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Two little joys and sorrows using my filing system

I had a couple of surprising ups and downs today while retrieving from my filing system. (I use the simple alphabetical scheme described in David Allen's book Getting Things Done.) First, a housemate needed to connect her G4 Mac to our wireless router. I located the folder in my first try, under the heading (wait for it...) "Wireless" in about 10 seconds. Thankfully, my notes included the Mac-specific detail of using a dollar sign before the WEP password - hard-earned knowledge that made getting set up a snap. Sweet!

Sadly, my second try to find a file was the extreme opposite: I needed some warranty information for our exercise bike (the awesome Vision Fitness E3100), but I couldn't find it anywhere. I spent at least fifteen minutes looking through all the categories I expected it would be under - "Receipts - Equipment", "Receipts - Bikes", "Manuals - Equipment", "Manuals - Electronics", "Exercise", "Bike", etc. Nothing! I then checked my secondary storage (three cardboard banker's boxes in my closet) with no luck. It really bugged me, and I was ready to give up when I remembered a "catch all" drawer in our pantry that I vaguely recalled had some papers. Sure enough; the drawer was a nice little hidey hole that I had missed in my initial collection process. The lesson: Check all of your nooks and crannies.

I finished up by using the information to add an action to my @calls list (including the phone number, of course), and I added "file bottom pantry drawer papers" to my @home list.

Reader Comments (8)

Hi Matt,

This is how I handle my stuff, I keep it all indexed in one big (spreadsheet) file.
To use your examples, one could search for keywords "wireless" and then "E3100"

I have been using a single Excel worksheet as a PIM at work for over
one year, and I don't know how I could function without it. I keep the file
on my desktop and plonk anything and everything that I may want to recall someday.
I just write or paste a one line description of the item when I can and timestamp the entry.
When I need to do a search I can usually find an item very quickly based on a word or two
that I can remember.

I think that our language is full of three letter acronyms for a
reason- you can describe nearly any pre-defined notion in three words.
Take the Wizzard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West for example. I wouldn't be sure how to
file this character within a hierarchy, but I could find her quickly with two or three
keyword searches and the order of the searches does not even matter.

So putting a search tool with together with my growing list of stored knowledge
in one big file has turned out to be incredibly efficient for me.

Things I keep in my personal knowledge base:

contact information- phone # email address, birthdays, etc
dear diary type entries: stuff that happens, rants, raves, whatever I'm thinking, like a blog
document events, purchases, anything out of the ordinary,
links to websites that I may want to look up again
links to files on my hard drive, spreadsheets, letters, emails
master index to my paper document filing system. Each document is simply
labeled with consecutive numbers, like your checkbook.
"quote of the day" - anything that I think is interesting.
To do list items: such as GTD items Next action, Waiting, Someday, etc
passwords that I can never remember (Amazon, two different myFamily.com sites, on and on

I am averaging about 8 entries per day.

How I use it:

I like to keep the format simple. Column A = date
Column B- optional category or context
Column C- optional category or context
Column D = description or headline of the item. this is text and is written to
include keywords that can be searched later. this text can be the
complete thought or factiod or item , pasted text from email or
website, or a descriptive reference to a paper document, website, whatever.
Column E = reference index. This can be a hyperlink to file on the sever,
hard drive, website, etc or index to a paper file in my file cabinet. I
simply label each paper document with a pre-numbered mailing label
(document 1,document 2, etc) and date it, stick in the file. I let
the program do the sorting for bvy running reports:

I have developed two report formats to navigate this information:

1) MessageBox search- enter a keyword (string) , hit go, and the first
hit will be displayed in a message box . this will
display the entire contents of the cell containing the keyword. COOL!
If this is what I am looking for, I can stop there. done.I Found it.
ha. If not I hit "Next" and the next occurrence is displayed. and on
and on . This process works from the bottom up so the most recent
items are displayed first like in my own human memory.

2) ad-hoc report(s) created in a new worksheet. Enter a keyword, hit go,
and each ROW containing the keyword will be copied onto the report
sheet complete with original formatting and hyperlinks. A search engine type
message is included like "124 results for Robert, 1 second" Now this
report can be used as the source for another search : the next report
will read "4 results for Smith, 0 seconds within 124 results for
Robert, 1 second".

So I have drill down reports.

A trackback type feature will take me from a report item back to the
original item in the source worksheet for editing or updating.

I think that setting up a filing hierarchy on the front end is a thing
of the past for me. When I want to retrieve a file artifact or recall an
event, it is often in a different context than when I originally filed
it and I have to try to remember how I might have filed way back when.

I have found that the keyword searches allow me to find something from
many different directions. I have all this data on a single level in
this file and I use my report tools to navigate this file.

And maybe most importantly, as the file grows daily, it becomes more valuable like a
bank account that bears interest . And as a result of this whole process, I have accidentally
trained myself to better evaluate the importance of everyday items and events as they occur.


October 29, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Thanks a bunch for the detailed comment, tom. First, I think a digital system like the one you've created has some real benefits over a paper one, and you've outlined many of them. You may be interested in these posts, where I talk about the topic in more detail:

[ Organizing Electronic Documents GTD-Style? | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/09/organizing-electronic-documents-gtd.html ]
[ Photo Blogs, Wikis, and Memories for Life | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/04/photo-blogs-wikis-and-memories-for.html ]
[ My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/08/my-big-arse-text-file-poor-mans.html ]

Second, how do you organize your paper-based system, and is it integrated with your digital one? Thanks again!

