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How to use tags and labels to organize your files

A file tagging system will help you organize and find files faster.

By Melissa King · June 5, 2023
Hero image with the tagging system on a Mac

If your files look anything like mine, they're a maze of folders wrangling the hundreds (thousands?) of documents you keep on hand. Folders help us make sense of our files, but they can be a one-dimensional system.

Tags add another dimension to your file system to help you make sense of the chaos. Here's how to tag your files to find and sort them more easily.

  1. Choose a home base for your files

  2. Brainstorm your tags and clean them up

  3. Create a tag (and folder) hierarchy

  4. Build automation into your folders and files

  5. Create your tags and go through a test run

  6. Revisit your tags and adjust

Tags vs. folders: What's the difference?

Tags and folders are tools you can use to organize your files in different ways. Here's how each one works:

  • Folders: Folders sort files into groups. You can set up a hierarchy of folders by putting folders into other folders, but you usually wouldn't put one file into multiple folders.

  • Tags: Tags work like keywords you assign to files. You can add as many tags as you like to a file, but in most systems, you can't put a tag within a tag like you can with a folder. 

Tags tend to be popular in note-taking systems, but less so in file management systems. My suggestion? Use tags and folders together to suit your organizational needs.

Note: As AI gets better at organizing data, we might start counting on tags and folders less and let AI do the work. Apps like Mem are already automatically sorting notes, so the same could happen with our files, too. But AI works best with a well-informed human at the helm, so understanding how to organize your files manually will serve you well no matter how things turn out.

How to create a file tagging system for your documents

It takes a little forethought and organization to tag your files effectively. Here's my recommendation for how to make it work.

1. Choose a home base for your files

Decide which app you'll use to keep and tag your files. Many storage platforms are free or have free options, so don't be afraid to try more than one, and push all the buttons. Here are some popular storage options with tagging features.

Windows File Explorer

Adding tags to photos on Windows

Both Windows 10 and 11 have tagging features built into their File Explorers, although you have to dig a little to find them. It's the same process for both versions:

  1. Right-click on the file you want to tag, and select Properties.

  2. Go to the Details tab.

  3. Click the Tags option, and enter the tags you want to add, separated by semicolons.

You can then search for a certain tag by entering "tag:" plus the tag you want to search for in File Explorer's search box.


Adding tags to photos in OneDrive

If you use OneDrive to manage your files, you can only add tags to photos. Here's how:

  1. Hover your mouse over the image you want to tag.

  2. Click the i icon.

  3. Select Add tag in the sidebar that pops up on the right side of your screen.

After you tag your OneDrive files, you can search for specific tags in the search bar at the top of your screen.


Tagging files on a Mac

Mac is more tag-friendly than Windows (+1 to them in the rivalry, I guess). There are three ways to tag files in MacOS:

  • Tag a file in your Finder or desktop by right-clicking the file and selecting Tags from the menu.

  • Tag an open file when you save it by clicking the down arrow that appears when you hover over the right side of the file name and editing the Tags field.

  • Tag a file as you save it by clicking the Tags field in the Save dialog box.

You'll see your available tags in the Finder sidebar. Choose which ones appear there by going to Finder > Preferences > Tags.


Tagging images in Dropbox

When you use Dropbox, tagging happens right in your file lists:

  1. Click the checkbox next to the file or folder you want to add a tag to.

  2. Enter the tag you want to add in the # Add a tag field in the right side panel, right under the file icon.

From there, you can search for a specific tag using the format #tag_name, and Dropbox will suggest tags as you type in the search bar.

Google Drive

Tagging photos in Google Drive

Google Drive's tag situation is… interesting, but tags are indeed there. Google is rolling out a labels feature for paid plans that administrators can use on an organizational level. But only certain people can use it, and one file can only have up to five labels.

You can get around these hurdles with what I call "the people's tagging method," which any user can do. Hat tip to CharliAI for coming up with this idea. Here's how you do it:

  1. Click the i symbol in the upper-right corner of your Google Drive interface. This will bring up the information panel on the right side of your screen.

  2. Choose the file you want to tag and scroll down to the Description section in the information panel.

  3. Enter your tags beginning with a # symbol and separated by commas.

You can then find a tag by searching for it with its # symbol in your search box. It's not perfect—I found that I had to press enter to go through the full list of results to find my file. But it's better than nothing if you're a die-hard Google Drive user.

TagSpaces (Web, Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android)

Tagging files in TagSpaces

TagSpaces offers cross-platform, tag-focused file management. TagSpaces Lite, the free version, includes all of the app's fundamental tagging features. Or you can play around with unique file organization views like Kanban boards and geotagging maps with TagSpacesPro, the paid version.

Plus, if you prefer to store your files 100% locally like me, the desktop versions keep everything on your drive, not in the cloud.

