Have you ever come across a file that has a name that looks like this?

“Copy of Copy of weekly report (changed 4 April) new version 15 July (JOHNs EDIT).docx”

Sure you have. It is a file that suffers from version rot. And it can be a very bad thing.

A large part of my day-to-day work consists of creating automated spreadsheets typically used in complicated tenders. I also work with large financial and data models that can change numerous times over the course of a day as different people give their inputs. One of the major problems with these spreadsheets is that other people work on them and send off the new versions all the time – the result is that one often has numerous versions of the same file that can cause tremendous confusion.

There is a very simple way to ensure that you are always in control of this mess. It is all in the file name!

Before I continue, please note: I cannot claim much credit for this tip – it is commonly used in different forms in among others the consulting industry, but I think it is time the rest of the world learns this neat trick.

Files all have the following characteristics in common:

  1. The are created on a specific date
  2. They are created on a given topic
  3. Each file created is either an initial version, or an edited version
  4. The file has been edited by a person

These four characteristics make it easy to properly control the version of the files with which you are working. Here is how to create the perfect version controlled file name:

  • Start with the date in this format: YYYYMMDD, for example if this article was to be saved as a file, it would begin with “20140720.” Doing this ensures that the file is automatically ordered by date when you view it in your file manager.
  • Now add a descriptive topic. The file name for this article will now look as follows: “20140720 Tip for File Version Control Article”
  • The next step is to add a version number. The version number should reflect the version for that given day. For example, the article file name for the first version would read “20140720 Tip for File Version Control Article 001” and if I edited it later the same day would be saved as: “20140720 Tip for File Version Control Article 002.” However, if I opened and edited it the next day then it would be named: “20140721 Tip for File Version Control Article 001” because the date already differentiates it from the previous version.
  • Finally add the initials of the last person who edited the file. The article file name would now be completed as: “20140720 Tip for File Version Control Article 001 GP.docx”

It is a very simple method to ensure that your files are always in order of date and version, and you always know who the last person was that provided an edit!

It is worth mentioning that people are generally lazy when it comes to developing this kind of habit, however, you can easily take control of all the files you receive in this way. Also, once a properly constructed file name is there and your coworkers understand the basic principle, then it is easy for them to just add the version and their initials.

For the sake of clarity, here are the full examples of the file name I would have used to save this article over two days:

“20140720 Tip for File Version Control Article 001 GP.docx”
“20140720 Tip for File Version Control Article 002 GP.docx”
“20140721 Tip for File Version Control Article 001 GP.docx”
“20140721 Tip for File Version Control Article 002 JB.docx” (Edited by Joe Bloggs)

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