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Back to Basics: Reference Filing

Back to Basics: Reference Filing

Reference Filing

    One of the greatest sources of clutter in just about any office environment is unfiled paperwork. I think everyone suffers at least a little from Keep-It Syndrome, that horrendous affliction that causes us to imbue every scrap of paper that crosses our desks with a mysterious power that makes it nearly impossible to throw anything away.

    At least part of the problem is indecisiveness. Many of the papers that we keep aren’t really necessary, but we keep then “just in case” we need them down the road. Since they’re not particularly useful, they’re hard to organize in any meaningful way, so they stack up or get shoved into a shoebox or crammed into an unruly filing cabinet in no particular order.

    But that’s only part of the problem. A deeper problem is knowing we need something, but not knowing how to file it in a way that keep s it out of our way when we don’t need it but makes it easy to retrieve in a moment when we do need it. The fear of losing something important, or forgetting about it, can be paralyzing, often leading us to leave more stuff out than we file away.

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    Filing is probably the easiest, least thought-requiring task you can do in an office, yet because so much is at risk, it creates a great deal of anxiety – and in virtually every office environment I’ve ever worked in, that anxiety has contributed greatly to the failure of the filing getting done.

    So what to do?

    First of all, we need to distinguish between several different kinds of papers. The first are project files, which I’ve discussed before – these need to be close at hand, and are usually the easiest to figure out. The second are official documents – invoices, bills, receipts, forms, reports, meeting minutes, etc. These also tend to fall into natural categories that suggest themselves and are easy to develop a filing system around.

    The real problem area when it comes to filing is reference material. Reference material is anything that contains information that we need or will need at some point and which will have an application beyond their immediate use. For me, one major body of reference material – we’re talking maybe 10,000 pages here – are academic articles and notes that I’ve been collecting since I started graduate school over a decade ago. As an academic, I use this material for writing papers, researching topics for presentation in class, and provoking new ideas – but none of it does me any good if I can’t find what I’m looking for when I’m looking for it.

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    The system that immediately suggests itself is alphabetical, and for years that was how I organized most of my papers: alphabetical by author’s last name, just like my books. The problem with this system is that while it’s easy to figure out where new papers go – just look at the author’s last name – file retrieval is a pain. If I want information on food taboos in the South Pacific, for example, I have to remember that Margaret Mead wrote about that topic. Mead’s easy to remember – she is probably the most famous of all anthropologists – but what if the paper I want is something I glanced at by an author whose name I can’t recall, maybe a graduate student at an obscure university?

    To solve the problem of retrieval, I reorganized many of my files according to main subject. This is the system that David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, and it does greatly assist with retrieval. After several years of topic-based filing, I had several nicely organized drawers with folders arranged alphabetical by topic: “Colonialism” after  “Cold War” and before  “Counter-Insurgency”. Finding a folder full of references on any particular topic was a breeze.

    On top of the filing cabinet, though, was a growing pile of unfiled papers. Un-file-able papers. Papers that dealt equally with two or more topics, papers that didn’t lend themselves to any easily-remembered topic heading, and so on. As Allen notes, if it takes more than a few seconds to file something, the chances that you’ll do it drop drastically – filing has to be quick, easy, and even fun, or we’ll resist doing it. Which means that as my pile of work I couldn’t categorize, label, and file in a few seconds grew, I became more and more resistive towards filing altogether.

    And thus my empire of paper fell.

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    Enter the Paper Dragon

    The system I am beginning to implement is inspired by the system used by the Paper Tiger document management software. In the Paper Tiger system, files are numbered and filed low to high. Each new document or group of documents goes into the next available empty folder, and a description of the contents and keywords are entered under that folder’s number in the software’s database. Thus, my folder full of resources on counter-insurgency might be in folder 08174; to find it, I simply search the database for “counter-insurgency”, which will tell me exactly where the documents I need are.

    The Paper Tiger software isn’t cheap – the full-featured version of individual end-users is around $170. Instead, I’m creating a simple spreadsheet, with columns as follows:

    Folder #  |  Title  | Author  |  Keywords  |  Notes

    The folder number column is already numbered to 1000 (or 01000, actually – I can add more numbers up to 99,999 if I need to. I’m thinking long haul, here!). The idea is that to find anything, I can CTRL-F search. Later, I can create queries against the table, but for now, a simple “find in page” search should be sufficient. Later still, I can import the whole shebang into Access or some other database – maybe I’ll go crazy one weekend and import it into MySQL and write a Ruby on Rails front end! (I’ve always wanted to learn Ruby on Rails…)

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    The Paper Tiger is essentially a tagging system for physical documents (although technically it could be extended to cover digital documents on my PC or, indeed, any item anywhere that I was willing to catalog. But the important thing is, it solves both the problem of filing – without being restricted to one topic heading, I no longer have to worry about not being able to find something because I filed it under “Imperialism” and looked for it under “Colonialism” – and the problem of retrieval – the only skill I need to find a file is counting.

    What about you? How have you solved your filing problems – or have you? What hasn’t worked for you in the past (or the present), and what has? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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