Raiders of the Lost
The storage and retrieval
Many of our customers contact us
because they have trouble organizing their files. This is especially a problem
for people whose pursuits involve research, especially speakers, writers, and
teachers. The source of the problem is often a confusion about the purpose of
The alphabet is a wonderful way to
sort similar items such as names in a phone book or towns in a county. There's
a unique place for everything, so neither storage nor retrieval present any
real difficulty. Any problem would seem to come from just finding the place to
put your filing cabinets and the time to put the files away.
Of course, time and space are
needed for any working filing system, but for most purposes that isn't enough.
Usually, some way to organize materials other than the alphabet is needed.
Suppose, for instance, you are a
travel agent organizing adventure tours. You can file your materials by
destination, but some materials list more than one destination, and some list
none at all. Some materials will be about, say, camping equipment. Should you
file this between "California" and "Canada"? Now here's
something about tents. Does that go under "t"? Or is it under
"e" for equipment? Or wasn't there something about tents somewhere
around the "Canada" folder? Or was that the "Alberta"
Filing materials alphabetically by
topic leads to redundant and overlapping categories. The bigger your set of
materials, the worse this problem gets. The more categories you have, the
harder they are to remember, and the more difficult your filing job
Academics sometimes address the
problem by filing papers alphabetically by author, but this only solves half
the problem. It's easy enough to store a signed document by author, but that's
not how you are likely to remember it. A storage method without a retrieval
method doesn't solve the problem!
The solution to the storage and
The solution begins by recognizing
that people can have much stronger mental models of systems that have fewer
parts. A rule of thumb known to both psychologists and computer programmers is
to divide your system into nine or fewer parts. The travel agent, for instance,
could have a section for destinations, another for transportation, and another
for excursions. Each of these sections may be easier to subdivide. For example,
if there are files for many destinations, these could be broken down by state
or by country. Again, until things are similar enough to alphabetize, the
important idea is to have a small enough set of subcategories that they can be
mentally grasped all at once. This is usually between 5 and 9 subcategories.
This approach removes much of the
ambiguity by grouping like with like. If it is very clear which major section
to put an object in, and the major category has a small enough set of
subcategories, it will be equally clear which subcategory to use. Perhaps even
a third level is necessary. (Beyond that, you need to consider hiring a
Once in a while, you'll come across
an item that could be in two major categories. To continue with the example, an
article about the airlines of Australia could go under transportation or under
destinations. The solution is simple enough. Either make a copy of the item (if
it's small), or just create a cross-reference page and file it in the alternate
The same basic idea applies to
files on computers. Use directories or folders to sort your information. Try to
keep the number of categories, and the number of items in each category,
manageable. Subdivide a grouping before it gets too big to understand. On a
computer you can use links ("shortcuts" in Microsoft jargon) to make
multiple copies without wasting disk space. (This is particularly important in
the larger files that include graphics.)
To the extent that it's feasible,
keep similar structures in your paper file cabinets as on your disk drive. If
you use email extensively, notice that almost every email program has a similar
categorization and subcategorization method, usually called
"mailboxes". This tool is there for a reason. Sort your email into
manageable categories as well. It's useful to match your paper and computer
file structures as much as possible.
The project problem
Often, the best designed reference
filing system falls apart under regular use, and the bad old piles somehow
re-emerge. The main reason for this, of course, is a failure to keep up with
the filing task. We've noticed some typical ways that this happens.
A project will require removing
lots of files, finding appropriate materials, and delivering a speech, a
lecture, and article, a report, even a course or a book. The first pitfall is
that once the deliverable is delivered, the tendency to exhausted relaxation
often wins out over the need to refile materials. This is fine, as long as you
remember to put things away as soon as you do go back to work.
But beware! If you procrastinate
until the last minute on your next project, you won't have time to put things
away from the last one. Make it a policy not to work on anything while
materials from a completed project are out. Much as in a well-run kitchen, it
makes sense to clean up any previous projects before beginning any new ones!
It's harder if you have many
projects going at once, of course. If this is how you work, have special file
sections for active projects. Many "out" people like to use desktop
hanging file boxes for this. They are available in several styles and colors,
so that different projects can have different visual cues. Resist the
temptation to have more than one project spread out on your desk at a time.
Learn techniques for bookmarking and storing projects so that you can proceed
with minimal overhead. In the long run this will pay off much better than
having materials from different projects get mixed up.
Finally, though, there's the
problem that once you complete a project, you will want to file the materials
for that project together together as a record of the completed project. This
makes sense, because returning the materials to where they came from abandons
all the work from the previous project.
There's a trap here, though,
because often your projects will overlap - you speak or write on related
topics. Naturally, you will look for materials in your project folders first
rather than in your carefully developed topic/subtopic filing system. Then you
will raid your old projects for materials, to create new projects, and this
process is repeated indefinitely, until the time comes when you know you have a
particular document but you realize that you have no idea where it can be
found! We sometimes call this problem "raiders of the lost project".
This easy-to-fall-into mistake has foiled many a well-intentioned filing
The solution to the project
The solution is remarkably
straightforward! When you complete a project, copy all the materials you used.
Return one copy to your reference files, and leave another in your project
record! That way you will be able to find materials by topic, and still find
past projects intact. A little extra work when you close out a project will go
a long way toward making future projects easier.
We can help you think
about your filing system. Get in touch with Ducks-in-a-Row Efficiency
Consultants and we will be pleased help you get
your ducks in a row.