A Mental Model for Personal Organization (Part I)

  • 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.

The audience

Perhaps you’re in the early stages of your career, curious to find a system that will get you on the right track. Or maybe like me, you’ve been trying different systems for years without ever quite feeling as organized and productive as you want to be.

The task at hand

Let’s start by considering our use cases. “Use case” in an engineering term that refers to the motivating narratives that drive us to develop a system in the first place.

  • Writing traditional documents or papers.
  • Researching a topic or browsing the web.
  • Studying and annotating an article, book, or PDF.
  • Making a quick budget using a spreadsheet.
  • Saving something you found on the internet for later.
  • Taking a screenshot.
  • Scanning physical receipts and invoices.
  • Outlining or diagramming your thoughts.
  • Sketching or drawing.
  • Journaling.
  • Collecting memes or infographics.
  • Making a quick diagram to explain an idea to colleagues.
  • Making a list of videos to watch on a particular topic.
  • Planning your week.
  • Figuring out what to do next.
  • Jotting down a quick thought or idea.
  • Gathering materials for a project or presentation.
  • Taking meeting notes.
  • Tracking action items.
  • Looking ahead to your goals for next year.
  • Recollecting your memories.
  • Digging into your archive for that useful how-to guide you saved.
  • Clipping a recipe.
  • Saving or collecting digital artifacts. Artifact is a broad term here, but I really mean anything you might come across online or in real life that you find valuable, at least temporarily. Web articles, memes, social media posts, recipes, photographs, quotations, meeting or lecture notes, screenshots, course materials…. Basically anything that originates from outside, that you must assimilate for some length of time.
  • Processing the things that you’ve put aside for later. This category could include web articles, reading lists or RSS feeds, photos you want to organize into albums, an unprioritized task list, or any other random pile of stuff that you know needs processing or sorting. You might discard some of these items, or you might keep all of them. Avoid unintentionally falling down the “rabbit hole” when browsing the web, by having a well-oiled intake system. More on that later.
  • Finding something you’ve saved before. We’re familiar with the frustration of looking for an item that’s lost in our house, car, office or other physical space. Hunting for artifacts scattered across both our physical and digital “spaces” can potentially be far more challenging! If you use many apps and services in your workflow, and/or combine physical/digital mediums like handwritten notes or index cards, you might need to look in a lot of different places. Maintaining a predictable system of organization is key.
  • Building a reference library or knowledge-base. We often collect things that we think “might” come in handy later — or might not. We may write ourselves a list of steps or a checklist for complicated activities we don’t want to have to figure out more than once. One could search for information from scratch every time it’s needed, or they could build their own “library” and have it at their fingertips. The problem is, often things get thrown into the pile haphazardly and are hard to find later.
  • Figuring out what to do next. We are constantly in motion, juggling different projects and responsibilities across different “contexts” like home, school, and work. This is a very popular use case and it is the focus of a great many productivity and self-help publications. That’s for good reason: choosing what to do and when to do it is clearly an important life skill. Having a system of organization helps you to avoid having to manage a complex web of calendars, todo apps, checklists, and other tools.
  • Learning & absorbing new material. It’s no secret that the digital world is a “firehose” of information that we have to figure out how to “sip” from without being drowned in the process. Everyone needs a structured way of collecting, assimilating, and remembering knowledge in order to grow and improve. Have you ever labored to learn something, only to forget it later? Me, too.
  • Getting actual work done. Highly context-specific, this is when we are in “creative” or “production” mode and our activity is usually guided toward a goal or outcome.
  • Dreaming big, and reflecting on past experience. If we don’t look back to reflect on where we’ve come from, we are likely to wander in circles. The antidote for this fate is to set aside time to regularly think critically and introspectively about our past successes and failures. A journal — digital or physical, it doesn’t matter — can be a great aid for this habit. Reflection is also a time to dream big and consider possible paths for the future.
  • Drawing on memories and inspirations. We collect quotations, funny images, photographs, letters and other memorabilia that we revisit in order to relive moments and rekindle inspiration.
  1. Accessibility. Very few of us use a single device anymore. Instead, we frequently work across laptops, desktops, phones, tablets & watches. Think carefully about what are the essential devices you must be able to access your data from. Web applications used in the browser are among the most universal, but can be less-than-seamless on a desktop computer for day-to-day use. If you are frequently mobile or in between home and work, will you have the ability to create or retrieve notes, photos, files, lists, etc.? Finally, consider whether the application or service supports offline mode.
  2. Consistency. Unintentional chaos and disorder is the enemy of productivity. Even if you are the “creatively messy” type, creating some boundaries for yourself can help. For example, if you can never remember where you saved a new file on your computer, pick one folder on your desktop as the entrypoint and save everything there. (Make sure it’s backed up to the cloud.) The “consistency” requirement also applies to organizational schemes. For example, if you are using one service to manage bookmarks and another to manage notes, the folder hierarchies in both places don’t need to be an exact mirror, but both structures should adhere to the same organizational strategy. More on this later.
  3. Heterogeneity. “Heterogeneous” means “mixed.” Unless your use cases are very straightforward, a single ecosystem will almost never fulfill all of them. Large vendors like Microsoft, Apple and Google tend to have very attractive and powerful core services, but exhibit lackluster support for specific workflows and specialized uses. Often an Independent Software Vendor (ISV) will produce a higher-quality specialized application because their core business model revolves around it, unlike the major players. For this reason, I find that it’s most effective to use Google, Microsoft, or Apple services as a “center of gravity,” while at the same time anticipating the need to be “disloyal” to the ecosystem. This can mean occasionally using outside tools that store data in separate clouds.
  4. Dependability. Whether referring to tools, process, or workflow, the components that make up your digital system should work together reliably and smoothly. For example, if you’re DIY-oriented and wire several disparate services together — using Zapier, webhooks, email, etc. — make sure that what you create is reliable, or else you’ll spend more time tinkering with your setup than using it. Even if you’re using a single service, that application should be secure, fast and reliable. Different use cases have different requirements, however: so while you might freely experiment with new todo apps, choosing a note-taking system is a real commitment.
  5. Flexibility. Choose the tools that give you the biggest “bang for your buck.” In other words, pick tools that support a wide variety of use cases, and/or have a built-in extension or plugin model. Your time investment in flexible tools will pay off more than the use of narrow, shallow, or rigid tools. For example, instead of using a separate service just to manage your grocery list, perhaps you could use one of your existing apps instead. Of course, the right balance will be up to you to find.
  6. Enjoyment. If you’re going to use something every day, it may as well be frictionless and pleasant to use. Some of the “non-functional” attributes I look for are speed, simplicity and aesthetics. For example, I enjoy using hosted note-taking services like Evernote, Notion and Nimbus, and I prefer to use Google Docs to write long-form documents. The die-hard “plaintext-only” folks might cry foul, but there is nothing wrong with using the tools you enjoy, as long as the tool uses open formats so that you retain control and ownership of your data.

