A Mental Model For Personal Organization (Part IV)
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.
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 this fourth article in my series about how to design a universal mental model for personal organization, productivity, and sanity, I will revisit the original mental model from part I and reveal how it has evolved since the time that I embarked on writing this series. I’ll attempt to be candid about what has worked and what hasn’t.
If you are new to my blog then this will be a great place to jump in, because I’ll be making some adjustments to the earlier model, as well as providing plenty of back-references to those parts of the previous articles that are still relevant. If on the other hand you’ve been keeping up with my series from the beginning, rest assured that part IV represents an evolution, not a revolution, of the concepts gathered up to this point.
Problems with the first model
The original model consisted of 9* components: Intake, Compass, Studio, Areas, Interests, Collections, Reference, Storage, and Vault. Each are described at length with examples in part I.
There are three main problems with the original model:
- The most common piece of feedback that I received was that the distinction between Areas and Interests is not sufficiently clear. Dividing one’s system in this manner does so in a cross-cutting manner that doesn’t solve many practical organizational problems; for example, where to write down that project-related idea you just had, or how to take notes at work.
- The Collection concept is too broad of a category, since technically any “kind” of item can form its own collection, and that is not sufficiently meaningful or helpful. Do outlines and drafts really form their own collection, or are they artifacts primarily associated with a project? Do all PDFs need to be stored together? If I take a screenshot that will soon be incorporated into a blog article I’m writing (like this one!), does that screenshot need to go into a collection? How about digital scans?
- Even though the Storage and Vault pair can and do sometimes involve different techniques and solutions, for the most part there is not much advantage in drawing such a course-grained dividing line between them.
(A reminder here, especially to new readers: these shortcomings of the first model notwithstanding, there are still many nuggets to glean from part I. In particular, the use cases and requirements sections are still relevant. From part II, the center of gravity principle may be helpful. And in part III, the thorough examination of tools and systems remains very much active.)
The V2 model
The second version of the Universal Model has five major divisions: Intake, Control, Studio, Library, and Storage. Within the major divisions are three minor divisions each, for a total of 15 unique areas within the system.
Briefly, here are descriptions of each of the 15 areas.
- Prefilter & Aggregation: Narrow, select, and converge the many rivers and streams of information into personalized, high-quality, high-signal feeds. (Covered below.)
- Capture & Arrivals: A landing zone for anything that comes out of my head or falls into my hands from the outside world. (Covered below.)
- Sorting & Holding: Group and sort potential action items into lanes, playlists, work queues, etc. that I can pull from. (Covered below.)
- Planning, Scheduling, & Tracking: Make plans and set goals, build schedules and daily agendas. Prioritize and allocate time, energy, and resources. Set timers and reminders to stay on track.
- Observation & Logging: Record everyday notes, observations, interactions, events, experiences, achievements, habits, etc. Keep them mostly in raw form, labeled by only essential metadata like date, topic, and people, etc.
- Review, Interpretation, & Alignment: Distill the everyday stuff that happens into concise summaries. Periodically review and rewrite the highlights. Make adjustments and course-corrections as needed. Think longer and farther out than the daily grind.
- Ideation & Sense-Making: A free-form space to freely explore and experiment with new ideas and concepts, make connections, and extract meaning.
- Productivity & Output: A workspace to support goal-oriented activity (i.e., “cranking widgets”) in any context: studying, writing, coding, teaching, managing, etc. This is where rough drafts, outlines, documents, and other in-progress artifacts live.
- Leisure, Play, & Consumption: A dedicated space that’s arranged to promote relaxation, mind expansion, fun, play, and imagination. It’s the flip side of the Productivity & Output coin.
- Collection & Curation: A place to gather artifacts that relate to dynamic & creative interests, activities, and pursuits. Organized into lists, pinboards, galleries, portfolios, swipe files, scrapbooks, etc. Think of the expression, “steal like an artist!”
- Lookup & Reference: A utilitarian and highly-structured collection of information including dictionaries, documentation, contact books, directories, and databases.
- Tool & Supply: A warehouse of sorts where one outfits and stockpiles assets, materials, products, configuration, settings, etc.
- Filing & Record-Keeping: A cabinet to store boring-but-important “adult” files and records for the off-chance that they need to be pulled off the shelf someday. Tax records, medical records, business forms and legal documents, intellectual property, etc.
- Storage & Archival: Backups, physical copies, old projects, old logs, old collections, etc. Anything from the other areas that is “closed” or “inactive” but that you don’t wish to refer to, stumble across in search results, or otherwise clutter your system.
- Protection & Preservation: Protect and preserve valuables, keepsakes, and other treasures, such as photo albums, mementos, or other particularly valuable (and fairly static) collection.
Intake V2, in depth
Note: most of the tools that I mention in this section have already been described in depth in part III, which you may wish to refer to for more examples. I focus here on filling in the gaps and presenting some new techniques and methods that I’m experimenting with, in smorgasbord style.
Intake: Prefilter & Aggregation
I use Mailbrew to subscribe to feeds from Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Hacker News, The Verge, Cooperpress, and more. Product blogs, company blogs, podcast feeds, and any other information source that provides an RSS feed or email subscription service gets hooked up to one of my handful of “brews” that are sent on various daily or weekly cadences. Each brew is completely custom and fashioned according to my interests: “Systems & Organization,” “Productivity,” “Apps & Software,” and “Software Development.”
It only took an hour or two of experimentation to set up these custom newsletters in Mailbrew. However the time that it saves me now is immense because I will automatically receive a digest of all that’s happened since the last issue, allowing me to catch up with the topics I follow at my leisure (and theoretically preventing me from sinking too much time into the black hole of social media feeds).
