A dear friend of mine has a favourite saying from Henry Adams: “Chaos was the law of nature. Order was the dream of man.” It’s a great quote, and quite telling. Our quest for organization and structure is a Sisyphean uphill quest against the relentless forces of nature that are determined to drag us back down.
I’m in large part living this reality right now. I’ve been striving to get organized—although, to put not-too-fine-a-point on it, I’ve been striving for organization for thirty-plus years, with fleeting and varied success. Part of that revolves around planning and time management, which I’ve discussed previously. My current challenge, however, relates to note taking and organizing information.
There are some essential strategies that I’ve adopted over the course of time. David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a resource I have continued to recommend over the years, talks about information that we come across as either being actionable or reference. Actionable items are those things that we have to do something with (renewal requests for everything from magazine subscriptions to mortgages, for example). The piece of paper is the reminder to take action; once that action is taken, we often don’t need to hang on to whatever prompted it (although I am quite sure that there are those that diligently and zealously file this and every other piece of correspondence they receive).
Reference materials are those that we want to hang on to. That might be a manual for a camera, the instructions for your food processor or a catalogue from your favourite office supplies store (yes, those all still exist, and on paper no less). Just to complicate things, those same resources are often now taking digital form, whether manuals for software, articles and papers or entire books.
Then there are the other resources that you acquire, as you research, study or figure out the answer to current logistical hurdles. I have reference materials and research papers from courses that I have completed. Other research comes from projects that I have done, and projects that I anticipate doing. There are links to articles I’ve downloaded and want to save, others that I’ve tagged and want to read and still others that I think would be useful to share at some point.
Roam the planet for long enough, and you can start to accumulate an impressive hoard of materials. Some are paper-based, others are digital, and some exist in both media. In some instances you have the file, in other circumstances you have a link to a file stored online and very often you just have a bookmark or link to a web page. I have bookmarks stored in browsers, articles captured in RSS readers and files downloaded to computers. Some of those have been unceremoniously dumped in my downloads folder, Others show up in Dropbox. Some are in Evernote. Still others are in OneNote. I have links in various other note taking and journalling software. I also have links in to-dos in my time management software.
What all of this means is that if I’m trying to put my hands on an article that I came across last week, the reality is that it might be in one of dozens of different places. Depending upon how obscure the item is, it is an open question whether hunting through my archives or initiating yet another online search is going to be the best way of going about locating it.
That I find myself in this position is not particularly surprising, nor am I especially unique in struggling with this. We are all overwhelmed with information, and are exposed to exponentially increasing amounts of data—in a variety of different formats—every year. How people deal with this varies. There are many, I suspect, that simply throw up their hands at the possibility of storing and managing everything, choosing instead to rely on their search-engine-du-jour whenever they have a question that needs answering. Others assume packrat status, diligently downloading but probably never quite organizing (a place I find myself straying closer and closer to). A precious select few manage to put systems in place to track and manage what they need, at least for a time.
The challenge is getting a sense of what period of time that works for, and is entirely contingent on how effective the system is that you start with. In my case, I started with a fairly simple system, with some essential guidelines on how to use it: reference files from elsewhere went in Dropbox, personal information unique to me went in Evernote, and work that I produced got filed in a backed up folder on my hard drive. For a time, this worked well. I had folder structures that made sense, I was reasonably diligent about putting things where they needed to go, and could generally rely on the organization structure and available search tools to find what I was looking for.
Somewhere along the way, I started amassing more. This was related to a few different but relatively synchronous activities: I pursued a doctorate for almost a decade, I started this blog and I started doing larger projects that relied upon or were inspired by external resources or research. Not only did the amount of information I tried to keep organized and structured explode in size and quantity, but I was also capturing notes, ideas and reminders that didn’t really fit into any of the structures or systems that I was using.
In the past week, for example, I’ve jotted down notes I want to remember related to projects that I am working on. I have written down and occasionally dictated to my phone the titles of articles that I would like to write. Sometimes, it’s literally a title (a dangerous proposition, as it presumes I will know just what I was thinking of at the time that I wrote it when I come back across the note some months or years hence). More often now, there are observations (and occasionally links) about what I was thinking about or the material I was reacting to when the idea popped into my imagination. On a really good day, there is a nearly complete outline of the article I plan to write or the presentation I intend to deliver.
The essential problem—and many of you have no doubt seen this coming for the last thousand words or so—is where those notes appear. They might be in my paper-based journal. They could be in one of three different pieces of software I capture notes in (although there are another three of our software packages that also have the functionality to capture this type of brainstorm, which I most days don’t use). There are instances when I send myself an email, because that’s what I’ve got available. Every once in a while something gets scrawled on a post-it note (that hopefully makes it onto a page of my journal). Occasionally, the note gets made in the margin of something else, because that was the only paper that was close to hand. I think you can see where this is going.
My current reality is one defined by entropy. Entropy is a lovely term (and not used nearly enough in everyday conversation) that speaks of a lack of order, an inability to predict or a gradual decline into disorder. That’s where we get back to that bit about chaos and nature. Don’t tend a garden for long enough, and it will become a jungle. Abandon a house and it will start to rot and decay. Things fall apart, despite our otherwise best intentions to maintain structure.
So it is with systems. If you don’t constantly tend to your system, it is going to fall apart. Debris, detritus and disarray will dog your efforts and define your reality. It starts slowly, but the decline picks up speed over time. Where it often begins is with something that you don’t quite know what to do with. It might be an article that has inspired a post or presentation of your own, that you are not immediately ready to take action on. It could be a series of references that you have steadily accumulated over time; at the outset, you might not have been sure what you were going to do with them. As you progressively collect more, ideas take shape of what you might do with the combined whole (should you be able to once again identify and assemble the component pieces).
The more places something might be, the more work it is to find and the less likely you will locate it when you need it. Worse, the more sporadic and unstructured your system, the less likely you are to assemble the notes you have captured, the materials you wanted to use and the intent you have formulated into one coherent whole that you can productively do something with.
Whatever the current reality of your own notes, references and resource materials, they are the accrued by-product of the intention and discipline with which you have managed them. You need to have some sense of what you are going to do with the materials (and the circumstances in which you might want to find them again) in order to figure out how to store them productively. You also need the routines and habits necessary to actively use these systems and structure information as you receive it. Finally, though—and what ultimately keeps entropy at bay—you need to reflect on and restructure your system when intentions and circumstances change.
The reason that I am dealing with my current reality is that I failed to recognize that point when it came along. I’ve identified more potential future projects—and taken on more current obligations—without taking the time to revisit my systems and make sure they are still working for me. I’ve not taken the time to work through how to organize and restructure the materials that I have, or to make sense of the new references that I’ve accumulated. I’m relying on a chaotic jumble of notes, ideas and intentions stored in a variety of locations, without any coherent, overarching structure.
Revisiting and realigning all of this is an interesting project. Recognizing that I am not alone in my problem, (and that others have their own solutions that have emerged over time) it’s something that I thought would be valuable to share here. The answer is going to depend in part on process and structure, be supported to a certain extent by automation and software, but largely depend upon my discipline to get to a point of organized and then actually stay there.
The big challenge here is finding something that can endure. Entropy is real, and not attending to its force of influence means that sometime a couple of years or so in the future, I will find myself exactly where I am right now. Given the number of times that I have been here already, it’s something that I would like to avoid if possible. What I am as yet unclear about is whether or not enduring organizational success is actually attainable. Is that just my dream of order, set upon on a collision course with nature’s inevitable chaos? I invite you to join me on the journey and find out.