The unquestioned folder assumption

This is about organising information (and behaviour change). Something happened to me over Christmas. I decided to reorganise my filing system... I'll give you a moment to un-roll your eyes ...and the result was remarkable.

My (digital) filing - now over 10,000 items - lives in an online service called Evernote. I've been using it for about five years. Everything goes in: scanned paper receipts, holiday documents, copies of blog posts, archives of work stuff. Everything.

Organising it had become an issue. Initially my strategy was Bung and Browse. Bung stuff in, adding a folder or two as needed and some tags just in case; and browse the folders to find things. (If you are not familiar with tags: where folders are the table of contents, tags are the index.)

Deciding which folder to put a new type of item in was niggling. Do I put the car insurance document in an Insurance folder with the holiday policies or in a Car folder with the garage bills? In this case I chose a car folder and added tags for insurance company and type of insurance. But using tags was always an afterthought; cos I’ll always be able to find it in the Car folder, right?

As the number of items grew, I added more folders and I tried to be more consistent with tags. But increasingly, searches bought back too many items. It was getting harder to find things and, by the end of last year, I was annoyed. I began harbouring dark thoughts about the technology. But the problem was me: the difficulty of getting stuff out was a symptom of the way I put stuff in.

I didn't enjoy the filing. I'd leave it for weeks and have to work out what to do with hundreds of items at a time. Given what ought to be possible with digital technology, my inner filing clerk found this gnawingly unsatisfactory.

He was also insistent that the problem was the folder thing. In the same way that the paper memo, with its cc’s and bcc’s, is the model for email: the old manilla folder is the model for filing. With new technology there is no longer a need to do things this way but... it's what we did with paper and it's what we do digitally. It's a human thing.

So what happens if we abandon that thing? I decided at Christmastime to give it a go: getting rid of folders and just using tags. Leaving out gory detail, I set up a better set of tags, applied them to my legion of items and moved everything into one folder called “My stuff”. Gulp.

Sounds daft but I really had to make myself let go. What if I lost things? What if one of those flimsy tag things fell off? My antibodies said this was a bad idea.

The effect on me was remarkable. The sad corner of my life that is information management brightened. I feel happier about going there and behave differently when I am. I've change-managed myself.

When I save a new item, I don't have to decide the single folder it belongs in. I just add tags to classify it. If it's car insurance, it just gets tags for the type of insurance, the car and the insurance company. Easy.

There is a helpful discipline also. Like choosing addressees is the only way to get an email where it's going - choosing tags is the only way to find stuff reliably in the future. I don't have to do that niggly thinking. And I seldom have a big queue of items: I tag as I go along. My behaviour has changed, without me noticing.

This new way of doing things felt precarious, in the same way that learning to ride a bicycle feels precarious. But the essence of the bicycle is in its precariousness: returning to folders would be putting the stabilisers back on. I was surprised at how strongly positive I felt about what came out of making this change.

This is a petty example but the problem is pervasive. We are dealing with increasing amounts of stuff in both our personal and work lives. The unquestioned assumption that information lives in folders has had its day. Otherwise we shall not find things.

See also Document standards and the rankling print presumption