Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Bare Minimum Organization Technique

(cc) John Pannell
How I came to write on anything about organization is a mystery to me and anybody who knows me.  I can see the eyes roll when I mention I'm writing a book about an awesome organization tool.  I'm not at all qualified in this area of expertise, but I have come up with some techniques that I think work, and that I've stuck to for a while.

If you've read Getting Things Done (GTD) or follow productivity blogs like LifeHacker, you're probably already aware of various systems for bringing order to the chaos of daily life.  However, in general, they all require effort and discipline, which can be hard to muster.  I've taken some of these concepts, thrown out a bunch, and come up with something that has worked fairly well for a couple years now.

Two Folders to Rule Them All...

My goal is to have a clean inbox, clear picture of what all is on my plate, and an easy way to go back and find stuff when I need it.  Here's how I do that in Outlook.  I have two folders:  Inbox and "Reference". That's it.  Things are always in one of those two buckets.  Inbox is active important stuff, and only the latest.  I flag things that need my involvement and move the rest to  Reference.  For example, if I get ten emails related to a project, I flag the most recent and move the rest to Reference after I read them.  

I do similar in Evernote, though I probably could just leave everything in the inbox, since I don't use it as my primary productivity tool.  It's my "second brain" (no comment on what happened to the first one).  I dump everything from work notes to paint colors to recipes in it, and can generally get it back out when I need.

Trello I use for tracking high-level status, or for things that don't progress through email, such as personal or work projects.  There it makes sense to be a little more organized with various boards and lists, but I do still find myself regularly culling unnecessary lists and boards to try to get at the "least possible thing that works".

...And in the Search Box Bind Them

What has really helped me, and what I think some productivity articles don't mention enough, is the realization that good search covers a multitude of sins.  Here's what I mean: tools like Outlook, GMail, Evernote, and Trello have great search engines.  I don't need to worry about folders and filing or even tagging, because with a few keywords I can generally get what I'm looking for.  Spending time organizing them into subfolders and meticulously tagging them just doesn't carry as much value as it would if search was not available.

If I need to touch up a wall, I can go to Evernote and search for "paint colors" and get the paint colors in my house because I have a note titled "Paint Colors".  If I don't remember what I did to fix a bug at work, I can search in my Outlook "References" folder for the person I sent an email to and one or two words I know will be in the email.  Occasionally I will tag something or include a few words if I know they will be useful for finding things later.  For example, I do tag most tax-related stuff in Evernote, so that it's easier to find it all when I sit down to do my taxes.

Learning search tricks specific to the application helps here. In Outlook or Gmail, you can search things like "" to find mail from a particular company.  In Evernote, one of my favorite features is "Places".  Here I can see notes relevant to a particular place.  For example, the code to my storage unit pops up right when I'm at my storage.

Not Just For Personal Use

As an aside, a similar concept applies to systems at work.  I actually started thinking this way thanks to some document management work I did for a customer in SharePoint.  The temptation with these systems is to tag and categorize and organize things out the wazoo.  But the reality is SharePoint has fairly decent search built in.  So the rule of thumb there:  set metadata if you must, but only do the minimum you need to be able to find things later.

For smaller companies, it really may work to just have an Inbox or "Current Projects" folder and a "Reference" folder.  This is how the company I work for handles things in Evernote.  For larger organizations, it may make sense to break things out further.  A common practice in SharePoint is to have "internal collaboration" for divisions or teams, and "public sites" for sharing final content with the rest of the organization.

So to recap:  The Bare Minimum Organization Technique is two boxes: Inbox and Reference, and a great way to search them.

No comments: