Digital File Structure, Clean Up, and Naming Conventions

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Digital Files in the Abstract

Who doesn't love a good spring cleaning? OK, so maybe not that many. Who gets excited about cleaning your digital files? Hello, are you still there? Let me say that I understand that cleaning up digital files, much like spring cleaning in your home, is not glamorous but it is necessary. Ideally, file cleanup of shared drives, One Drive folders, and personal folders should be done annually. If this seems like too much to sift through, maybe try to do one group of folders each quarter. 

File Cleanup Schedule

So, you clear out the clutter and you're good to go, right? Let me suggest that you take an additional step to coordinate your file naming conventions and then share out how the file folder structure works with others who access the information.  

File Structure 

Knowing that shared folders are accessed by others, be courteous and work with them to plan out how and where to place documents. I don't know about you, but trying to locate files shared by co-workers, each with their own filing system, can be ARDUOUS. Who wants that? So, let's explore a few different strategies you can employ. 

Online file folder structures, whether they're in SharePoint, One Drive, a shared drive, or any other folder, can be enhanced by creating subfolders. Think about what your main folders can or should be. How do you and your colleagues do your work? I've worked at places where we worked on projects and this was a common term. In your workplace it might be more like an area of focus. In this example I'll use a project name, so that will be level 1.   

Next, think about what your area of focus or project details and how might it make sense. When creating online courses, I've used the example below where we created an archive, the actual output that we'll share out, and then the working source where all the files we use to create our output will go. 

File Structure Levels 1 and 2 Example

Now given those folders, what might the next level entail? Following this example, I created folders for what it might look like building off the three level 2 files. Your structure may vary, but I know my brain processes things into folders and subfolders. Build out your structure as deep as you need to go. Studies on memory indicate that lists with 5-7 items in them are good for retention, and I also apply that thinking to folder levels as well. Who wants to click through 10 or more files to get to the one piece of information you may have been looking for? In this case, fewer is better.  

File Structure Levels 1, 2, and 3 Example

For a different example, let me explore how I manage a project I lead on rebranding and reimagining the former Supervising@Iowa series. I want to have a common space for our instructors to have access to all the course materials. If someone wants to see what another instructor is doing in their class to help inform themselves about how others are integrating a certain topic into a presentation, it will be easy to find. I decided to make the output folder into separate folders (presentations, training materials and handouts) so it will mean fewer clicks for the instructors. This is why it is so important to plan. It can be really helpful to modify your folder structure so that it makes sense for your area of focus and also makes it as easy as possible to use and locate files and documents. 

Alternative File Folder Structure Example

File Naming Convention 

Next, let's just talk about file names themselves. Use words that will make it clear exactly what the document is that you're saving. Document1 does no one any good. Here is an example of one good and one not so good naming convention. 

  • Good: busy-woman-juggling-it-all-img-bkgrd. This image is described well, and you then know that it is meant as a background image.
  • Not so good: C-9-07-5345-TJ-58. Can you or anyone else tell me what that means?  

Some also like to use underscores and some use dashes, so why one over the other? In the world of webpages, using underscores can sometimes be problematic so I use dashes. If you don't deal in the world of webpages, go with what seems right to you.   


Due yourself and your current and future co-workers a favor, use consistency in file naming and folder structures. Finding files should not consume much of your time. If you work from your own computer to create documents, make sure you have them backed up by putting the files and folders to your department shared drive or One Drive.   

For those of you who have been trained in lean processes, the terminology will be slightly different but applying 5s still attains the same result.

Scott White, OE Trainer and Consultant
UHR coaching tips to share 

What do you do to keep your files and folders cleaned up? This work helps us function more efficiently so would love to share out your ideas. Send your ideas to