My PIM, Part I: Keeping and organizing to find again later.

I post this series of posts on my practice of personal information management (PIM) in the spirit of “My Personal Information Management” (http://hci-user-advocate.blogspot.com/2010/01/my-personal-information-management.html) posts by Ben Bederson and also in the spirit of similar posts by students in the reading seminar I am teaching in the spring quarter of 2012, “The Future of Personal Information Management” (https://courses.washington.edu/infx571s/spr12/, see esp. http://courses.washington.edu/infx571s/mediawiki/index.php?title=INFX571SP12:Community_portal).

This first post describes my own approach to the creation and use of a personal unifying taxonomy or PUT in support of three essential activities of PIM:

1.      Keeping – where to put new information?

2.      Finding/Refinding – where to look for existing information?

3.      Maintaining & organizing – how to group information together so that the “right, relevant” information is together in one place when I need it, can be shared with others in group projects and, ultimately, can be archived as a unit?

In subsequent posts, I’ll say more about my approach to three other activities of PIM:

4.      Managing privacy & the flow of information (incoming & outgoing). This will include an information-centric approach to time & task management through the use of email, web browser tabs, open windows, paper notepads and a Planz prototype developed on the Keeping Found Things Found project (http://kftf.ischool.washington.edu/planner_index.htm).

5.      Measuring & evaluating. This is hardest PIM activity for me. How do I (really) know what’s working and what needs to change in my practice of PIM?

6.      Making sense of things. What is my information telling me? How do the pieces relate? How I use the information I have to make decisions and to get things done?

I use file system folders for my PUT. Folders give me a sense of ownership and control that I do not feel when I use tool-specific organizing constructs such as the section and page tabs of MS OneNote or the labels (and now folders) of Gmail. Also, file system folders (I’m on Windows currently but may move to the Mac) are more “real” – made more real, for example, because files created through one application can, in principle, be viewed and worked with in other applications. (Try doing the comparable for information sandboxed in the application space of a mobile palmtop device.)

At first glance, my file system looks like a mess. For example, the structure under “My Documents” is not especially either – not really for documents and certainly not created by _my_ direct intention. I see folders such as “Adobe”, “Adobe Captivate Cached Projects”, ‘Adobe Ultra CS3”, “AdobeStockPhotos” and, farther down in the listing, “My Adobe Captivate Projects”. Nearly all of the folders under “My Documents” have  been created “for me” by the applications that have been installed. (I use a system image supported by the very capable IT staff at the Information School, University of Washington). I don’t use many of these applications. And even for those I do use, I suspect some of the subfolders may have been superseded and are no longer active. I can’t tell, don’t have time to find out and don’t dare delete. I’ve abandoned “My Documents” as a place for my information.

Figure 1. This partial listing under "My Documents" is neither -- neither especially about documents nor done through my direct intention.

 

The situation is equally messy at the next level up. Immediately under the folder for “me” (my username) I also see mostly subfolders that have been created by various applications. Again I see, for example, for Adobe applications subfolders such as “Adobe Flash Builder 4” and “Adobe Flash Builder 4.5”.

 

Figure 2. The top-level listing under my user name is also mostly subfolders created by applications.

But under my username folder are two essential folders for my PUT: “Projects” and “Life”. Much of the digital information I care about is either “stored” or referenced from the folder structures under one of these two folders.

“Projects” is for projects broadly defined. Each folder under the ‘Projects” folder represents some kind of project (activity, endeavor) that I hope to complete. I give folders a special kind of name according to the format: <date>, <name>. The date is in  ISO date format (ISO 8601) which means that folders sorted by name provide a crude, but effective, timeline of activities, past and planned.

 

  • 2012-09, VA ProWatch project
  • 2012-09, INFO 320 preparation
  • 2012-05-30, MSIM, Zarya, Ali, Ramji
  • 2012-05-24, review paper for Bob Mason
  • 2012-05-05, CHI 2012
  • 2012-05, XooML 2.0
  • 2012-05, PIM course proposal
  • 2012-04-27, Dub retreat
  • 2012-04-20, performance reviews
  • 2012-04-19, UW iSchool, activity insight, annual review
  • 2012-04-15, taxes 2011
  • 2012-04, INFX 571, Future of PIM
  • 2012-03-31, 2012-04-08, spring break

 

Dates are often rough. If I know only the year or year + month of the activity, that’s all I put down for the date portion (e.g., “2012” or “2012-07”). On rare occasion, I may use the date portion of the folder name to represent a date range (e.g., “2012-08-13, 09-15”). 

The “name” portion that follows the “date” portion in a project folder’s name is simply something to remind me of what the project is all about. When possible, I try to include words that are likely to appear elsewhere for the associated activity (e.g., in the subject lines of email messages and title or URL of associated web sites).

Structure within a project folder varies according to the nature of the project:

Ø  Some projects are instances of a standard activity. The same basic structure applies to each instance. For example, for any project involving vacation or travel planning, I usually have a section called “travel” in which I record information related to confirmations and travel itinerary.

Ø  Some projects involve the completion of several components. For example, completion of an NSF proposal requires the submission of a budget, bios, project summary, project description, data management plan, etc.. These components are often represented as subfolders under the project folder.

