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« Taking the Easy Choice | Main | Books »

Organizing a waste of time?

There’s an interesting article in Business Insider called Guess What? You’re Wasting Your Time If You Organize by Michael Scrage of the Harvard Business Review.

Do you agree with him?

Reader Comments (17)

When it comes to email, absolutely right. When it comes to the illustration of a huge mass of papers on a desk, absolutely wrong.

It's a thought-provoking notion I could summarize in a sentence: Since the computer organizes automatically, cease organizing manually. Yet I still have a heavily organized OneNote, and I also do lots of searching within that.
January 19, 2012 at 14:52 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
"We haven't become dependent enough..." ...horrific.

This really does look like a recipe for superefficiently reacting to whatever is thrown at us, rather than building a better world.

But if what he is saying is that the emphasis moves from filing to thinking/ planning, that sounds good to me. I've been filing pretty much everything in my "documents" folder for a year or three now, with no obvious ill effects.
January 19, 2012 at 16:42 | Unregistered Commenterwill
The headline and photo (messy desk full of papers) are misleading, because he talks exclusively about organizing digital files inside one's computer and other devices.

In the digital world, I agree completely; as Google has long insisted, searching beats organizing. In the real world, I've spent plenty of time (sadly) using that random-papers-all-over-the-place system, and no, it's not better than organizing.
January 20, 2012 at 0:46 | Registered CommenterBernie
I agree that search is better than file folders when search is good and files/documents contain the right keywords to be keyword searchable. But when things are misnamed, search doesn't work so well.

The author seems rather thrilled, however, that our technology is letting us drop even a modicum of thinking ahead and instead turning everything into a last-minute scramble. It's hard for me to imagine this being a better life at a personal level, much less being healthy for a society that is confronting serious global trends that will require careful, long-term coordination to fix.
January 20, 2012 at 2:26 | Unregistered CommenterStever Robbins
At some point I agree with him. But I guess it is a matter of balance. When you plan out your activities, time allotment is very important. And it includes the time you will spend for your organizing efforts.
January 20, 2012 at 2:51 | Unregistered CommenterJames Hardman
Not entirely.

About being not dependent enough on technology to be organized, try to live with the electric works in my region having blackouts that can last for 10 hours.

About researchers that say that searching for an email is more efficient than sorting them, I resonate with this. I systematically index my emails with Copernic. Or delete them if I don't need them. (I only keep a few)

About Siri, she would reall make a best use of her time helping people to automate.

I think that email is much overused as a tool. Most of the things that it is used for are useless. In companies, it is most used for tracing endless discussions about how to do, what to do, who is going to do what, ... When I ask my coworkers why they don't delete their email, they say "so that there is a trace of the discussion". Please, if you have something to discuss, get face to face, record the meeting on a voice recorder, and elaborate minutes if need arises!

Print what you need and insert it in your paper system.
January 20, 2012 at 11:48 | Unregistered CommenterLaurent
I suspect the photo didn't belong to the original article because it is actually completely irrelevant to what he is saying.

I think we had a recent thread on the Forum in which I was saying that spending time weeding or organizing files or emails on a computer was a complete waste of time. So I do on balance agree with what he is saying - though I don't think you can generalize to anything like the extent he does.

I tend to organize some things, which I know I'm going to need to consult frequently together, and leave the rest unorganized (not the same as disorganized). I like a system in which you can do either or both.
January 20, 2012 at 13:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< About being not dependent enough on technology to be organized, try to live with the electric works in my region having blackouts that can last for 10 hours >>

This is a very good point. We are all becoming more and more dependent on electricity. But, knowing the mess my country's successive governments have made of energy policy, that may be a recipe for future disaster.
January 20, 2012 at 13:50 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Laurent, what you say is probably best if you regularly don't have power. If it's anything otherwise, then this paragraph is entirely wrong, in my opinion:

<<I think that email is much overused as a tool. Most of the things that it is used for are useless. In companies, it is most used for tracing endless discussions about how to do, what to do, who is going to do what, ... When I ask my coworkers why they don't delete their email, they say "so that there is a trace of the discussion". Please, if you have something to discuss, get face to face, record the meeting on a voice recorder, and elaborate minutes if need arises!

Deleting email is work. Not deleting it is free. Searching email for where an idea arose is easy and fast. Email is very quick, and it doesn't intrude on another person's work process. If I need to know something this afternoon, I can ask a question this morning, get a response in an hour, ignore it for two hours, and then use it, all with no downtime. Face to face meetings are useful when the matter at hand gets complicated, as nothing complicated can be resolved at the leisurely pace of email conversations. But voice-recording and elaborate minute taking? Ick! Going all-paper and organizing everything that way? Triple ick!
January 20, 2012 at 14:17 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Organization can serve other uses than "make easy to find in future".

