Naming Files And Avoiding Folders

When I look at the direction that iCloud is looking to take us and the way I have been working over the past year, one thing is becoming clear: a traditional folder structure is far less important than it once was. In fact, in many areas of my life, they are becoming irrelevant. As the quality and speed of search on our computer and devices improve, the need for a cumbersome file system diminishes.

This has led me to take some of the tactics that I learned from Merlin Mann’s Mac Power Users episodes (both episodes are required listening) to significantly reduce the amount of folders on my computers. For those of you who have been reading the site for a while now, this will be a bit of a rehash of my post on Simplenote and nvALT, but the approach I take to naming my files has become so essential to the way I work. It requires its own post.

Now, this is about to get geeky, but it’s important. With Merlin’s method, the file title begins with a category keyword of your own choosing. Then you include a one-to-five word description and a date. This might sound confusing, so here are a few examples from:

  • Blogx – Blog post title or idea — 12-03-04
  • Momx – Any note for the Mikes on Mics Podcast – 12-03-04
  • Workx – Any work meeting or writing project — 12-03-04
  • Ideax – Actionable idea — 12-03-04
  • Thoughtx – Tangent for blog or idea — 12-03-04
  • Runx – Running lists of books, unprocessed to-dos, calls, and the like (no date)
  • Quotex – Name of the Quotee — 12-03-04

You are going to want to be careful with your short descriptions. Use this space to add the phrase you’d be most likely to use when searching for it at a later date. I also place the x at the end of the the category keyword to eliminate any files that use the more common words like blog and work when searching (another Merlin tip). There are no additional tags and no folders needed (although I do use tags in specific cases, but that’s another post for another day). These file names can also be extremely fast to create if you use TextExpander.

Always one to make things easier (and be lazier), I’ve created TextExpander snippets for my frequently used categories. For those of you who don’t know, at its core, a snippet is a predefined amount of text that is triggered by a shorter abbreviation. For example, when I come up with a new post for this blog, I use the following snippet:

Shortcut: ..bX


Snippet: Blogx — %| — %y-%m-%d


Text: Blogx — Type The Title For Your Awesome Idea — 12-03-04

This universal snippet significantly speeds up the naming of new files. They create my category keyword, add the current date and places my cursor directly in between the two dashes to type in a searchable description for my file. I’m already using this in applications like nvALT and Evernote and I am beginning to experiment with the process throughout my system.

Still confused? Here’s a down and dirty screencast that will show you how this works:

I suggest starting with one application (I started in nvALT). This way you can get a feeling if this is for you and see how it works firsthand. It will take time to determine your own category keywords and to get used to naming your files for search, so a slow rollout is probably a good idea.

This process has added a lot of peace to my life. I never have to wonder where I saved a file and I always know the best way to search for things. It’s a system built around modern search capabilities rather than dated folder structures. I no longer waste time setting up complicated folder structures that I almost always abandon. It’s a flat system that lets me quickly get to what matters most. My work.

19 Responses to Naming Files And Avoiding Folders

  1. Where do you typically save all your files?  Documents folder?  Dropbox folder?  I like the idea of simplifying and not having folders and folders worth of stuff.

    • In the case of Text files, everything is in nvALT and saves as a unique text file on my hard drive (you can do this through simplenote or dropbox). PDFs live in Evernote. Music and video in iTunes and photos in iPhoto. I have all working files in Dropbox, but I haven’t flattened this quite as much as I’d like just yet. I also have a random folder that I clean out regularly on my desktop for miscellaneous nonsense.

  2. Hi Michael, quick question in relation to nvALT. Saw Byword nvALT video for using markdown etc. I have my nvALT pref as rich text if I convert to plaint text, will all my links in text files or future dropped in links work?. As beside place to write for blog I like using nvALT as quick dump of research links on subject. Will nvALT continue to be useful to have active links when converted to plain text doc?

    • Are the links currently formatted as markdown links or standard HTML links? You probably want to check with the developer Brett Terpstra (, but I do believe that there is a way to start using plain text going forward, but keep all of the rich text files intact if they are HTML links. I do not believe it would convert rich text to Markdown.

      • thanks for reply, love your blog, very informative and greeting form Ireland! 😉 Yeah there html. What I’ll do is make a backup, check what changes and if I have to use nvALT plaintext as default for to use it like what you suggest I might see if I can use other place for info dump. Otherwise I’m kinda using much of how you use other apps like Evernote etc.. The videos are great and really good for specific info..anyways thanks again and you in my rss and I listen to a couple of mike on mics so you got a fan here. I love macs cheers. Ps I have nvALT word in TextExpander so whenever I type nva it pops up spelt with proper format!!..its great;-)

  3. […] Sure, I could create folders (or use a naming convention) that separates all of these things, but that’s not how I like to work. I tend to use my applications as filters. Different apps for different intentions, so the idea of […]

  4. […] For those who are wondering why I place the x at the end of the category keyword, it is so that when I search for files, I don’t pull up everything that includes that word (another Merlin tip). I also use TextExpander to speed up the creation of the titles, for a deeper look at naming your files in order to avoid folders and easily find exactly what you’re looking for, click here. […]

  5. […] down that is easy to access and simple to recall is not a life hack, it’s a best practice. Using TextExpander to name those files for consistency is a life hack that, when paired with the best practice of writing things down, can significantly […]

  6. […] a lot of additional things people are doing with nvALT to be even faster: these posts by A Better Mess and Caleb McDaniel have some inspired workflows that are in no small part due to the patron saint […]

Leave a reply