Intake: Capture & Arrivals
It happens that I am frequently struck by random thoughts, new ideas for writing or coding, reminders to do something important, sudden questions and curiosities, or insights about a problem that my subconscious has been quietly working on in the background. These shower thoughts and forget-me-nots can occur anywhere, anytime, including during inconvenient moments when I’m in the car or when I’m in the middle of another task. If I don’t write the ideas down immediately, they will quickly vanish and may never resurface. The same goes for little nuggets of knowledge I glean from a podcast, or during a conversation with a coworker in the hallway, and in many other scenarios. The use cases and examples of these types of quick capture go on endlessly.
It’s imperative that I have a well-oiled system to rapidly capture such sparks of thought, etc. The most effective tools for capture that I’ve found are: Trello (using the Email Me app for iOS/watchOS, configured to send dictations to my private Trello email-to-board address); TickTick (for tasks, memos, and action items); DayOne (for journal and diary entries); or Drafts (for any kind of text). Of these Drafts seems to be the most popular, but because my ideation hub lives in Trello, I find it most convenient to send my thoughts directly there. I toss quick-capture items onto a board that I’m sure to review on a frequent basis. In fact, very few items that come from my head should go directly into my innermost system without first passing through the capture area.
These days I maintain a “Scans” folder at the root of my Box.com cloud drive. That folder acts as an auto-upload target for scanned documents, receipts, business cards, whiteboard drawings, etc. I configured Readdle Scanner Pro on my iPhone and iPad to do this automatically whenever I create a new scan. That way, I know that I can riffle through the pile of digital scans to find something if I have to (i.e., if my organization system fails me). That said, if the new scan is something that I already know belongs in Files & Record-Keeping, then I will directly upload to the appropriate folder rather than handle the file twice.
When I come across something interesting or noteworthy while browsing the web or social media, I will share it straight to Trello, Raindrop, or Pocket depending on what I plan to do with it. Typically the item of interest will fall into one of two categories: either I want to visit it later, or I just want to collect it. I send web articles and blog posts that I want to read to Pocket. Any travel ideas, humorous quotes, memes, recipes, and most other clips & saves usually go straight into the appropriate collection board in Trello (making an exception to the rule that everything needs to go to my capture area first). Anything that feels like a resource or reference item usually lands in Raindrop unless I plan to take notes on it, in which case it goes to my “Books, Articles, and Media” Trello board (which is part of my Library area).
My fallback for anything else that doesn’t fit into the previous categories is a Global Inbox board/list in Trello. Putting something there is signifying that I plan to revisit and evaluate that item at a later time, but not too far into the future, either.
A built-in technique of my intake system is the practice of deliberately putting new items in a place where I know I will revisit them later, even when I’m pretty sure of where they will ultimately land in my system. I call this method the friendly friction filter because it’s an extra step I introduce deliberately into some of my intake workflows, knowing that multiple touches on the same item often yield better results. Revisiting a fresh save after some time has passed usually provides new perspective, giving me a better chance of placing it into the appropriate workspace, collection, storage area, etc. I may even just discard the new item, after realizing it wasn’t as important or cool as I thought it was in the moment that I saved it, thereby avoiding adding unnecessary clutter and noise to my workspace.
Intake: Sorting & Holding
The central feature of my Sorting & Holding area are my “Possibilities & Inspiration” lists, or what I call my “Possibility Catalog.” On those lists I keep track of everything I want to read, watch, listen, do, research, buy, code, write, explore, visit, etc. It is the cozy corner of my productivity system, the comfort food that I snack on whenever I’m bored or unmotivated, the place I go when I have a surge of energy on a random weekend but I don’t know what to do with myself. These lists live in Trello.
Directly adjacent to my Intake & Capture system is a large list that I’ve alternately referred to as “the parking lot,” “the pile,” “the pool,” etc. Picture an infinitely scrolling gallery of bits and bobs that I don’t know what to do with and I’m content to let swim around in a pool of pictures, screenshots, clips, saves, excerpts, random thoughts, etc. This is the anti-establishment corner of my system, a place where my items linger for companionship with other items and to escape the fate of premature organization, where I’m content to let the lot of them simmer and cook in a disorderly stew until if or when something action-worthy tumbles out of the mix.
The final zone within Sorting & Holding is the “business up front” half to the party-in-the-back zones already mentioned. My work queues live here: they hold prioritized tasks relating to my job, side projects, house chores, and administrative miscellanea. Normally this zone is implemented within my journal/planner rather than inside Trello, unless the lists get too out of hand or inefficient to maintain within a physical notebook.
It’s important to me that I keep my fun lists and my more serious action items together, so that I remember to balance life and work. When I am planning for the week, it’s nice to have those non-day-job items in front of me so that proper time gets allocated for catching up at home, rest and relaxation, social plans, and so forth.
To be continued ➡️
Now that we’ve gotten a flavor of the V2 model and explored its first division in depth (Intake), I’ll stop here and plan to pick up with Control, Studio, Library, and Storage in the next sequence of articles. This gives us a remaining 12 areas to explore and connect with concepts previously introduced.
Designing the V2 mental model has been a bottom-up process rather than a top-down one. It is the result of much experimentation, research, and feedback. My intention is to delve into each redefined area with sufficient depth that the model will feel less like a set of abstract concepts and more like a practical framework or scaffold for building one’s personal organizational system. I’m personally excited about what’s to come.
*Note: Technically, there was more than one version of the “original” model. I iterated on it quickly soon after publishing part I, adding areas like Compass after publication.