bills all have consistent names.

When a snippet is a common word—or part of a word—that I may accidentally trigger, such as cell, I add an x to the beginning: xcell. Using this method, you could create snippets for just about any type of file you want to name. Returning to the client filename referenced earlier, 51service could name a file, 2012-05-07 - area51 - service agreement.pdf.

Take some time and get yourself set up. Look at the kinds of documents you are routinely filing and set up appropriate snippets for them. The few minutes it takes to set up these snippets will pay dividends quickly.

David Sparks is a practicing attorney, editor of the MacSparky blog, co-host of the Mac Power Users podcast, and author of (in addition to Paperless) Mac at Work (Wiley, 2011) and iPad at Work (Wiley, 2011).

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