How to quickly organize any type of digital information.

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

GTD Steps: Organize


We all have those times when our house or apartment is a mess - mail on the coffee table, dirty dishes on the table, laundry scattered around, kids toys everywhere. What impact does a messy house have on you emotionally? Do feel more anxious or stressed? Are you more on edge and impatient with family members?

Eventually you decide to dig in and clean up. Where do you start? Do you put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher? Fold the laundry? Tell your kids to pick up their toys?

We probably all start with something different. But, we probably all finish with the same set of stuff. It's the stuff you're not quite sure what to do with. The stuff that doesn't have a designated home. It's the stuff that ends up in a junk drawer in the kitchen.

Why do we always handle last the stuff we're not sure what to do with? Because it takes the most mental energy. When something has a designated place, it's easy to organize it. When it doesn't, figuring out where to put it can feel almost overwhelming.


The mental impact of digital mess


Whether you realize it or not, messiness at work creates the same sort of emotions as messiness at home. At home, most of the clutter you deal with is physical stuff. But at work, most of it is digital - emails, files, links, notes, etc. It doesn't matter whether the messiness is on your desk or on your computer, it has the same effect of making you feel more stressed and anxious.

And, just like at home, the hardest things to figure where to put are the ones that don't have a designated place. Figuring out where to put digital information can be especially challenging because of the broad range of topics and the various file structures and formats it comes in.

How to organize your digital information


Deciding where to put digital information can be tricky if you don't have a good filing system. You end up putting it in one place one time and another place a different time. It's hard to stay consistent which makes finding it later on difficult. Having a good organizational system for reference information is an important part of implementing Getting Things Done system.

When deciding how to organize digital information, it can be helpful to think about how you organize physical papers. To organize physical papers you put them in file folders inside a file cabinet. The folders are sorted logically, usually alphabetically. Whenever you have a paper you want to keep for later, you check to see if there is an appropriate folder to put it in. If not, you create a new one.

You may have more than one filing cabinet. For example, you might have one for personal documents and another for business documents. You might have yet another for customer documents.

Organizing your digital information is no different.

What are digital filing cabinets?


Most people working in a corporate environment using Microsoft Office need three digital filing cabinets: Outlook, Windows Explorer, and One Note. You probably already use these applications but may not have thought of them as filing cabinets.


Outlook Folders - once you have processed an email and decided to keep it, file it in an Outlook email folder.


Windows Explorer - this is where you can put structured file types such as Word or pdf documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, etc. Typically you either create these yourself or receive them via email.


One Note - this is where you can put almost any other type of information - links to articles, miscellaneous thoughts, outlines for presentations, digital receipts, etc. Think of One Note Notebooks as filing cabinets, Sections as folders, and Pages as papers. Then just follow the same filing principles as any of your other filing cabinets.

If you've read Getting Things Done you're familiar with the concept of an inbox. An inbox is a place to quickly capture tasks or information until you're ready to decide what to do about them. One Note has a feature called Quick Notes that works just like an inbox. Whenever you have information you want to keep, but don't want to take the time right then to figure out where to file it, enter it on a page in the Quick Notes section. Then, on a regular basis (e.g. weekly) go back and file whatever is in your Quick Notes section.

How to organize your digital filing cabinets


Knowing which filing cabinet to put something in is the first step. But unless you organize the information within the cabinet in a consistent manner, you'll have a hard time finding it later. Here are some principles for organizing the information within your various filing cabinets.

  • Go only one level deep (two at most) - When creating new files, try to keep them all at the first level. Avoid creating subfolders and sub-subfolders when possible. The deeper your filing system goes, the more deeply buried the contents will be, and the harder to find later on. It’s much better to go wide than deep when it comes to file folders.

  • Use prefixes when labeling folders - For grouping folders related to a particular topic, use a common prefix. This will ensure that the files are next to each other when you file them alphabetically.

For example, let’s say you have a file folder dedicated to each member of your team. If you label each folder with the name of the team member and then file them alphabetically, you will end up with the files scattered throughout your filing cabinet. Instead, start each label with a short (two- to four-letter) prefix. For example, you might use the prefix “Team” and a folder might be labeled as “Team – John Smith.” This way all of the folders for members of your team will be grouped together in the "T" section of your filing cabinet when organized alphabetically.


  • Create a new folder whenever needed - When none of your existing folders seems appropriate for an item you need to file, don’t be hesitant to create a new folder. It’s much easier to locate a document in a folder whose label clearly matches the contents than to sort through a folder with a very general label that contains all kinds of things that are only loosely related.


Conclusion

Setting up and using digital filing cabinets will keep your digital house in order. When your digital information is neat and organized you will feel more relaxed and able to focus. You'll be able to easily organize new information and find older information quickly.

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