By Eric Clodi
To file or not to file? That is the question, I guess, for many who are currently tidying up their offices before leaving for the beach! But the really important question may be how to search and find, not necessary file, documents.
I know, when everything was on paper - yes I lived in that era - it was difficult to find any note, mail, meeting minutes... if it was not properly filed - not only stored away. Well, even then, I am sure it occurred to many people that it was sometimes faster to pick up a document that they knew was stuck in that pile over the desk, rather than searching through a well thought filing system. Anyway, having too much paper spread across the desk was not helping one’s reputation - file or get fired!
To be fair, modern times - deceptively called “zero paper” - have only made things worse. No need to hide the mess in a cabinet, documents are just accumulating on hard drives without showing any disorder symptoms outside. E-mails get stuck right in the inbox without colleagues or visitors noticing anything wrong. Data keep piling up for months and years without anyone worrying.
True, some people were born organised. They file mails and documents in folders, sub-folders... reproducing the typical paper organisation, hierarchical and layered. This does not prevent issues from happening, as we often use some criteria for filing... while we would search using different parameters. Moreover, as soon as a filing system is used by several people, like a server or share drive, it’s much worse : we have all lived situations where John would file something in a given place, while Peter would put it elsewhere...
Luckily, technology comes to the rescue, offering efficient tools such as search engines and links. In a nutshell, we’d better facilitate the search rather than meticulously file. Let’s discuss such a principle in more details.
1) Trash with no mercy :
Anything useless will only hamper future searches. Then let’s get rid of it as soon as possible! The trick is to be alert every time we open a document for the first time.
Spring cleaning can be largely streamlined when using search engines (see below) that will unearth documents that haven’t been modified for a long time. Then it’s an easy game to sweep-clean on sight through the list of oldies.
For the most cautious people, it is still possible to create archives on drive, CD or DVD in order to keep track of things without clogging active workspace.
2) Link to Act :
A large part of what we keep is part of an action or project. A sure way to save time down the road, is to immediately link document and action. There are - at least - 3 ways to achieve that :
a) Give the same name to the action or project, to a mail folder and to a drive folder, which will collect any related useful document. When you want to work efficiently on the project, just open these folders and you have everything handy.
b) Better! Use the linking features often available in PIM and organisation software, to immediately link any related mail or document to the relevant project. Then, no need for further filing : simply keep the file in a common “follow up” folder, in order to avoid desktop and inbox clogging.
c) Better again! Copy/ paste useful bits of mails and documents directly into the relevant ToDo or project - sounds basic but it’s rather effective. And get rid on the spot of the source document. When you can’t insert what you target, go back to b) and create a link - or make a note of the file path in the ToDo.
By now, you can probably guess what I am recommending : copy/ paste what can be, use links or paths for the rest, it is fast, no filing is required and everything is ready for action! When the project is achieved, nothing is easier than archiving or deleting everything together.
A word for GTD aficionados : implementing this tactic you will avoid stumbling over 43 folders or other filing strategies, and you will practice a seamless, faster GTD.
Then, what about the occasional piece of paper? Store it wherever you want - but make a note of the location in the relevant action or project.
3) Organise to Find :
There still are documents that we will keep for reference, or that are supposed to be useful at a later stage - I would argue that in the last case it’s better to create a project right away and go back to chapter 2!
First issue : we can’t always group together in a folder all the files we would like to, simply because some may be on our computer, others on a server... Let’s consider telephone lists as a typical example : different formats in different locations, still important to be read at the source to have up to date information. Again, a list of links, rather than some filing tricks, will do a great deal for effectiveness and simplicity.
Second issue : we often have good ideas for filing, which tend to be different from the multiple angles we are using when we look for things. For instance, we may look one day for a document because it refers to Jack, the next day because it’s related to project XYZ, another day because supplier ABC is involved.
Solution lies - again - not in filing, but rather in search optimisation :
a) It is worth an investment to take a few seconds to complete - often create - comments (Mac) or properties (Windows) for a file that you are going to keep. A short summary will greatly enhance searchability. Take also the opportunity to give a meaningful name to the file.
b) Obviously, an effective search engine will do miracles for you when it will have indexed the full content of all your files. If you have a Mac, you already use Spotlight and you know what I mean. If you have a PC, you know I am not talking about the Windows “search” feature!!! You probably have a search function that works in your mail software, but it’s another story when you look for documents on your hard drive... Luckily, there are more and more good search engines available, that would index most file formats :
- For instance, Yahoo! Desktop Search presents search results in a table with a preview window, featuring refined search possibilities,... It’s better to download also the expansion pack in order to index all kind of formats.
- Google Desktop presents search results exactly as web searches, in a browser window. While it is less sophisticated than Yahoo!, it can index network drives as well.
4) Then... Should we be filing ?
You could almost do away with filing when using the above mentioned techniques. I would rather say, filing can be made more flexible as it is no longer the primary tool to find a document. Then, the question becomes “with what other documents would I like to see this one”, and no longer “ how to file it in order to find it”.
So, you may... not file at all, or group together documents related to the same meeting, or put all your presentations together to have them handy when you prepare a new one... only depending on your needs and preferences.
Eventually, a more important question to filing is about sharing and availability : what should be in a file synchronised with your PDA or another computer? What should be on a network drive?
“A la GTD”, action starts the minute a new document appears on the screen. You should delete it, or link it to an action or project (copy/ paste, link or path), or store it after making sure properties and comments of the file do represent its content.
An effective search engine will take care of the rest, and you won’t waste time devising filing systems that echo the cabinets of a past century...
Well, this is just like internet. Nobody tries to regroup sites in an hierarchical system. Meanwhile, bookmarks, tags, links and search engines are key to surfing effectively - and happily!
File less... Find more !
Eric has managed manufacturing, innovation, business units and companies for 20 years. He is convinced that good methods and sound organization leverage fruitful exchanges and concrete results. He writes - when time allows - to present effective methods.