January 18, 2010

My PIM (Part II)

I recently posted my approach to managing notes and various bits of my personal information (i.e., Personal Information Management). I had some requests to go a bit deeper, so here's a bit more.

Email The biggest trick about managing personal information is to spend more time on frequent tasks, and less time on infrequent tasks (actually, this is a design guideline for all UI). So, what do I do a lot with email? I read incoming stuff and answer it. What do I do infrequently? I search for old email. Simple, but true analysis. So, rule #1: don't spend time filing email. Yes, it must be findable somehow, but it doesn't have to be easy to find. It has to be fast to get rid of so you can go on to the next thing. GMail figured this out with fast searching and making archiving everything the default. But I find that most Outlook users don't do this - they often still laboriously file individual emails into specific folders just in case they want to find it later. What a waste of time! Outlook has fast searching too. So, here's the trick:

Turn off auto-archiving, and then just press the delete key. I store everything in the Deleted Items folders. Then, once a year, I dump it all into a .pst (archive) file. That's it. Sure, towards the end of the year, my Deleted Items folder might have 20,000 messages in it, but who cares. I can search in a second or three, and that's good enough. I've been doing this for 10 years, and have 10 .pst files. But guess what, I almost never open up any but the previous year. And when I do, they are around and easy to open and search (as long as I continue to use Outlook, but that's another story).

Ok, dumping email into a folder is simple, but that isn't good enough for files - which I actually do manually organize with some attention. Effective hierarchy structures are difficult because research has shown that people don't remember them perfectly. The issue is that the context for storage is often different than the context for retrieval. Thus, there is pretty much guaranteed no perfect solution, but you've got to do something. So, pick something semantically meaningful - and make sure it isn't too big, or you lose stuff. This latter point is key, so let's start there.

At each level of my file hierarchy, I only keep relatively active stuff. Then, when a folder starts getting old, I create a sub folder called "zzz Old Stuff" (so it gets sorted at the bottom), and just move things I haven't used recently in there. This way, I never have to throw things out (just in case...), everything stays in it's semantically coherent place, and I only have active things visible at any given time. This, by the way, was my practical solution to an idea I worked on some years ago with Bongshin Lee (called Favorite Folders) - but that never went any where as a practical UI.

I don't think the actual folder structure I use is likely to be that helpful to others. It is highly idiosyncratic based on my own evaluation of frequency and importance. That being said, here are a few key elements.
  • Ben - personal stuff, distinguished from work
  • one directory per major project or collaborator. For some big ones, this becomes the root of a multi-level hierarchy
  • Dissertations
  • Papers (brings together final copies of everything I published)
  • Other's Papers (becoming less important with digital libraries, but where I store important papers from other people)
  • Proposals (separate from the actual work because proposal writing is a different ask, and I regularly need to refer to other proposals when working here)
  • Talks (slides, etc. for talks. Again, different than the actual work on a project for the same reason as Proposals)
  • Conferences (related to service, organizing, etc.)
  • Reviews (where I store reviews of other's papers, etc., so I have an easy place to go back when a revision comes in, etc.)
Managing pictures used to be a nightmare, but as with the lessons above, there are two key things I've learned. They must be fast to store because otherwise I won't do it. Storage must be in a future-proof manner as operating systems and photo management tools just don't stand the test of time. But folder names, hierarchies, and JPEGs do. So here's my simple solution.

Create one folder per year, and inside each of those, create one folder per month labeled so they get alphabetically sorted (i.e., "01 - January", "02 - February", etc.) Then drop all pictures by the month they were taken into the right folder (which you can easily do in bulk every month or three). If there is an event with a larger number of pictures that feels like it is worth organizing, then create a subfolder for that event, and give it a meaningful name.

Finally, whatever software I am using to look at the photos, I never, ever, ever, use that software's proprietary mechanism to store metadata in the photos. Else, it is pretty much guaranteed to not stand the test of time. Instead, I just put everything in the filename of the photo. So, for the past few years, I've been using Picasa. Rather than storing comments or using tags, I just rename the file (one key). Then, any future search system (including Picasa's) work's great. This doubles as a mechanism for letting me access my photos across all of my computers (synced by Live Sync) without loss of information.

This is why I will never, ever use Apple's iPhoto. It is lock-in of the worst kind. It sucks all of your photos in, ignores the originals, and puts all info in a proprietary database that cant' be shared across folders. Completely worthless to me, no matter how nice the interface is.

Meeting Notes, etc.:
This is the toughest category. I've gone through many iterations from my own NoteLens and other flat systems (such as the Notational Velocity I am now using). But I've found that flat organizational systems just don't scale up for me. And I'm not willing to use my regular file system as it is just too much overhead to find the right place, launch the right app, etc. There are many other tools that people use, but for the past year, I have just been using Microsoft OneNote. I hate it's proprietary file format, but the files do sync across computers fine so I can edit on any of my computers. And the UI can't be beat. It offers a beautiful combination of simple text along with figures, notes, imported docs, and fast global search. Plus, it has a nice two-level hierarchy baked into the UI (see below). I'd be much happier if the data was text-backed and there were other UIs (especially on the Mac!) available to access it, but it works well for me know.



William said...

"Project" is liberally defined and the "endeavor" might be more apt. Vacations, family gatherings, efforts to learn something new, etc. are each treated as a "project". So I have one "projects" folder with 10 to 20 active projects underneath in separate sub-folders and then a growing list of archived project folders under a "zz archive" sub-folder. Photos are stored within their project folder.

William said...

meant to say more...
the use of "zz old suff" is similar in intent and form to my convention to use "zz archive". Inactive information can be moved out of the way while staying close to its original context.

Different in my approach (see keepingfoundthingsfound.com, blog post on my-practice-of-personal-information-management-part-i) is a focus on "projects" folders. Each project folder is named in two parts: First a date in international format of some meaning to the project (e.g., due date, date of occurrence, date of completion), and then a word or phrase as a name for the project.

"Project" is liberally defined and the "endeavor" might be more apt. Vacations, family gatherings, efforts to learn something new, etc. are each treated as a "project". So I have one "projects" folder with 10 to 20 active projects underneath in separate sub-folders and then a growing list of archived project folders under a "zz archive" sub-folder. Photos are stored within their project folder.