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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 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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