A Mental Model for Personal Organization (Part II)

Cameron Flint
8 min readNov 24, 2020

This is a multi-part series on how to develop a system of organization for better personal productivity and growth. It’s an opinionated approach based on my own experience, so obviously take it with a grain of salt.

Last updated: Monday November 23rd, 2020.

List of all articles in this series:

  • Part I starts with the core scenarios and requirements, and introduces the original 9-part model. Plus a quick aside on metadata.
  • Part II demonstrates three kinds of hierarchical taxonomies, and offers the “center of gravity” principle for dealing with information scatter.
  • Part III offers tool ideas for fundamental workflows, covering many apps and services. Discusses the intertwining of analog and digital workflows.
  • Part IV reflects on learnings from the original 9-part model, then evolves toward a more nuanced model featuring 5 major divisions and 15 minor areas.
  • Part V dives deep on metadata, providing a “3-axis” rule of thumb for ensuring your content can be rediscovered by you. Discusses a strategy for avoiding metadata rot.

In the first part of this series, I introduced a 9-piece model for building your own organizational system. As I claimed then, the mental model is applicable across both the physical and digital realms, and it can be implemented with a diverse, near-limitless set of tools. The model is meant to be an opinionated, yet extremely flexible framework that anyone can confidently build upon to get organized and feel more productive.

In the next few sections we are going to look at strategies for structuring data inside of the nine components introduced previously. I’ll start with an exploration of three major taxonomies that I use to bring consistency and predictability across the patchwork of software, tools and mediums that make up my personal organizational system.

The challenge of organizing data

One of the hardest aspects of organizing information is figuring out what shape the data will take and how detailed the design will be. Will you mostly gather items into “buckets” or will you carefully file them away in a delicate hierarchy of folders? Will you choose broad or narrow category names, and how strictly will you adhere to the same groups across disparate systems? A nicely-designed taxonomy, along with a few rules of thumb, will help us to find the right balance.

If our method is too loose or arbitrary, over time the things we collect may form increasingly mixed, unkempt piles scattered everywhere. On the other hand if our design is too complex, we may find that maintaining the complicated structures by hand and synchronizing them between locations is time-consuming and error-prone. In either state of the world deciding where to put new things will feel taxing, and trying to find old things will feel cumbersome. This state of disorganization is what we absolutely want to avoid.

The three taxonomies

Periodic

A periodic taxonomy describes a set of categories that repeat over periods of time, such as years or months. Planning, goal-setting, journaling, reviews, and so forth fit neatly into this taxonomy type.

Example of a periodic taxonomy.

If the information being stored is tightly tied to a section of a timeline — like a year, month, quarter, semester, etc. — and you think you might recreate the folder structure for it each cycle, then a periodic taxonomy could be the solution.

I use the periodic taxonomy within the compass component of the 9-component mental model. I also find it useful for some sub-areas, such as work or school (see an example in the next section).

If you read an early version of part I, you might not recognize the compass component of the mental model. If not, I encourage you to check back and familiarize with the updated article. In either case, this may be a good point for me to mention that over time aspects of the mental model may evolve, as I continue to experiment, learn, and receive feedback from others.

Contextual

A contextual taxonomy is one that takes into account whether the item is related to a real-life, often physical context. It works well for some interests and activities, but especially for specific areas of involvement or responsibility.

Example of a contextual taxonomy.

We could optionally eliminate one level of nesting in the above example by listing the real “Company Name,” “Volunteer Organization,” and so forth as direct children of the “D_Areas” folder. The folder tree in the screenshot is intentionally broad in order to communicate the essence of a contextual taxonomy.

The previous point is worth repeating: none of the three taxonomies commit you to a hierarchical vs. bucket-like structure. The level of nesting is a separate decision from the taxonomy choice.

Notice also that although the immediate subfolders (Home, Family, Work, …) are organized contextually, one inner folder happens to be using a periodic rhythm (Spring Semester ’20, Fall Semester ’20, …). It’s fine to mix and match taxonomies as long as you’re careful not to let the hierarchy grow too complex. (Recall from Part I that 2–4 levels of nesting is ideal.)

