Finding stuff

I have always had some sort of folder system for holding all the bits of information, project documents and important personal details. However, it was always a nightmare to find anything, particularly if it was a year or two old (like that really good CV I wrote or my killer project plan). I would end up doing a global search and painfully trawling through the many results. A huge waste of valuable time.

A while back I came across the Johnny Decimal system and the logic of it appealed to me. In his system you divide everything into ten or fewer areas and these areas into categories, giving you a two-digit number. Finance/Tax would be 11 (the first digit saying it is in the finance area and the second digit is the category of tax). Subfolders for tax (say the years) are then given a sequential number so you end up with 11.01 representing tax for 2019 (or 11-01 as computers often hate periods in filenames). For more details please visit the website.

I dutifully created a big mind map of all the types of stuff I wanted to squirrel away and quickly found that this was the Achilles heel of the Johnny Decimal system (or at least my interpretation of it). You can make it far too complicated and have a lot of folders. The big problem with a lot of folders is:

When you have lots of folders, a new item can often belong in several places.

Retrieving an item was no easier either, as what I was looking for could logically be in multiple locations too. Remembering the numbers (what 10.01 was) also became a big problem and I had to frequently consult my mindmap for reference, which rather defeated the objective of an easy-to-find organisation system.

More recently I came across an article where the person explained his simple implementation of the 'PARA' system. All folders for his projects started with a 'P', his areas with an 'A' etc. I had a lightbulb moment. Why not use letters instead of Johnny's numbers? At the same time, it became obvious to condense everything down into the PARA sections, ending up with four top folders rather than the potential Johnny Decimal's ten (I had eight). It simplified things a lot. For example:

  • PW for work projects (Projects Work). I could then either number or name the subfolders for individual projects
  • AF for my finance area (Area Finance)
  • AP for my personal area (Area Personal) with health records, family details and the like
  • RN for general notes (Resource Notes)
  • RS for software resources (Resource Software)
  • ....and more

Best of all, I could remember them! It was better but I still had too many potential locations where I could file something new. The answer to this was to think carefully and create a very flat structure with as few folders as possible. The good old keep-it-simple principle. Originally I had a group of folders like:

  • AF-Tax (in a true JD hybrid this would be AF-01 Tax)
  • AF-Invoices
  • AF-Statements
  • RS-Devonthink
  • RS-Affinity
  • RS-Java

This, on the whole, did work but, looking at the folders, some only had one or two documents in them, which seemed a waste. I could simplify it further. What I do now is put all things to do with finance in AF-Finance. Yes, one big bucket. I use tags to label the 'type' of a document- #tax, #invoice, #statement and can use this to filter things down quickly. Similarly a single RS-Software folder with tags for the type of software. You might want to keep subfolders. My big mindmap is now much smaller and easy to understand. I hardly ever look at it.

The last A of PARA is 'archive'. I generally have an end-of-year routine where I move things into an archive for that year. Projects, once finished, go into the year in which they started. What I decided to do was to keep my two-letter designation of a folder when I moved it into the archive. Project PW-21 Client X Warehouse stayed as 'PW-21 Client X Warehouse' when I moved into the 2022 archive. How did this help? For every year in my archive, there will be AF- (finance area) folder(s) with all financial information for that year and PW-xx folders for every finished work project. I can globally search for 'AF-' and get all finance folders for all years. Similarly 'PW-' will give me all completed work projects by the year I started them.

This is my simple hybrid of PARA and JD with area/category letters rather than numbers. The key is that a folder carries its two letters (and number - if being a JD purist) where ever it goes or whatever application it resides in.