Organising by actionability
How to always know where to file and where to find anything, quickly
Imagine you are about to cook a meal for your family. It’s not one you’ve cooked often, but you have a recipe. You might turn on the oven to pre heat it, and begin to gather the ingredients and equipment.
The chances are you will quickly find everything you need, because your food supplies are organised in logical collections: perishables in the fridge, long term stores like cans or dry goods in one area, and spices you use frequently in another. Likewise your pots, pans and utensils for mixing ingredients have a home and you will put your hands on them quickly.
When you unpack your shopping or bring home that new saucepan you just bought, you know where they belong, and will have no trouble finding them when you need them next.
Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing this for so long. Over hundreds of years we’ve developed patterns that are seem so obvious, that we can even find things in our friends kitchen with very little effort. We learnt these patterns from our parents, who in turn learnt from theirs and so on for generations back.
Sadly, this is not the case with our digital knowledge though. A McKinsey report noted that the average knowledge worker (anyone using a computer to work with information) spends 23% (a quarter) of their time searching and looking for files and information.
Our digital information is spread all over the place. It’s stored in folders, inside folders, across our phone, our computer’s hard drive, Google Drive, One Drive, DropBox and so on. Or it’s in a bookmark in our browser, or a link we sent to someone or that someone sent to us, in one of the many messaging apps we use. Can you feel the stress building in your body, just thinking about it?
No matter what your response is to these words and the picture of this messy, out of control reality, stop!
Take a deep breath in, pause, and let it go.
Let go of all the judgement about what a mess it is, why computers aren’t smarter, or why you have allowed this to happen. Be easy on yourself. This has been sneaking up on you and everyone around you, and neither your parents, nor your teachers knew any better and so they were not there to show you a better way.
1980 and the start of the digital information age
It’s generally accepted that the digital information age began around 1980. I started using computers and using the earliest iteration of email in 1983, and I can tell you there wasn’t much digital information then, but it sure began to grow quickly.
In the last 40 years, we’ve gone from almost zero digital information, to what we have today, where we carry in our hands a tool that can bring us any information we care to go looking for. We’re also presented with lots of information we don’t go looking for, based on algorithms designed to capture and hold our attention for as long as possible, in the hope of influencing our next choices and action - but that’s a topic for another day.
The growth in digital information
Here’s a chart of the last 12 years, that includes a projection of the next three. It shows the volume of data/information created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide from 2010 to 2025.
I couldn’t find a chart that displayed data figures earlier than 2005, but if I could it might look something like this.
It’s not your fault, but it is now your responsibility
We are adults, and if we’ve acknowledged there’s a mess to clean up, we might then be asking where on earth do we begin?
We don’t just want to reorganise or re arrange our files - like deck chairs on the Titanic. Clearly we need a new approach, a thoughtful system that ensures we know where to file and where to find information when we need it, and something better than searching or digging into endless folders within folders, of disconnected information.
What if we organised not by topic, but by actionability, an idea I got from Tiago Forte, the author of Building a Second Brain, and who has influenced much of my thinking on this topic.
Organising by actionability
Going back to the kitchen, if we can’t quickly locate our ingredients or the equipment we need, we’re forced to stop being a creator, and step into search mode, and that’s a very different way of being. Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind, by Dan Charnas speaks beautifully about this.
If we are sitting at our computer (or phone) and have an impulse to do creative, generative, productive work on some specific project, but then can’t find the resources (ingredients) needed to inform our creative work, we have to step into search mode. If we spend too much time there, we will be frustrated, or possibly distracted, and we might not find our way back to that creative, generative, productive space in a timely fashion, with the result that nothing valuable happened.
We need a system to make sure we can retrieve anything we’ve touched, and quickly.
That means organising your files and information according to when you’ll need them next, and according to the goals that are most relevant to your life.
In an earlier article Taking information out of your head, I referenced the CORA system (Capture, Organise, Refine, Action), where digital information is organised into three connected databases - Areas, Projects, and Resources. It’s where the web of connections can be quickly made to ensure that information added to the system, will be present later when it’s needed.
Each of these locations can be characterised as having a different velocity - the speed at which the information changes and evolves.
CORA is a project-centric system, because projects are where you express creativity, are generative and productive - where you focus time and attention and take action. Projects have the highest velocity in the system, being started often, changing rapidly and regularly coming to an end.
Each Project relates to and will move forward, one or more Areas of your life. These Areas are those things you are responsible for, from marketing in your business, to child’s education and everything in between. Areas is the place you visit and review, to ensure you’re giving appropriate time and attention to the priorities in your life. It’s where you describe the responsibilities and the outcomes you desire, for each part of your life and work, and where you can see what active Projects you have on for each Area. Areas have the least velocity, they continue through time and rarely end.
Resources are those ‘packets’ of information you capture frequently, that help move Projects to completion. Resources can be specific to a single Project, or may relate to many Projects. Resources have a medium velocity, being captured often, and then refined so that their value can be quickly extracted.
Information has the potential to support you and the people you love. Now is the time to take hold of your digital assets, and become a guardian of this growing store of value.