A friend of mine who knows I am pretty
OCD organized asked me if I have a system for centralizing the content I consume. He was mostly focused on blogs and videos but it prompted me to think about how I conceptualize my entire information stack. If you are an infovore you hopefully have a system that outperforms a bouquet of 50 open browser tabs and colored Post-It notes taped to your monitor. But what does it even mean to say your system “outperforms”?
It depends on your objectives. Let’s start there.
Objectives of a personal info management system
I’ve been thinking about how I organize info since my days of using an iGoogle homepage. I used to take notes in Gmail and used Google Keep to hold to-do lists. Since then my system has evolved to serve 3 key needs.
1. Automatically filter sources
A connected world with essentially zero marginal transmission costs means information is free. Like a fat dividend from electricity. The tax on this dividend is of course FOMO. It’s a battle for your attention and the beeps and notifications on your phone are its weapons. Your defense is curation. Who to follow on social media, what blog feeds to subscribe to, Spotify and Netflix profiles that invite desired recs.
2. File selected content for future reference
Your Chrome bookmarks are probably a dumpster fire. Go ahead, take a few hours — organize and prune it, agonize over folder names and what should nest under what. You still won’t reference it in the future. You’ll probably just google the thing you are interested in only to discover that you bookmarked it long ago. Bookmarks are not a system. At best, if you scan through them they remind you of something you might still care about.
Instead, bisect filing into short term and long term notes.
- Short term filing: A low friction way to cache content or to-do lists. You will want to queue in a handy place so you can revisit it when you have time.
- Long term filing: If it’s worthy of coming back to in the future to either use it, recommend it, or simply refresh yourself then it can be promoted to long term storage. To facilitate later retrieval you might take notes, highlight it, or tag it. How you promote it may be related to how you intend to use it in the future.
3. Retrieve content
It may seem obvious that you want to retrieve your notes or filed sources. But in thinking about the design of the file management system, it’s worth spelling out reasons you retrieve:
- Teaching others
- Writing for work or pleasure
- Recommending a restaurant, attraction, or book. How many times have you drawn a blank when asked for a rec?
- Surfacing research relevant to an argument at hand
- Remembering pointers for how to perform your workout or presentation
- Maintaining to-do lists
- Researching a trip, a recipe, home project, financial plan
- Affirmations or habits you are practicing to reinforce
Facilitating rapid and effective retrieval demands a proper mix of conceptual and technical features depending on the ultimate action you are retrieving for.
Ability to search or scan
Storage needs to be both searchable and browsable. You will often remember a keyword that will help you find the note you created. Just as you search your email. But it’s equally important that your notes are browsable so you can scan your notes to jog your memory or resurface content that your past self thought was interesting. Browsability implies that the note hierarchy is collapsible. By nesting notes, the entire data structure is compact and more navigable. The number of layers is debatable and a matter of preference. As an example, I find Evernote to be a bit restricted (stacks, notebooks, notes) but serviceable.
Cloud-based yet exportable
You will need to store and retrieve anytime, anywhere. Fortunately most tools these days will be cloud-based. However, apps come and go so the ability to export is non-negotiable. Turnover at Evernote’s parent company in 2018 prompted a rash of articles about how to back up and export your notes in the event they went under. You don’t want to be at the complete mercy of your cloud-based app. You may also want the ability to access your notes when offline. Airplanes come to mind here. Device/desktop sync should be mostly seamless. I’ve seen some glitchy behavior in modern apps (for example notes being duplicated or briefly invisible during an unusually long refresh) but these should be relatively rare exceptions or the app will be to frustrating to stick with.
Fast, clean design
These apps will be some of your most heavily used so the experience should be inviting. It should be consistently fast. Even brief moments of lag will become major annoyances once multiplied by your frequent use. There is some leeway here. Google Drive is probably too slow to keep to-do lists but its greater flexibility for handling more complex docs makes it a reasonable home for content notes or financial models. Your app’s maximum acceptable latency will be dictated by the fastest twitch activity it’s required to handle.
If you got this far, it is likely that you are considering your own objectives. It’s ok if they feel abstract at this point. In Part II of this series we will look at the conceptual design of my own system and what principles guide my objectives which can give you some clay to work with.
Go to Part II: Conceptual Design (pending)