The universal model

In the previous section, we referenced a requirement called heterogeneity, which embraces the reality that at some point we will be forced to manage “repositories” (pockets) of data across more than one location. A universal model of organization allows us to cope with such a reality while retaining some degree of sanity.

The 9 top-level components of the mental model.

Intake

This is a holding area for new information, an “inbox” for every subdivision of your O.S.. The raw information goes in, gets prioritized, and is eventually discarded or moved into another part of the system. Things that belong here include:

  • notes written in a hurry
  • articles to read
  • unfinished thoughts
  • throwaway grocery lists
  1. Pocket app for articles I want to read later
  2. An “Intake” folder in Raindrop.io for bookmarks I want to come back to
  3. Two folders in Nimbus, “Unfiled” and “Temporary” for quick captures & throwaway notes
  4. The “Watch Later” playlist in YouTube for educational videos
  5. An “Intake” folder in Dropbox where I can toss files

Compass

Compass is a place where you keep track of all your pursuits. Here you chart where you are heading, check in frequently to keep your bearing, and decide what will change for the next voyage. Nautical analogy aside, here are examples of what belongs in compass:

  • Review — Annual
  • Review — Monthly
  • Journal

Areas

Areas are most similar to interests (described below), but they are more similar to “responsibilities.” Instead of being mere addons to your life, areas are central to and nearly inseparable from your daily activity in the real world.

