Personal Information Management

I have been auditing my own information management and time management recently. I felt the need for a more structured approach. Symptoms that triggered me into investigating more efficient ways of information/time management were:

  • Overload of to-do flags in Outlook
  • Lost documents
  • Not knowing where or on what to start
  • Poor search ability through documents

In this post I will briefly describe my current way of organizing information and or time.

The ideas described here are thanks to David Allen and his “Getting things done” philosophy.

Stuff

An overview of my situation can be seen in the image below. You can see a cloud of stuff that consists of mainly digital objects; email, RSS feeds, contacts, calendars, ideas, files. But I also need to manage analog stuff; letters, agreements, receipts, business cards, articles from magazines. My goal is to manage all my stuff digitally. Analog documents that have to be kept due to legal or other reasons need to be stored in a binder which I do not access regularly. I use three devices to interact with my digital stuff; two notebooks one with Windows 7 and the other with Ubuntu 11.04 and a mobile device, an iPhone. Certain actions are related to some of the stuff in order to get things done for certain projects.

Mapping my stuff to applications

In the next image I’ve mapped my stuff to applications; all of these applications have a web interface or run native on one or more of my three platforms (Windows, Linux, iOS). We will walk through the mappings one by one, starting with the Twitter icon going clockwise to the next.

Personal stuff

Internet content

I consider my twitter timeline and RSS feeds as the most valuable internet content providers. I check twitter mostly in dull moments when I’m in between things and on the move. I scan through the tweets to see actual information on my friends’ whereabouts or short news messages. Besides these timely tweets some people/organizations I follow share articles/videos that I’d like to keep for later reading/viewing. RSS feeds almost have the same properties; I check RSS feeds during my break or after work.

The following actions can follow:

  1. Skip; don’t read, no value
  2. Read; time to read content, no need to archive
  3. Read later; no time to read, maybe valuable. I collect the URL in a specific list for later processing. For this action I use Instapaper, this service integrates well on the iPhone and can be used in Firefox by adding it as a bookmark
  4. Archive; after reading content and feeling the need to archive it for later reference I use Google Bookmarks, hence the link between Instapaper and GBookmarks. Currently I use just two lists; ‘Personal’ and ‘Work’.

Digital or analog files

Files can be of two sorts, the working kind and the reference kind. The working files are always digital; I almost can’t remember writing a document with pen and paper. The working files I store in Dropbox, reasons; easy sharing across multiple platforms and automatic versioning. The reference files I store in Evernote, reasons; easy sharing across multiple platforms and good search ability (OCR).

When documents belong to a certain project, I identify them by adding a label in the format #[project]

Clipboard

With clipboard I mean valuable stuff I encounter from both digital as analog sources. You can think of images or pieces of text in magazines or notes it took during a meeting. I simply take a photo with my iPhone and store them in Evernote. Stuff from digital sources are simply copied and pasted in Evernote. In Evernote I use the following notebooks;

  • Administration
  • Contacts
  • Personal
  • Products
  • Recipes
  • Work

When stuff belongs to a certain project, I identify them by adding a label in the format #[project]

Ideas and projects

Ideas and projects are mostly small pieces of text that I don’t want to forget. These can be one of the GTD categories:

  • Next action
  • Reference
  • Someday / maybe
  • Waiting on

The majority of these objects I store in Workflowy. This tool is absolutely great; although it is merely a simple list interface. Their slogan is “Make lists, not war”, genius! I use three main lists;

  • Work
  • Personal
  • GTD

In the GTD list I store all my single Next actions, Somedays, and Waiting for’s. For example; Fix rear wheel of bike, Call Peter for whatever, Emma bagpack (waiting on her to return it), view webinairs, etcetera.

In the Work and Personal lists I maintain all multiple actions belonging to one goal, David Allen calls these; projects. In these projects all of the GTD categories can exist. For example, I’m planning on buying an eReader. In the personal list I have a sublist called ‘eReader’, see image below. As I explore the types and models and read reviews, the specifications which the eReader needs to fulfill are collected in my mind. I store the specs and the sources I find valuable in Workflowy as I proceed in my exploration of eReaders. By adding GTD categories “@na”, “@sd”, etc. to an item, it can be easily filtered throughout the entire list. This makes summing up all my outstanding actions a piece of cake.

Contacts

I store my contacts in two places; contacts for contacting go in the Gmail contacts either via the browser or via the iPhone. Contacts for reference are stored in Evernote, these types of contacts are people I meet and give me a business card. In that case I take a photo with my iPhone and throw away the business card. The reason for this differentiation is saving time and avoiding clutter in my contact list.

Appointments

Actions that are required to be fulfilled on a certain date and time go in my calendars; Google for my personal appointments and Exchange for work appointments. I sync my work mail to a dedicated Google account in order to get an overview of all my appointments via the Google interface.

Mail

I manage my mail according to the zero inbox principle. Labels are added according to GTD and if necessary a project label. In Outlook I use ‘search folers’ to filter through the labels, in gmail this is standard functionality.

By using rules in both Outlook and Gmail I optimize the labeling for certain occasions:

Slicing and dicing

All my stuff is stored in applications that suits them best (in my opinion) by labeling everything in a consistent way it is easy to slice and dice through my stuff to get a glimpse of mine or someone else’s required actions and my project related stuff.

Slice and dice

Final words

It took me some attempts to finalize this post; it is still “work in progress” and thus subject to change. And I often asked myself for whom and why I was documenting this? The best answers I could come up with are for myself, and in order to analyze my findings so far.

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