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Your computer/smartphone/tablet/etc. imposes some basic order on the information you’re managing: it groups stuff by type — email goes with email, calendar entries with calendar entries, documents with documents, and so on. This simple organization scheme would be enough if you dealt with little information, but it won’t cut it with the amount of stuff you’re likely managing.

So, you organize your stuff into folders or categories, depending on the app or type of information you’re managing. This requires that you decide how to group things. For example, you might group emails and documents by project, but you might categorize appointments and contacts based on different areas of your life. (E.g., work vs. personal.)

Any one of these lists of categories is a taxonomy: a set of terms for organizing things and the rules that specify which kinds of items should go under which term. A list of music genres is a taxonomy, as is your list of projects. Some taxonomies are hierarchical — i.e., they look like trees, with top-level categories and sub-categories beneath them. Others are matrices with multiple dimensions. Others — perhaps the majority — are simple flat lists.

You’ve likely developed one or more such taxonomies while managing your stuff. They may be irregular — i.e., you may have project folders living side-by-side with folders for pictures or gardening materials. But that’s okay; there’s no one “correct” taxonomy. The best is whichever makes managing your stuff easiest.

However, you’re probably organizing stuff based on more than one taxonomy. For example, you may have one organization scheme for files (by project) and another for pending tasks (by location.) And to make matters worse, each taxonomy has developed ad hoc.

Using separate taxonomies might make it easy to work with different information types, but it entails costs in the long run. For one thing, managing several taxonomies takes more effort than managing just one or a few. For another, separate taxonomies make connecting different types of things harder.

Consider a typical scenario: you’re working on a project and want to see all pending tasks that pertain only to that project. This is easier to do if you’ve organized tasks using a project-based taxonomy than one based on location. Ideally, you want some degree of integration between tools. (In this case, your file manager and to-do tracker.)

In his book Keeping Found Things Found, William Jones presents the concept of a personal unifying taxonomy, or PUT: a general scheme that “aims to classify and organize a person’s information regardless of form.” The idea is to decide how you will organize your stuff and then apply that classification scheme consistently in different systems or apps.

I can attest to this approach’s usefulness. I group most of my digital information using two PUTs. The first was inspired by Tiago Forte’s PARA method: top-level containers for projects, areas of focus, and reference materials, and consistently-named folders or categories under each of them. This is how I organize my document folders, tasks in OmniFocus, time-tracking entries, and my knowledge repository in DEVONthink. My second PUT is a list of tags that I use to describe items in the system.

The approach isn’t perfect. It entails overhead since changing a folder or tag name in one app won’t change it in others. It also takes discipline to keep names consistent and store and tag items according to the (unwritten) rules of the PUT.

But one develops habits around this stuff. And when it’s working, it has great advantages: information becomes much easier to find. And organizing it becomes more straightforward since you don’t have to think so much about where things should go or how to tag them.

My PUTs are works in progress. They’ll continue evolving as long as I manage information — i.e., for the rest of my life. I hope tools for managing these personal taxonomies improve as more of us deal with more information. But lacking such tools, developing a few habits — and the presence of mind to keep things organized — can go a long way.


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