It’s no use filing information any more
and expecting to remember
where you filed it
I don’t know about you but I really feel the effects of information overload at times. Much of it is self-inflicted – I’m co-owner of various programs and a member of hundreds. I have ideas, I see sites I like and want to review later, I have swipe files (a swipe file is like a scrapbook of adverts and sales copy and more that is the inspiration for ideas for my own creations), software documentation, photos, purchased resources like graphics, audio files, web templates…and that’s just a quick scratch of the top of my head!
I’m also a self-confessed ‘systems’ person – my historical ‘lack of organisation’ and sheer frustration about not being able to find things over the years has let to me imposing system after system on myself in a (mostly) futile attempt to get better at handling tons of information.
Managing your time and managing your information are probably the two biggest skills you need to master if you want to pursue an online career and make a success of it. And of those two, managing your information will definitely help your time management (I know you can’t manage time blah blah but you know what I mean)
Every other skill you need can be googled, outsourced, borrowed, plagiarized (half joking) – as a software developer (and one that doesn’t get up every day younger than the day before) that needs to work regularly in various major programming languages, various programming environments and multiple projects, the speed with which I can either recall or find information I need is absolutely key to my productivity – I can’t stress that enough.
For example, sometimes I need to create some code and know I’ve done something similar somewhere before – but where – I have literally millions of lines of code to search. Can I remember which project it was? Sometimes. Which file it was in? Rarely – that requires a search – assuming I can think of something specific enough to search for.
Filing vs Searching
Say your field involves thousands of recipes. You want to recall a recipe for a cake you remember that had ginger in it. Chances are, your recipes are filed under categories that include cakes. Yes, you might have other recipes that involve ginger but you’re not looking for a Chinese stir-fry recipe here – you know you’re looking for a cake. But suppose you need to write an article about a particular spice and all the various recipes it’s used in. Now your filing system isn’t much help to you because you didn’t file your recipes under the spice they contained (even assuming they only contained one). And how would you file a recipe based on two major spices or ingredients anyway?
This is the dilemma with the filing method of information retrieval. Each item you file gets stored in one place and your ability to retrieve it depends on your ability to remember where it would be filed. You could have folders for cakes and for spices and store a recipe under both but then you might need to make multiple copies to store under all the categories you might want to search for in the future – country of origin, main ingredients, contains nuts, vegetarian or not, original creator…I’m not much of a cook but I hope the analogy works for you.
If you adopt a ‘search rather than file’ paradigm (and this only works when items are stored electronically), you wouldn’t worry about trying to remember where you stored your recipes, you would just search for terms you know appear in the recipe and narrow that search down until you find what you’re looking for.
So if you need a recipe for a main course that contains ginger, you search for ginger. If the number of results is too high to search, you narrow it down to vegetarian only or to recipes that also contain noodles.
The key to the search paradigm working effectively is search terms. Anyone that’s proficient in using search engines becomes subconsciously skilled at knowing what makes good search terms and what doesn’t. Some search terms are too vague and return way too many results for you to find the specific thing you’re looking for. Some are too specific and return too few results that the one you want isn’t even amongst them. But I search by starting broad and then adding more search terms to make the search more relevant (I also use negative terms a lot but that’s even more powerful and not relevant to this article).
But you might first search online for a recipe by typing ginger. Then you realise you’re seeing results for cats, hair and recipes so you add curry to your search – that should get rid of the felines and people. And so on, narrowing down your search until the number of results is manageable to search through manually.
Sometimes, searching with a search engine is good enough but would an online recipe necessarily contain the words ‘main course’? I imagine a desert recipe often contains the word desert but it could call itself a pudding.
Enter the wonderful world of tags
Tags are beautiful and wonderful – and immensely powerful.
You’re probably familiar with tags but in case you’re not, tags are keywords that you can identify about an item. So sticking with the recipe analogy (and assume we’re going to scan and file recipes electronically), you would add tags to each recipe before you store it. Now here’s the thing: you can add as many tags as makes sense. No need to decide between filing under ginger or main course or from Latvia or curry – you just add all those tags at the time you file it. And provide you have the means to add and search by tags, your information retrieval problem is well and truly licked.
Let’s change the object of searching to emails for a moment. Not that many years ago, I used a program called Outlook to receive and store emails. Running an online business, for legal reasons I have to keep many emails but storage is cheap so even then I rarely deleted an email, it just got archived. Some emails had no immediate relevance but there’s a good chance I’d want to be able to find them some time in the future.
I agonised over how to file emails. Do you file by sender or by topic? Or by the type of email? Do I file by project or topic? More often than not, when I needed to find an email, I’d resort to the search feature to find it.
Let go of worrying about how to file and trust instead in the ability to search for what you want. If you have programs that allow you to search within documents then you may not need tags. If you use gmail or almost any email client, you can probably search in all kind of ways and find what you’re looking for easily – making it irrelevant how you filed (although sensible filing and only searching in certain folders may help).
Under your operating system, you can search for documents that contain certain words. If you use that, who cares where you decided to file it!
Contacts is another one where there’s a potential filing dilemma (assuming you have more contacts than you can easily recall why you have them just from the name) – do you file under personal/business? The company they work for? The job they do?
Replace your notebook!
If we’re talking about emails, word processor documents, spreadsheets – files that contain machine readable text, there’s generally not too much problem. Those are very specific kinds of documents with specific programs for handling them.
I still have a notebook on my desk at all times – I use it to augment my short term memory. Sometimes I find it easier to think if I write something. But I long stopped expecting to be able to find something I needed in my notebooks. I started creating important notes on the computer.
When I first started, they were usually word processor documents or spreadsheets but then I discovered what I briefly thought was a panacea – Microsoft OneNote – wow, what a program! Until I started tying myself in knots because the paradigm of OneNote is that you hierarchically file your notes! So I’ve just written a great piece of code that I will probably want to refer to again in future. Do I file it under the project I was working on? The problem it solves? The client? The language? The answer for me is what is the single piece of information I’m most likely to recall in the future – and unfortunately I often remember I wrote a piece of code to do something but not always what project it was for – and by project is the usually the way it makes sense to file.
So I realised, I wasted all this time creating category hierarchies but was rarely able to find things by drilling down through categories because of the many ways I might have decided to file at the time.
They say elephants never forget.
With Evernote, you won’t either.
These days I use a wonderful, wonderful program called Evernote. When I first started using it, I still believed that my main problem was deciding how to categorise information – so I naturally thought in terms of hierarchies – creating nested ‘folders’ to store my notes in. Don’t make that mistake – it’s pointless. There’s no harm in having some – like personal/business or for major projects – but you won’t be finding things by looking through ‘folders’, you’ll be a master at using tags!
When I want to file a snippet of code, I can copy and paste the code into Evernote or just create a note that refers to the relevant code. But the key thing that makes the system so wonderful is that I don’t need to agonise over where to file the note – I just add any tag I can think of that’s relevant to the note I’m storing. The project name, the year, the language, the client, the problem it solves (or at least the major type of problem such as ‘validating email addresses’).
I didn’t discuss it here as this post was long enough but my other criteria for productivity tools these days is that they should be able to store my information ‘in the cloud’ so I can access it from anywhere. Evernote meets that criteria so I can add or retrieve notes from my mobile devices too.
They say in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Mastering being able to find any information you want, when you need it will make you a ruler in your field. Tags are the key!