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Raiders of the Lost Project

The storage and retrieval problem

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.

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" folder?

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 becomes.

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 retrieval problem

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 librarian!)

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 location.

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 system!

The solution to the project problem

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.

We can help you think about your filing system. Get in touch with Ducks-in-a-Row ® Efficiency Consultants (TM) and we will be pleased help you get your ducks in a row.

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