A Mental Model for Personal Organization (Part I)

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.

Welcome, reader.

My aim is to give you a simple, practical, and flexible guide on how to build your own personal organizational system.

Building an organizational system (OS) establishes a foundation that can lead to less stress, better productivity, and more efficient personal growth. It may sound like unnecessary up-front work, but you’re probably doing something like it already: bookmarking websites, jotting down notes, taking pictures, writing documents, organizing files, and saving articles you find on the web — to name only a few examples.

You probably already have a system, but it may or may not be organized.

Managing information is an essential skill. The problem in doing so is that it’s hard to start from scratch, and painful to learn by trial-and-error. Yet, that is how most of us begin.

There are myriads of approaches, schools of thought, and opinions to be found on the topic of personal productivity. Confounding the matter is the atomic explosion of software, apps, and tools that are available to us to produce or manage digital information, many of which aren’t designed to interoperate with one other.

Popular approaches to systematic organization tend to favor one tool over the other. This guide will take a different approach, by introducing a universal model that you can use to build a personalized organizational system (OS) using any combination of software or apps — even physical materials — that you like.

In the first half of the guide (this article), I will introduce a general way of thinking about personal organization by developing a mental model. The model can be applied to digital organization, physical organization, or a hybrid of both. In the second part, I will switch from theory to practice by introducing essential tools and examining a real setup.

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.

Regardless of your pursuits and how far you are along in the journey, you’ve probably experienced to some degree the unpleasant state of feeling fuzzily disorganized, adrift in the everyday chaos, scattered about and feeling a little anxious about it.

What follows is a set of techniques that can help you to get your bearings, take control of your organizational strategy, and focus on what matters most to you. And we get started regardless of your role, occupation, choice of hardware or software, workplace constraints, or individual situation.

But enough of the sales pitch, let’s dig in.

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.

Everyone will have a slightly different set of use cases based on their own needs, but the most common ones are written below. Try to think of your own unique use cases as you scan the list.

  • Taking notes.
  • 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.

Of course, a list like this could go on forever. A great deal of activities involve consuming, integrating, combining, producing, or referencing some form of information.

Because there are so many potential use cases, I like to consider them as motivating examples, then group them into generic digital activities:

  • Quickly capturing a thought, idea, or task. When something pops into your head and you want to make sure you don’t forget it, you typically write it down. Do you grab a scrap of paper, scribble on it, then hope it doesn’t get lost? Do you use one of a hundred note-taking apps you’ve installed on your phone? What are the realistic chances of your organically revisiting that note later?
  • 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.

With the general use cases sketched out, let’s take another moment to gather a few requirements for our O.S.

A “requirement” is another engineering term that refers to a characteristic of a product or process that makes it useful to the person using it. We can use requirements to think either about the O.S. we design as a whole, and/or about the individual tools that we choose to use with it.

The key requirements for our organizational system are:

  1. Portability. If you use digital tools, ask yourself: Can I easily get my data into and out of the application, including moving it from one service to another? Will my workflow adapt if I use different tools? The software market is constantly in a state of flux, with new products arising and dying seemingly every day. We don’t need to constantly jump the bandwagon for the sake of following trends, but we do need to exercise some judgement. Take care to chose services that are likely to be long-lived, and at the minimum don’t restrict your ability to export your data in an open format (text, Markdown, JSON, PDF, image, document, OPML, etc.) in the event that they shut down.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

For example, my personal system involves storing photos in Apple Photos, files in Dropbox, notes in Nimbus, documents in Google Docs, and bookmarks in Raindrop.io. Each of these services excels at a specific use case, so I have chosen to sacrifice consolidation for function. However, by carefully choosing each tool and applying one organizational model across them, I don’t feel scattered.

Another thorny dilemma the universal model helps solve is to step back from the usage of complex hierarchies (e.g. folder structure, nested groups, namespaces) and labels (or tags). We don’t need to choose hierarchies or labels at this 10,000 ft view of our digital system yet, instead leaving it to the implementation stage.

The universal model has 9 components, and we’ll look at each of them in turn — don’t worry if the terms seem abstract at the moment.

The 9 top-level components of the mental model.

(Note to readers: if you can think of a metaphor that could inspire more interesting names to the universal components, I would love to hear them.)

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:

  • random tasks
  • notes written in a hurry
  • articles to read
  • unfinished thoughts
  • throwaway grocery lists

My intake setup includes:

  1. Drafts app that I can use to “just start writing” and organize later
  2. Pocket app for articles I want to read later
  3. An “Intake” folder in Raindrop.io for bookmarks I want to come back to
  4. Two folders in Nimbus, “Unfiled” and “Temporary” for quick captures & throwaway notes
  5. The “Watch Later” playlist in YouTube for educational videos
  6. 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:

  • Plans & Goals
  • Review — Annual
  • Review — Monthly
  • Journal

Remember that these items don’t necessarily need to physically live in the same place, only that they are grouped here as part of a the same logical concept due to their shared “meta” nature.

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.

