Use Symbols to Prioritize Digital Files

Jan 14, 2016 | Organization

Just like your physical files, your digital files have the tendency to get disorganized. However, it’s easier to overlook the disorder when they’re cluttering up your hard drive rather than cluttering up your desk. And oftentimes, the build-up isn’t obvious until you need something in a hurry, and by then, it’s too late.

Fortunately, there is a solution: digital file “alphabetization.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean keeping your files in alphabetical order, though. It means putting them in an order that’s most useful for your individual organizational style. But how do you get your computer or laptop to recognize the order you want your digital files in if they’re not alphabetical?

The answer is symbols.

By placing a symbol in front of each file name, you can organize and find what you need quickly.

Here is the hierarchy of symbols in the order they appear when used in file names:

– file name (hyphen)
! file name
# file name
$ file name
% file name
& file name
* file name (Note: The asterisk can’t be used in file or folder names, but it can be used in Outlook category names.)
@ file name
^ file name
_ file name (underscore)
~ file name
+ file name

You can designate each symbol to stand for one specific digital file category, which will then appear in alphabetical order according to the symbol’s hierarchy rather than the first letter of the category’s name. There is one exception to this rule. If you use the hyphen, you must put a space between it and the name of your folder in order for it to appear first on your list. If you do not include the space, it will still appear in alphabetical order by the first letter in the name of the folder.

Without symbols, my list of folders appears like this:

Business Development
Client Projects
My Team
Research This

I want my folders to appear in order by priority, so I have added a symbol to the beginning of my folder names like this:

! Speaking
# Writing
$ Business Development
% Client Projects
@ My Team
^ Research This
~ Personal

Now the most important items show up first and the least important last. It helps me find things more quickly and maintain my focus in the process.

Of course, the above examples are just that – examples. You should make the system your own by customizing it to your unique set of files, project categories, or even people you support. For instance, if you work with multiple executives, you may prefer to designate a symbol for each of them rather than categorize everything by project.

If you’re an Outlook user, you can also designate a color for each category to add an extra layer of organization.

Just because your digital files are out of sight, they should never be out of mind. You wouldn’t throw things haphazardly into a physical filing cabinet, so you need to take the same care with your digital files.

Even a few extra minutes a day searching for misplaced documents creates a serious drop in productivity. Instead, make a habit of digitally ordering your files in a way that allows you to find what you need without searching!


Symbols that are used in website addresses will not work for SharePoint file names. These symbols include:

  • Tilde (~)
  • Number sign (#)
  • Percent (%)
  • Ampersand (&)
  • Asterisk (*)
  • Braces ({ })
  • Backslash ()
  • Colon (:)
  • Angle brackets (< >)
  • Question mark (?)
  • Slash (/)
  • Plus sign (+)
  • Pipe (|)
  • Quotation mark (“)

For more information, visit

© 2016 Julie Perrine International, LLC


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Julie Perrine, CAP-OM, is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, providing training, mentoring and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Julie applies her administrative expertise and passion for lifelong learning to serving as an enthusiastic mentor, speaker and author who educates admins around the world on how to be more effective every day. Learn more about Julie’s books — The Innovative Admin: Unleash the Power of Innovation in Your Administrative Career and The Organized Admin: Leverage Your Unique Organizing Style to Create Systems, Reduce Overwhelm, and Increase Productivity. And request your free copy of our special report “From Reactive to Proactive: Creating Your Strategic Administrative Career Plan” at

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