  • [Family Members]
  • [Volunteer Programs]
  • [Community Organizations]
  • [Spiritual Practices]
  • [Business Names]
  • [Work or School]

Interests

Let me save you from the same trouble I fell into. Rather than trying to design a sophisticated central library and painstakingly organizing every artifact you have into that library, first make a flat list of your top 10–15 interests.

  • Note-Taking Systems
  • Functional Programming Languages
  • Microservices Architecture
  • Communication & Collaboration
  • Thinking Models
  • Backpacking
  • Cars

Studio

Every system needs one place with minimal imposed structure, where the messy work gets done. Current projects and active resources that should be kept at hand are “pinned” here, with the only stipulation that any item that has been inactive for too long should be moved out of the studio. Examples might include:

  • project folders (for active projects only)
  • a travel binder (for an upcoming trip)
  • a photo album you’re putting together
  • scattered scraps and outlines for a dream, business plan, or idea
  • the Drafts app is a place I use as a “messy” workspace to continue working on half-finished thoughts that I’ve placed there from intake.
  • a “Studio” folder in the root of my Dropbox provides a location I can save files that I’m working on until I have a more permanent location to move them to.

Collections

Many of us possess “collections” or galleries that share a common media or file type. Just like with interests, although it’s tempting to single out every asset and assign it a place within a global taxonomy, I’ve found that it’s usually more effective to group distinct asset types together.

  • Photo Albums
  • Office Documents
  • Screenshots
  • Music
  • Videos
  • Source Code
  • Text Snippets
  • GitHub Repositories
  • YouTube Playlists
  • Drafts
  • Journals
  • Outlines
  • Scrapbooks or Collages
  • Projects (Past)
  • PDFs

Reference

Here’s one for the detail-oriented folks. If you’ve been chomping at the bit for a “central catalog” or knowledge-base, reference is where you can design and taxonomize to your heart’s content. The purpose of the reference model is to build a big filing cabinet for information that you may need or want to refer to at a later date, but isn’t actively being used, and doesn’t belong in any of the other categories (e.g. collections).

  • Academics > Research Tools
  • Career & Professional
  • Education & Learning
  • Engineering
  • Engineering > Distributed Systems
  • Engineering > Design & Architecture
  • Health
  • Health > Mental Health
  • Health > Nutrition
  • Internet
  • Leadership
  • Legal
  • Money & Finance
  • Productivity
  • Science
  • Science > Neuroscience
  • Software
  • Travel & Adventure

Storage

There will be stacks of digital artifacts that you’ll stuff into a dusty corner in the attic, rarely-if-ever to reference again. Examples might include:

  • Legal Documents
  • Receipts and Invoices

Vault

Not surprisingly this is the same as storage, only for sensitive items. Passwords, drivers’ licenses, passports and software keys are common examples.

  • Boxcryptor as a layer of encryption over Dropbox for sensitive documents containing Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

The aside on metadata

Metadata refers to extra information that you store alongside the data itself. For example, you might manually tag a note with the keyword “travel,” or your journaling app might automatically attach the GPS coordinates of your location, the weather, etc. to your journal entry.

Wrapping up

In the next half of this guide we will transition from theory to practice, with more examples of my daily setup and the essential tools that I rely on to maintain my own O.S.

References

The “universal model” for personal organization I’ve introduced here is undoubtedly inspired by the work of others as much as my own effort. If you’d like to dig deeper into digital organization, knowledge management, and productivity methods, here are a few good places to start.

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Cameron Flint

Cameron Flint

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