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Are you dealing with too much information? All those work documents, emails, half-baked projects, etc., add up. And much of it comes together on your computer, tablet, and phone. It can be overwhelming. How can you organize your digital stuff so you can find it when you need it?
In researching Duly Noted, I’ve learned there are three basic strategies you can use: piling, filing, and tagging. Let’s unpack them to see where you can best use them to your advantage.
Piling is just as it sounds: lumping stuff in a pile. Before computers, we did this on our (physical) desktops. For example, a bill arrives, and you place it on the “incoming” pile. Once in a while, you go through these items and process them.
You may have several piles on your desk, but not too many. Piles don’t scale: you won’t be able to keep track of stuff if you have too many. Also, (physical) piles tend to be organized chronologically, with the newest stuff on top. This makes finding older things hard.
While piles are obviously useful “in real life,” many of us also use our computer’s desktop for piling — or at least for keeping stuff in clusters that serve a similar function: as temporary spatially-related groups that locate stuff where you’ll see it.
Filing involves storing stuff in formal containers. By “formal,” I mean groupings organized in categories you’ve defined beforehand. Think of labeled folders in a cabinet: you may have one for your auto insurance, another for your taxes, etc.
Of course, the digital analogs of these folders are the folders and directories in your computer. This is no accident: early computer designers intentionally chose the file/folder metaphor because it mapped to our real-world experience managing information.
As opposed to piles, files tend to be more systematic. Items in files are semantically related — i.e.; they cover the same subject. Most of us have fewer piles than files, but piles usually group more items than the typical file.
Another key distinction is that most piles consist of actionable items. That is, piles aren’t meant as temporary storage. The stack of bills on your desk is there to remind you to pay them, not because you want to keep them there forever.
Files, on the other hand, are good for long-term storage. The idea behind categorized folders is that you can find your stuff later, sometimes years in the future. This entails, of course, defining a set of categories that will make sense to “future you.”
This can be challenging. It’s hard to develop a definitive list of categories that’ll make sense to you in the future, when you’ll have different needs and interests. This suggests the categorization scheme must evolve, which takes work. (Who wants to re-file stuff?)
In short, files take more effort than piles, since you must think more about where to store things. But files are better for longer-term storage than piles, which are better for tracking stuff that needs near-term action.
Ok, let’s talk about tagging. By “tagging,” I mean various metadata — i.e., information that you add to your items to describe them. I use the term tag because that’s how many of us often experience and interact with this organizational approach.
Tagging is primarily a digital strategy. While real-world metadata organization has been around for a long time (think library card catalogs), maintaining such parallel data structures requires too much work to be practical for everyday use.
Computers change that: tagging digital stuff is easy. And some digital metadata, such as document creation and modification dates, are handled automatically for you. File managers such as Windows’s File Explorer and the macOS Finder let you use this metadata to find what you need.
One advantage tags have over files is that filing is hierarchical: each item lives inside one folder. (There are exceptions, but hierarchy is the norm.) Conversely, you can assign multiple tags to a document to create “matrixed” groupings — e.g., seeing things by both project and type.
To summarize: files are for storage, piles are for processing, and tags let you connect items in different locations. While piles and files are mutually exclusive (often, you pile things while working with them and file them when you’re done,) tagging can apply to either.
Knowing when to use each strategy will help you be more effective when getting things done and when looking for things later. If you want more details about these approaches, I recommend Bergman and Whitaker’s The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff1, which summarizes research in this area.
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