October 31, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


One of the links you provided said, "Our computer hardware has evolved beyond our expectations. But the software we use to manage all this data has not."

I could not agree more. My PIM is an attempt to leverage the memory and quick search capacity of the computer while allowing me to focus on what my brain does best, which I think might be forming spider web - looking networks of all this stuff. Attempts to represent these networks somehow on a computer feel unnatural. My PIM system has been developed in Excel because it allows me some structure, formatting and programming abilities to test my ideas. Excel may not be the best at a lot of tasks but it’s versatile like a Swiss army knife

If we can agree that language is central to our thinking then you can see how keywords can be used to interface to this large digital library of one big file.

First, let me say that I only use this system at work so far, and have only started using it at home. Will have to get my better half on board before it will work at home, but I think that she is coming around. I think that I could (Should?) merge my big work file with my (future) big home file to have one master document of all my information. There are obviously some corporate security and personal privacy issues to be worked out here, but can you imagine the power of this? And what if it was on the web, accessible from any Internet enabled device? like a phone, pda, pc, etc.

To answer your question, all papers that are not filed in a dedicated structured filing system like “Customer Invoices” or “MSDS sheets” are indexed in my digital system with a brief description. It seems that it’s always the oddball or out of the ordinary stuff that is difficult to retrieve so I am trying to capture those items as they occur. The other day my boss uncovered an official looking letter from a government agency. The letter was about 3 months old, no action item but it looked too important to toss. So naturally he gives it to me and says "you might want to keep this". His problem was solved, mine just began. So I enter a description of the item that will be rich with tags or keywords for future searches and slapped that sucker with the next document # label, filed it and went on with my work. (I think that Excel allows about 1000 characters per cell which is plenty for most facts. Longer than this and I will link to an external file.) If I ever need to retrieve this item, I can do it quickly. All these paper documents are filed in numerical order which approximates chronological order. If an article turns into something larger like a project, that original document number will be retained and future additions to that file are indexed in my big list with its corresponding number. A project activity report can be created by searching for the string "Document 451" as each reference to that search string will be listed out in chronological order. This has saved my butt several times.

Somebody once commented "What I'd ideally like is an application that allows me to "tag" my files ala del.icio.us or flickr.com and then allow me to pull up lists of all files with a particular tag." I think that this is a step in that direction.

So this is how my digital world interfaces with the physical world. As an index to a paper document in my paper file folder, or if it is too big for the file cabinet, then maybe a note or instructions that the spare fuses for the new Alludium Q36 Explosive Space Modulator are located in the door of the control panel on the bridge.

Your example "Here we are at the Jones's house during the great party they had in our honor. You can see Sue hamming it up on stilts" is a great description. In my system this item could be found with a number of string search combinations. For instance a combined search of "Sue" &".jpg" would locate all the .jpg pictures of Sue. I’m guessing that just “stilts” would do it for most people’s photo collections unless you were in the circus business. In the GTD realm, I can create an ad hoc report for say, "Waiting" & "George". If George happens to work for me he's got to love that!

My system does not yet interface to my email system. Like David Allen I think maybe it is best to leave the email system stand alone. For select emails that I want to include in my big file I have two choices: digital or paper. For paper, I just print the email and label it document # next. For digital, I copy the text and paste into my file. Even better, I start a Reply to message that gives me a nice heading like "Jerry wrote at 1:58 PM : "yada yada yada" , copy the heading and the message and paste that in my file. then delete the reply to draft message. I can later search for "Jerry wrote" or "Elaine wrote" for e-mail messages. Update: I just realized that I can copy my gmail inbox and paste the text into Excel. This creates a list of my emails including the sender, subject line and date received, which can now be added to my big file. I may have to try this for a while to see if its useful.



November 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Wow. Again, thanks for the great detail and deep analysis. I've been meaning to write up a comparison of a system called [ The Paper Tiger | http://thepapertiger.com/ ], which supports some of the features you talk about. I strongly dislike their PR materials, but the concept seems related to yours. Also, if you want to chat, send me an email and we can connect.

November 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I tried various strategies and methods for storing my random infos, and I finally (hopefully) have settled with tiddlywiki variant - http://simonbaird.com/mptw/ - have changed the way I see information on my computer now ;-)

January 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for the pointer to MonkeyPirateTiddlyWiki2, Anonymous. I do wonder if this approach scales - my emacs file, where I store ideas, notes, etc. is about 1/2MB (13K lines). Have you had a chance to push its limits?

January 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Brilliant idea. You have confirmed what I have been thinking for years. Finally today, I was about to start a PIM Excel sheet. I began putting in a few categories. I paused after the first two entries, stopped to see if the Net could give me any advice, and came up with your fine entry.

You've saved me loads of time. Why organize alphabetically or in any other manner when a computer search makes it arcane?

I was thinking I'd just rely on Excel "Find" but the problem is it won't do strings. You get around that with Message Box and ad hoc searches. But, what are these? Features within Excel?

PD Nitz

March 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPNitz

I have awesome readers :-)

March 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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