Tabbles (Windows)

Tagging files in Tabbles

Tabbles is completely free and uses tag bubbles (tabbles) to organize files. Drag and drop your files to the tabbles you choose to quickly tag them in batches. This app is free for up to 5,000 files and has pretty affordable plans for higher file limits.

Like TagSpaces, Tabbles has a local option, or you can manage files from cloud apps like Google Drive.

Your favorite cloud storage app

If none of the above options vibe with you, you can also research more options in Zapier's roundup of the best cloud storage apps.

2. Brainstorm your tags and clean them up

With your files' home settled, let's move on to tags.

We're going to start big and narrow down from there. Grab a notepad or open a blank document, and write as many ideas for tags as you can based on categories like:

  • Document purpose (Examples: Blog post, reference doc, contract, ledger)

  • Phase of work/client relationship (Examples: Onboarding, proposal, performance evaluation) 

  • File status (Examples: To-do, doing, done)

  • Department or client (Examples: Finance department, My Client Inc.)

  • Personal vs. work (Examples: Personal picture, work document)

  • Project or campaign (Examples: Spring 2023 Social Media Campaign, Summer 2023 PR Push)

  • Genre (Examples: Vacation photos, pet photos, insurance photos)

  • Event (Examples: Winter 2024 Fundraising Gala, Aunt Shelly's birthday party)

What thoughts go through your head when you look for files? Do you need to find them based on certain purposes over others? Write those concepts down.

Then, clean up your list. Look for tags that overlap and combine them where needed. Make your tags consistent by answering questions like:

  • Will you stick to singular or plural words (e.g., "template" vs. "templates")?

  • Do you want to use only nouns, adjectives, or verbs, or will you combine them?

  • How will you capitalize your tags?

  • Will you use symbols and characters?

3. Create a tag (and folder) hierarchy

Combining folders and tags in your file organization system often works better than counting on one or the other. Tags help you organize on the micro level, while folders excel at the macro level.

While you could rely on tags only, things will get unwieldy fast if you can't remember a tag or file name off the top of your head. And you can get lost in folders if you make one based on every single trait. Using the two together lets you play off the strengths of both tools while minimizing their weaknesses.

We'll combine folders and tags by using folders as high-level categories and tags as lower-level categories. Look at your list of tags and find groups to sort them into, then create folders based on them.

But don't finalize your tag and folder hierarchy just yet—we'll need to consider how automation will come into play.

4. Build automation into your folders and files

Some of your tags may be time- or action-based, making them more suitable to automate into folders instead of tags. Automation works well for adding new files to folders or moving them between folders, so take advantage of that fact by integrating it into your file management workflow.

For example, you could move a one-time client's onboarding documents into your ongoing client folder if they decide to keep working with you. Let's say you make a new entry for them in your Notion database for your ongoing clients. You can use this Zapier automation (Zap) to move their onboarding file.

Organize new Notion database items by moving files in Google Drive

Organize new Notion database items by moving files in Google Drive
  • Notion logo
  • Google Drive logo
Notion + Google Drive

(Zapier tip: Click Add search step next to the file or folder name in your action to make your automation search for a file that matches your new database entry.)

Whatever combo works best for your situation, keep an eye out for the Move File action for your file management app. Check out all the file management apps that Zapier works with.

If you use an app that manages files in another app that works with Zapier, you can combine them. For example, even though there's no Zapier integration for Tabbles, you could connect Google Drive. Then, you could set up Zaps in Google Drive and manage those Google Drive files with Tabbles.

Zapier is a no-code automation tool that lets you connect your apps into automated workflows, so that every person and every business can move forward at growth speed. Learn more about how it works.

5. Create your tags and go through a test run

Once you have your files, folders, and automations planned out, set them up and test how they work for a month. It'll be easier to try out your tags if you can reference them, so clean up your tag finalists into a list grouped by category and folder. Write down any issues you come across or things you could do better for you to review at the end of the month.

6. Revisit your tags and adjust for success

After your month-long trial, look at your tag list and the notes you made. Use that information to remove tags you don't use, add tags you need, and change other tags to fit your workflow better.

This is also a great time to look for any more opportunities to automate your file management system. Consider which folders and tags you use the most, and find ways to keep them running smoothly.

More ways to organize your work with technology

Tags and folders aren't the only way to organize your day-to-day work. Try automating other aspects of your work life. Identify your favorite apps, and look through the Zapier app directory to see how they can work together.

Related reading:

  • 14 advanced Dropbox features that you should start using

  • How to free up space in your Google account

  • Find files faster: How to organize files and folders

  • How to compare two documents in Word or Google Docs

  • The best document management systems

This article was originally published in June 2019 by Aja Frost. The most recent update was June 2023.

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