Tags or folders? Depends on the file.

The  introduction of tags in the latest Mac OS has re-ignited the debate on tags vs. folders (e.g. in Mac Power Users episodes 172 and 167). For the last three years, I have consistently used folders for project files and tags for reference files in academic work:

project and reference files

Project files – organize in folders

Project files are drafts of your articles or books, manuscripts under review and student assignments, grant applications, research reports, your lecture slides and scripts, raw data files, etc. They are linked to a project, a series of connected actions unified by a common goal and often conducted in a defined time period. While the project is active project files are frequently viewed, modified and shared. After the project is concluded, most of the project files go to an archive and are never needed. I find it logical to organize project files in hierarchical folders:

  • each file can be clearly attributed to a specific project;
  • while I am working on a project I need to frequently turn to the relevant set of files; it is thus very unlikely that I would forget where the folder is located or how it is called;
  • I need to access the files quickly and frequently, so a link to all active project folders is  in my Finder’s Favorites;
  • I often share project files with collaborators (e.g. manuscripts with co-authors), by placing the project folder in the Dropbox;
  • I often need to do group operations on project files (e.g. archive, transfer, duplicate), using Finder or Path Finder;
  • I find it easy to organize academic projects in a logical hierarchical folder structure. For example, Teaching/Teaching 2012–2013/Energy Winter Semeter/ is a natural place to store lecture notes, reading materials and students’ assignments for a course.

Reference files – organize by tags

Reference files play a very important role in academic work. I have thousands of pdfs of academic articles and documents plus images, movies, plain text notes and presentations. If project files are frequently used in a short period of time, most reference files are rarely used for a long period of time. This means that it is much harder to remember where a particular reference file is stored. Moreover, each reference file usually relates to more than one topic and thus cannot be placed in a specific folder.

I therefore find tagging reference files very logical. True, I do not use these tags very frequently because it’s often easier for me to remember the title or the author of the article (and then Spotlight it). However, in some situations tagging does wonders. For example, recently a colleague asked for all my materials on Ukraine. I could easily find all the files tagged regions:fsu:ukraine including pdfs, notes, maps and bookmarks saved at different times (and in different folders).

There is one more consideration: time. Searching files using tags or Spotlight takes more time than opening a frequently visited folder. On the other hand, tagging is normally faster than filing in folders. Investing time in properly filing project files makes sense because they are accessed frequently. There is no point to waste time in choosing a folder for an infrequently accessed reference file.

Of course, some reference files are frequently accessed. For example, I have a collection of my articles each tagged by my publications. Though all of these are in different folders, I have a smart folder in finder which collects all these together.

Files which are both project and reference

Sometimes a file may relate to a particular project but also be a general reference. For example, reading materials assembled for a particular course may also enrich the general reference library. I both tag such files (as if they were reference files) and file them in specific project folders. When the project is archived I run a Hazel rule which copies such files into my reference files directory (so that they are not buried in the old project archive).


About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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13 Responses to Tags or folders? Depends on the file.

  1. Andreas Zankl says:

    Do you store all reference files in one big reference folder then or are there subfolders? Do you use folders in your reference manager (EndNote, Sente, Papers etc) to organise papers or do you use tags?


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      OK, so for the academic articles and other ‘quotable’ reference sources I use the automatic renaming-moving process provided by Papers (or Sente). Files are stored in one folder Papers divided into subfolders by author-name. Other reference files are stored in one big folder (called Filed documents divided by year/month subfolders. The “Papers” folder is also within the “Filed documents” folder. Thus “Filed documents” contain my all reference materials and nothing else except reference materials. See more detail here.


  2. Great advice! I use folders for projects. I can see I need to use tags for reference material. I keep hearing scary rumors that Apple’s dreamers think folders are passé, that tags and word searches with Spotlight can fulfill our needs. Hopefully, articles like your will persuade that both have their place.


  3. Claude says:

    Dear Sir
    Thank you for your most informative post. I just want to share with you, and with your readers, how I have arranged my documents. I have done away with all folders and tagged everything. I have kept the number of tags purposely low. No problem to find material; Spotlight is excellent and I have a few smart folders. This simple system works admirably well. I presently have 400 documents of all kind in the finder



  4. Nick says:

    I personally went for the best of both worlds approach provided by Devon Think. So I organize all my files in Devon Think using folders while still tagging the files. Now I can access files I use frequently via the folder structure whithin my database and the files I dont need that often are easy to find thanks to the tags. This workflow fits my needs best, since it is all contained in just one application. And also I do not have to be super exact with where I store which file.



  5. rickla says:

    Thanks for the great rationale for storing files in different ways, Aleh.

    “When the project is archived I run a Hazel rule which copies such files into my reference files directory”

    Do you think you could give us a hint as to how to make such a Hazel rule?


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  9. ybin says:

    Hi I have a question. You mentioned in another post that you take notes using nvALT. If I understand it correctly, this software stores all your notes in one location. So, I was wondering, if you have to take notes for your project needs (you say that all your project files are organized in the same folder), what do you do?

    I have just recently begun to look into the notion of GTD, and I find this blog quite helpful


  10. Marja Erwin says:

    “On the other hand, tagging is normally faster than filing in folders.”

    How? Tagging requires typing, editing, pain, and mored pain. Filing requires a lot less pain.


    • Tim says:

      Tags are remembered in most apps. When you start typing a tag is autocompletes. There is no editing, pain and more pain. Type once and done. Filing in folders requires naming the file and either saving into a folder or finding the file in the OS then dragging and dropping into the folder (which you also have to find and open the window for). Ultimately, it’s what you prefer, but tags are indeed faster.


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