I keep special folders for:

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

The PARA Method [1] describes an area as a sphere of activity where you maintain responsibilities or commitments. It is typically a long running (> 1 month) area of focus with some central importance to you. Since it’s important, you may want to maintain a level of standard for an area: such as getting good grades, making your business successful, pleasing your partner, and so forth. The PPV Method [2] uses the term “pillar” to describe a similar — though not exactly the same — concept.

Areas can be a tricky concept to distinguish from the other organizational components. Since areas are big buckets, I try to put things here that don’t fall into the previous categories, especially not information that’s useful to me long-term or that might come in handy outside of its originating context. For example, if I write myself a checklist at work to remind myself all the steps involved in starting new software development projects, instead of using areas, I would place that checklist directly into my collections so that I could quickly find it later even if I’ve since changed jobs.

You should probably only be maintaining 5–7 areas maximum during any given period of time.

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.

As of the time of this writing, a few of my top interests are:

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

Notice that this is a list of specific and current interests. Don’t use broad categories like “Engineering”; instead use e.g. “Programming Language Paradigms.” If you’re the analytical type, resist the urge to create a hierarchy — save that passion for when we get to reference.

Interests are modeled separately than two other categories coming up shortly, collections and reference, because they tend to be stored and retrieved often due to their immediate relevancy to your own… well, interests. You can think of interests as shortlist of bookmarks or favorites into your curated archives.

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:

  • photoshop or illustrator files you’re working on
  • 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

You might find it useful to keep a “Shelf” folder within the studio where projects that are temporarily stalled may be placed. If you prefer an alternate metaphor to “studio,” try one of these instead: “lab,” “workbench,” “desktop,” “executive,” “action center” or even “projects.”

In my studio setup,

  • the outlining app Workflowy plays an important role, since I often use it often to outline and brainstorm ideas. Mind-mapping software may perform the same function for more visual types.
  • 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.

Some examples of collections include:

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

(Note that this is not a recommendation to segregate every unique file type!)

Some collections are plain files that make sense to keep in cloud storage, such as books and PDFs, so these get dedicated folders in my Dropbox. Other collections are stored in dedicated services, such as photographs in Apple Photos, or repositories in GitHub.

Imagine trying to squirrel away every .MP4 and .MP3 that you own by topic, or downloading every YouTube video you find, or (if you’re a coder like me) synchronizing all your GitHub repositories to Dropbox. All of these examples break the heterogeneity rule by making the mistake of trying to organize everything into a common location. It’s perfectly fine to maintain your collections separately.

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
  • 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

The reference model is hierarchical, but it’s a good rule of thumb not to nest too deeply. For example, instead of “Engineering > Software Development > Design & Architecture > Microservices” (4 levels), consider just “Software Development > Microservices” (2 levels). Building a “wide tree” rather than a “deep tree” generally makes things easier to find things later, simply because the “path” that you think up one day to store an item might differ from what you would pick the next day.

When it comes to hierarchies, simpler is better. Try to limit hierarchy in your digital system to the reference component. Keep in mind that complex hierarchies are not only more difficult to maintain, but even more difficult to synchronize by hand between services if the need should arise.

So in sum, build your own hierarchy. Don’t adopt an existing one wholesale. And use 1–3 (maybe four) levels of nesting at the most.

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:

  • Tax Records
  • Legal Documents
  • Receipts and Invoices

It’s worth keeping these kind of records separate from the rest of your system, so that they don’t clutter it.

Vault

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

Items in the vault category require special handling because they need an additional level of security. In my setup, I rely on:

  • 1Password for storing passwords, drivers licenses, software keys, and recovery keys
  • Boxcryptor as a layer of encryption over Dropbox for sensitive documents containing Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

This completes our survey of the 9 components of the universal “mental model” for organization. If you keep these concepts in mind when designing your O.S., you will experience a lot less friction in your daily activities. Head-scratching moments such as “Should I save this?” or “Where should I put it?” or “Where did I put it?” become the exception to the rule.

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.

Manually created metadata systems tend to be arbitrary, spotty, and fall out of date quickly, requiring tedious maintenance. I find that it’s better to use metadata only for special domains such as within a research area or industry vertical. My tags are prefixed with the domain name and then a slash “/”, for example: “nootropics/dopamine.” This convention keeps the namespace depth to two levels (good), and avoids mixing tags between different universes (bad).

An exception I make to the rule just described is to apply tags to my journal entries. I add tags a) to capture emotions or internal states at the time of the entry, b) identify key persons or things in the scene, and c) associate related topics. The topics created from journaling don’t have to necessarily fit inside any prescribed category like my interests, since on a daily basis while living life I may encounter anything. The journaling tags are kept separate and isolated in their own universe by measure of my using a dedicated app (Journey), so that I don’t have to worry about organizing them much.

My use of metadata is evolving, so this section may be updated as I continue to experiment.

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.

Thank you for having the patience to read this far into my ramblings. If you have enjoyed what you read or if it inspired you in any way, please consider dropping a note to feedbackforcameron {at} fastmail.com.

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.

[1] The PARA Method (Tiago Forte)

[2] The PPV Method (August Bradley)

[3] The Zettlekasten Method

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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.