Ø  Projects of longer duration often generate a need to complete subprojects which are not easily foreseen at project outset. Often I represent these subprojects as subfolders under the project’s folder and with a folder name that follows the same template (e.g., <date>, <subproject name>).

Two special circumstances to note:

Ø  A larger project may sometimes be contingent upon the outcome of an earlier project. For example, I may attend a conference only if my submission to this conference is accepted. The submission is represented initially as a project in its own right (as a folder directly under the “Projects” folder). Likewise, the reviews I agree to do for this conference are represented by a separate project folder. (The date portion of a folder name in these cases is the due or deadline date). Later, should a submission be accepted, I’ll create another project folder for the conference itself and then I’ll move the submission and review folders to be subfolders of this new folder. “Travel” information is then in another subfolder.

Ø  In cases of groupwork, I want to share project information with teammates. I currently use DropBox which requires that shared folders be placed within a parent “Dropbox” folder. This is not ideal for me (and I may switch to another system that lets me leave my folders where they are). But, for now, I still create a folder representing the project under “Projects” and then, within this folder, I create a shortcut pointing to the shared Dropbox folder.

A project is archived by moving its folder to one of two places:

1.      To be a subfolder under a folder for a larger project (e.g., a folder representing the effort to submit a paper is moved to become a subfolder of a larger project folder for the conference.

2.      To a folder under the Projects folder which is named “zz archive”.

Ben Benderson similarly uses a subfolder titled “zzz Old Stuff” as a repository for information that is no longer active. In both cases, the intention is to move inactive information out of the way so that it doesn’t clutter and distract but so that the information stays close to its original context. Likewise and for similar intention, I create “zz archive” folders within project and subproject folders.

When project work involves the creation of several versions of the same document, I will often create an additional “zz versions” folder with a slightly different purpose than the “zz archive” folder. The “zz versions” folder contains earlier versions and variations on a document “just in case”. On rare occasion, and esp. for larger documents, I may suspect that I’m not working with the current version of a document or that this version is missing important pieces present in a previous version. In these cases, I can look inside the “zz versions” folder. In many other cases, the “zz versions” folder for a project is a reassuring place to stash document versions esp. those that come me from co-authors or as generated after a crash of my word processor. At project’s completion I may often delete the “zz versions” folder but will keep the “zz archive” folder.

Finally, and especially for projects that involve a paper or presentation as the output, I will often create two special files. The first is a food” (for thought) file as an MS Word document in outline view. The file is named to have the project’s name (e.g., “Submit paper to altchi” followed by “, food”. This file is my place to write down any thoughts I might have about associated paper or presentation – e.g., its content or logistics related to its completion.

The second file has the same name only with “food” replaced by “leftovers”. When editing a document, it is often necessary to make cuts. If I give even a moment’s thought to whether I might like to use the cut material somewhere else (in this or another document), I slam the cut material into the “leftovers” file. I honestly cannot think of a time when I’ve ever gone back to a leftovers file to retrieve cut material. But using the file saves me moments of indecision.

A final (for this post) word on projects. I prefer to view and access my projects using Planz, a prototype developed in our Keeping Found Things Found project <ref>. Planz was designed to provide document-like/outliner-like overlays to file folder structure or, more generally, to any information structure for which there is a metadata expression in “XooML” <ref>. I find the following features to be especially useful:

1.      I can order a listing of project “headings” (where headings represent project folders) so that the projects currently most in need of my attention are placed topmost.

2.      With a heading expanded, I can type in or paste notes directly for things I’m otherwise likely to forget (such as budget numbers).

3.      I can drag and drop an email message into the area under a project heading. As I do so, a special shortcut is created back to the email message. More important, any attachments of the email message become “real” as files placed under the project folder.

4.      I can also “promote” a folder shortcut to appear as a subheading under a project heading and then, in the spirit of an outline, I can expand this subheading to view – in-place -- the contents of its corresponding folder.

 

 

Life

And now a few words about “Life”, the sibling folder to “Projects”. The Life folder is for information that isn’t associated with a specific project or that I may wish to use repeatedly across projects. Playing with the theme of “roles and goals”, I have two folders immediately under “Life” named “Roles & People” and “Goals & Things”. I almost never use “Roles & Things”.

I do use “Roles & People” infrequently. For example, I have a subfolder for my son in which I stash various bits and pieces of digital information such as report cards, assignments, information related to academic choices. I have other subfolders for other people in my life (e.g., my wife, mother, sister, deceased father, various friends, etc.) I also have subfolders to represent my various roles in life – e.g., as “neighbor”(I put contact information for neighbors into this subfolder), “citizen” (with a sub-subfolder representing my involvement in local issues and another sub-subfolder for national and international politics that contains, for example, Web links for how to contact my senators and congress person).

I also have a “Regions” folder immediate under the “Life” folder and under this are folders for various collections including articles with my own highlights that I reference repeatedly across the papers, presentations and books that I have authored over the years.

There is much more to say about the “Life” folder and my conventions for naming folders and files within this folder. But I’ll save this for another post.

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