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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 September 28, 2020

    The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

    The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

    At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

    Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

    One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

    When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

    So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

    Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

    This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

    Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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    When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

    Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

    One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

    Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

    An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

    When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

    Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

    Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

    We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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    By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

    Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

    While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

    I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

    You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

    Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

    When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

    Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

    Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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    Con #2: Less Human Interaction

    One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

    Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

    Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

    This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

    While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

    Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

    Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

    This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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    For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

    Con #4: Unique Distractions

    Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

    For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

    To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

    Final Thoughts

    Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

    We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

    More About Working From Home

    Featured photo credit: Standsome Worklifestyle via unsplash.com

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