Topical

When you enter a bookstore, books and magazines are arranged throughout the store and on the shelves by their subject matter. A topical taxonomy can be flat and specific, or nested and abstract. Topical taxonomies work very well for knowledge management, and for that reason they feature prominently in reference within the 9-component model.

Example of a topical taxonomy.

Due to its completeness, I usually save the topical structure for a few special uses cases. Currently I use it in three places: 1) my note-taking app, 2) my cloud filesystem, and 3) my bookmarking application. The three locations are not kept in exact sync, but they are close enough that my brain can get used to the pattern.

Replicated taxonomies across Files, Bookmarks, and Notes.

Using the three taxonomies together with the center of gravity principle, discussed next, is how I maintain a sane system of organization within & across multiple services.

The center of gravity principle

Just now, I showed the three taxonomies at work within the 9 components across a sampling of three of the applications I use daily: Dropbox, Nimbus Note, and Raindrop.io. Before we jump into building and replicating a big 3x9x3 (!) structure of taxonomies across different “clouds,” though, let’s take a moment to figure out how these tools fit into the broader picture.

A center of gravity is a useful concept describing the place where things you want to hang on to usually find their way toward eventually. Note-taking applications and cloud filesystems very often fall into this role due to their ability to absorb just about everything!

  1. Note-taking applications: Nimbus Note, Evernote, OneNote, Apple Notes, Keep It, DevonTHINK, and many more. It’s a little misleading to call these services “note-taking applications,” because they end up acting more like general-purpose filing cabinets.
  2. Cloud filesystems: Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, Box, Zoho WorkDrive. Most of these file storage services perform the same function, though in particular I find Dropbox, OneDrive and Box provide the best balance of useful extra features and very good performance.

Note: In addition to these first two “central” categories, we could also add a third category: knowledge management. We’ll explore knowledge management applications and their distinction from other tools, as well as a more complete way to put together a personal toolbox, in Part III of this series.

We want to think carefully about these central applications within our O.S. because as I hinted at earlier, duplicating complex structure unnecessarily across services is undesirable. But more importantly, once you’ve done the due diligence to sort out the services that will form the hub of your system and those that won’t, you might experience a sense of relief at the freedom it brings.

Instead of feeling the need to treat your data across every location with equal attention to detail, you can consider whether that random bookmark, saved video, email, etc. is worth the trouble of pulling into the structured, protected core of your system. The truth is, many digital items are just fine left out in “orbit” in their respective locations. This leaves you to focus your energy on keeping a small handful of places neat and tidy, inviting in new data when it’s worth keeping around.

One last reason for being intentional about choosing the core tools is that the cost of switching later can be disproportionately high. For example, changing from Dropbox to OneDrive might be a bearable, albeit inconvenient migration. Moving from Evernote to OneNote, however, will almost certainly be a real pain. Be sure to consider your use cases and requirements (see Part I) carefully before fully jumping in head-first.

Looking ahead

Equipped with the three taxonomies for organizing our data within services, and the center of gravity principle for distributing our information across services, we have a solid starting point toward converting the 9-component mental model introduced in Part I into a tangible implementation. We’re not quite there yet, though, and Part III of this series will continue the journey from theory to practice by examining how to build a personal toolkit for staying productive and organized.

In this article we also began to take a fresh look at some categories that might already have been familiar to you, such as cloud file storage and note-taking. In Part III, I will expand the framework to include a methodical way of thinking about tool selection in general. Keeping in spirit with the current approach I’ll avoid favoring any particular technology choice, but we will see more examples of using software like Nimbus, Dropbox and Raindrop.io to form the backbone of a personal organizational system.

A quick reminder that if you’ve enjoyed what you read or if it inspired you in any way, please consider dropping a note to feedbackforcameron {at} fastmail.com. Your feedback motivates me to continue the series and to improve it — thank you.

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Cameron Flint

Diving deep on topics related to note-taking, personal information management, and software engineering, with occasional diversions to less nerdy things.