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How to Organize PC Files with Date Coding

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Annaliese Dell
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If you've ever saved or intend to save a file on your PC, this article will save you time and aggravation by automatically organizing them with a simple habit. You'll learn:

1.  Why you need to add file dates to your file names
2.  The primary mistake people make when dating files
3.  Proper date format so you can find what you need when you need it

This article is the first in a series on how to properly name files for optimal organization and information retrieval.

You might think there's no need to date your PC file names because the computer already dates them.

If you click 'View' on Windows Explorer (at the very top of the window) and scroll down to Choose Details, a menu pops up where you can choose specific information columns to appear in any folder, including:

Date Modified
Date Created
Date Accessed
Date Picture Taken

So why do you need to add a date to the file name?

Let's examine Windows Explorer date columns (file attributes) one by one:

Date Modified: This is the date the file was last modified. Every time you save a file, the Date Modified changes; in some cases even if you made no changes because some applications change meta-data in the file you do not see.

Date Created: This date is self-documenting but we have to consider it's implications. I scan important documents into the PC. The Date Created is the date the file was saved to the PC; however, that is most likely not the date of the document. I don't always scan a document the day it's created so this date may not represent the true creation date.

Date Accessed: This is not the last date the file was opened as the name might suggest but the last date the file was copied.

Date Picture Taken: If you're like me and never set the date on your camera, this is just as inaccurate or misleading as the other three columns.

Those dates represent dates when the file was manipulated but may not represent the information date which is a very big difference.  The electronic file is a container for data and if you need to know the date representing the validity of that information you need to record it using the file name.

Therefore two most important reasons to include a date in the file name are:
Accurate Representation of the Information Date
Search optimization

Clicking on the column headings in Windows Explorer sorts the file list by that column. However, the dates in that column may not accurately represent the file dates as we've already discussed.  It will not sort the files based on the information dates.

I once trained a replacement for my job as office manager. Part of my training included coding file dates after which my trainee immediately coded the very first file something similar to this: 02-04-10.  That is the Number 1 Mistake in dating file names.

Let me illustrate the issues with this dating method that is almost as challenging as speed dating and a lot less exciting.

Put on your imagination hat now and imagine trying to find a file with a particular month, day and year in a list of files like the one below. Now multiply the list by hundreds. This is the result of Windows Explorer sorting. The months are in order but the years aren't. February 5, 2007 is listed after February 4, 2010 even though it should be listed first.

02-04-10 Letter to Jane.doc
02-05-07 statement of assets.pdf
03-01-06 receipt from Harbingers.pdf
05-02-11 memo to George.doc

I incorporated the date format YYYY MM DD for my own office in the early 90's because it made sense. However, in 2004, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standardized the date format to YYYY-MM-DD or YYYYMMDD after the Y2K fiasco. A very good thing!

Now see how easy it is to peruse a list of files and find one by date:

2006-03-01 receipt from Harbingers.pdf
2007-02-05 statement of assets.pdf
2010-02-04 Letter to Jane.doc
2011-05-02 memo to George.doc

Now the dates are in date order:
year
month
day
ascending or descending

Skimming a list of hundreds or thousands of files allows you to quickly zero-in on the year, month and day. Your brain naturally skims the years first, then the months, then the days.

This system enhances Windows File Search by allowing searches like: 2010-05-*.pdf since creation and modified file attributes may not always be accurate.

Benefits:
Accuracy
Search optimization
Enhanced Windows File Search

In summary, Windows date attributes (Date Modified, Date Created, etc.) are an inaccurate method for visual searches. By preceding the file name with a properly formatted date code, folder contents can be sorted for quick reference. Remember, year first, then month, then day: YYYY-MM-DD or YYYYMMDD when space is at a premium.

This quickly becomes a valuable habit and one you'll be glad you took the time to learn.

You'll save time and aggravation by finding files faster. Couple this with my file abbreviation system and your PC will be uber organized!
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