Tidying notes can help you review them. (This is different than blindly recopying and hoping things will sink in.)

Putting everything together can help you see if you're missing something.

It can keep your brain organized. All the notes for a project are in one place.

It can be closure, as the project is shelved (permanently or temporarily while you work on something else).

Remember the card catalogue in libraries? I used to maintain the school's. There were more cards in the back for things like serial number and shelf-order (for inventory-checking).

I still sort my email, since it's faster (probably due to practice) than ensuring they have keywords I'll think of when I need to find them.
January 20, 2012 at 15:20 | Registered CommenterCricket
I use email filters for some things, they do the filing for me!
January 20, 2012 at 18:10 | Unregistered Commentersmileypete
I used to do that. I found it more hindrance than help, except for busy mailing lists. For non-busy mailing lists, it's just as easy to search [LISTNAME] as to go to another folder. It's easier reading all your mail when it's in one box.
January 20, 2012 at 21:04 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I agree with Mark: the article has some insights, but it is overstated and over-generalized.

With email, I essentially do this:
1. Select all my email.
2. Click "Send to OneNote"
3. Archive

I then process in OneNote following AF1-like rules. Each email itself becomes an item in my AF1 list, essentially.

If I ever need to find the original email, it's easy to find it in Outlook with the search function.

Gmail is a little harder. I have to select the text I want, and then click "Send to OneNote". I can't do all the emails in one batch. (Anyone know of a Firefox plugin that can do this for me???) :-)

With paper, I essentially do the same thing. I dump all my incoming paper on my desk, and go through it quickly. If I can't deal with the paper immediately, I scan it into OneNote, and file it all into one big accordion file for the year. Even the junk mail, if I am undecided what to do about it.

With this approach, all my paper is in the same OneNote AF1-like system. If I need to refer to the original paper, it's pretty easy to find in that accordion file. Usually I don't have to look too far back.

Thus, the scan of the item itself becomes a task in my AF1 list.

The small amount of overhead to scan the paper is nothing compared to (1) trying to set up and manage a more complex filing system and (2) writing down the item in OneNote.

I used to worry I'd have all this extra paper (e.g., undecided junkmails) in my folder. Who cares? At the end of the year, it just goes into a box. I have room for lots of boxes. Once the boxes are old enough to discard they go in the shredder.

The savings in mental energy is well worth the cost of finding space for the box.

The only exceptions to this filing system are essential records that are expensive or impossible to replace, such as official educational records, birth records, legal documents, etc. And a good deal of those are in a single accordion file labeled "important", which I keep in my fireproof cabinet.
January 21, 2012 at 0:55 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

I'm intrigued. I move everything to a "processing" folder, go through that moving anything requiring action to tasks and then move what remains to archive. Do you find you get a better task list in OneNote than the Outlook Task list?

(I do use OneNote for planning, brainstorming and minuting, though. It is a frustration to me that you can't easily create a note from a task. But I find the task functions in outlook compelling. )
January 24, 2012 at 22:34 | Unregistered Commenterwill
Seraphim follows my page per task scheme in OneNote. OneNote is simply the easiest freeform note taking tool ever. It's also great at grouping and moving around stuff, which is more than enough for AutoFocus. Add in excellent searching.

Given that, what does Outlook tasks offer to compete? Most task management functionality is irrelevant to AutoFocus.
January 25, 2012 at 3:23 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
will -

When I was doing DWM, I implemented it using Outlook Tasks. I created a button with a macro that would turn any new email into a task with a due date of Today + 30 days. I created another button that would reset the due date on any task to Today + 7. It worked pretty well -- I used that system for 6 or 9 months, maybe longer, I don't remember.

But the task model is very limited. OneNote allows me to group related tasks together (with sections, subpages, etc.). It's free-form enough to allow brainstorming, note-taking, project planning, etc., and have all of that integrated into the TM system. And you can pull content into OneNote from anywhere -- from a browser, or any standard Office app, or screen shots, etc.

For example: I get some weird error message on my screen. I want to report it to IT. Easy: take a screen shot with the Windows-S key. The screen shot itself instantly becomes a new task in my list. :-)

Can't do that with Outlook tasks.
January 25, 2012 at 16:39 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< Can't do that with Outlook tasks.>>

All the things you mention for OneNote can also be done with Evernote. Better sychronization too.
January 25, 2012 at 17:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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