Who would have thought that one of the most powerful personal knowledge management tools available to us is the simple alphabet. For a while now I’ve been using the ideas of David Allen and his Getting Things Done (GTD) process for organising oneself. His ideas for keeping track of projects, ideas, actions and reference materials is personal knowledge management to the quick. For me and others has helped to quieten down the background noise of reminders for those things not yet done.
One of the simplest yet most powerful ideas within GTD is the reduction of noise in a personal filing system. How do you file your own reference materials? Two parameters drive the system.
1) It must be easy and fun to file materials otherwise you won’t
2) It must be easy and fun to find materials otherwise you won’t trust the results of step 1.
This is the beauty of the alphabet. Simply categorise what you have in your hand (and I mean simply), put it in a manilla folder, label it and file it under the first letter of the label. All in order and quick to retrieve. When you need something, what you have filed will be on only 1-3 places. My gas bill will be under G for Gas or T for TXU my supplier. I can find it quickly and so can my wife if I’m not around.
A complicated system may have had me file my gas bill under Bills -> Home -> Utilities -> Gas. Far to difficult to recall and far to difficult to initially categorise because I have to keep the categories and their rules in my head. Hence, nothing gets filed and it all piles up.
I came across the General Reference Filing tip before the book had arrived (Amazon isn’t the quickest on postage across the Pacific) and implemented it straight away. Read the tip a couple of times and buy a labeller. It makes all the difference. Scanning consistent and well printed text is much quicker than reading handwriting. It once took a while to read all the folder labels for my gas bill which were not ordered alphabetically, were handwritten and not always in the same place on each folder. Just now I found it in under a second. My filing cabinet is now more useful than the 4-drawer box it was.
This morning I re-organised my Outlook folders the same way. I now have a Reference Filing file (separate from my mail .pst file) and within it a long list of alphabetically ordered folders. Within five minutes I had most material refiled under the new system. That itself shows how quick the filing and retrieval can be.
This afternoon my Palm Pilot is going to get a good re-organisation as well.