How to End Messy Folder Structures With the Power of Search

How to End Messy Folder Structures With the Power of Search

I have been struggling with my bad filing hierarchy for years. An inefficient, inconsistent, or straight up bad folder structure not only robs you of of your hard-earned time but it can also sabotage entire projects, hiding your files in the deepest, darkest corners of your hard drive, nowhere to be found ever again. I recently came up with a system that enables me to easily and efficiently store files as well as retrieve them. Follow along to hopefully also put an end to your digital storage struggles.

Disclaimer: This system proved to work on MacOS. 

Here are the two key aspects that make this naming system work:

  1. Consistency - The most important aspect of this folder structure is consistency in naming. You might have found the holy grail of naming folders but if you don't stick with it, it will mess things up. 
  2. Search - The one tool that changed my folder hierarchy fundamentally is the MacOS Finder's search tool. My entire naming system is based on the searchability of the foldernames.

Countless hours of searching through bad folder structures, wallowing in self-pity, and brainstorming on new ways to sort my data later, here is my approach.

In order to keep bottom level folder's names shorter, the top level is made up of a couple of overview folders. Those will separate files of differing purposes.

For me, those are

  • Documents (books, essays, articles, documents)
  • Projects
  • Timeline (random stream of snapshots, sorted only by their timestamps)

The naming system inside the Projects and Documents folder is catered towards searchability: Date_Category_ProjectName

Example: 20151008_Pro_BelleHooks

This date format makes it easy to search for projects within a specific timeframe. For all projects of 2015, just type "2015." For all projects of October 2015, type "201510."

The category is suitable in order to discern between types of projects. For me, those are "Pro" for professional work, "Uni" for school work, and "PP" for personal projects.

The project name then finally tells you what exactly you are looking at.

After typing into the search field you can narrow down the results to the selected folder and also change the output of the search. In this case, I isolated the folders.

The system is easily expandable. Just remember to stick to the same naming principles. If you do different projects for a couple of the same clients, it might be a good idea to add the company or institution name before the project name.

For example: 20151008_Pro_TNS_BelleHooks

Within the project folders, I then create subfolders with simpler names to make them easier to navigate after you found the project parent folder.

Here is an example hierarchy:


-> BelleHooks_jpg

-> BelleHooks_raw

The file names could then be something like "BelleHooks_raw_001"

I don't include the date and category in the filenames in order to not dilute the search results.


There you have it, the base structure to a working filing system. If you have any suggestions on how to expand this system, especially when it comes to new types of files, let me know in the comments.

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michael buehrle's picture

the next trick is to go thru years of old files and rename them…………..ouch

Maximilian Benner's picture

Very true Michael, this is what I have been spending my free time on, recently. I found a program called NameChanger that makes the process easier when it comes to renaming the bottom tier files.

michael buehrle's picture

i have many years of badly labeled files to go thru. i do it almost like you now but i am paying for my laziness or lack of foresight now.

Why name a folder by a date? It seems that those naming convention are left-overs from the older day where computers weren't as strict about meta-data. It's already has an original date or creation date built in, which in terms of MacOS at least (can't speak for windows but I'm sure thats similar) is set when you create the folder. Same goes for the file creation date. Since you can search by the same parameters using the built-in dates whats you reasoning behind it?
The reason I ask is because I'm restructuring my older work and have found I cannot accurately recall the date of a project, which makes this not nearly as useful as I thought it'd be. I would venture to say that a location or project naming is more helpful at least in my case. Has anyone else found this to be true or can you recall project dates accurately when searching? Thanks in advance

Maximilian Benner's picture

Hi Sebastian, I found that the various timestamps of individual files are oftentimes too overwhelming when I am searching for the projectfolder. Also, sometimes the creation of a folder is not in line with the date of the project. Putting the date in the folder name proved to be the most straightforward solution for me.

Hi Maximillian, thanks. That is a very good point, something my german engineering mind has not considered. ;) and yes project and folder meta-data may not be in sync so that makes if difficult to edit that after the fact. Servus, Sebastian

If you know the names of the files you're searching for (relatively), I also recommend a tool for Windows users called 'Everything'. It's FREE and runs silently in the background indexing stuff (although the first run might take a bit longer). All you do is start typing a filename into its search box and it comes up almost instantaneously. You can narrow the search to filetype as well. I've tried to use these sorts of programs in the past but always found them a bit intrusive or likely to slow down my system. I don't even notice this one working - it's small and doesn't use many resources.

If you want to search for text within files, there are other free tools like Agent Ransack.