“The problem of information overload, therefore, may not be the quantity of it but our inability to know what to do with it.” – Danniel Tammet
One of the most important skills I mastered early on at Microsoft, is information management. My ability to organize information directly impacts my success. For me, information management is the key to daily productivity from researching to learning faster to keeping my email inbox empty.
When I first joined Microsoft, I found myself spending four or more hours on administration and email. Then one day I decided … enough is enough. From that point on, I refused to spend more than 30 minutes a day between email and administration overhead. That day marked the start of my pursuit to find the best ways to handle and organize information. While my motivation helped, it’s actually finding and creating effective techniques that really made the difference.
Here are ten of my favorite ways to manage information:
- Factor reference from action. Carve out action items, To Dos, and tasks from your incoming streams of information. if it’s not an action, it’s reference. I first learned this practice when I was dealing with information overload as a support engineer. I ended up cementing the idea while working on our Microsoft Knowledge Base. The Knowledge Base is a vast collection of information, where each article tends to be optimized around either action or reference.
- Create lists. Make a new To Do list each day and use it to organize your key action items for the day. Create checklists for your common routines.
- Create collections. Put things into collections or think in terms of collections. Consolidate your notes into a single collection that you access quickly, such as in a personal notebook, a Word document or etc. Consolidate your thoughts or ideas into a single collection. Consolidate reference examples of your heroes or stories you can use for inspiration. Consolidate your “ah-has” into a single collection. Note that by single collection, I don’t mean you have it all in a single document, although you can. Instead, I’m thinking of collections of items, much like a photo album music collection. By stashing things of a similar type, such as “idea” or “note” … etc., you can determine the best way to arrange that collection. Maybe it’s a simple A -Z list or maybe you arrange it by time. For example, when I keep a journal of my insights, and each time I get an “ah ha”, I write it down under the current date. This way I can easily flip back through days and see my insights in chronological order. While I could arrange them A – Z, I like having my most recent ideas or inspirations bubbled to the top, since chances are I’m finding ways to act on them.
- Put things where you look for them. Where ever you look for it, that’s where it should be. If you keep looking for something in a certain place, either just put it there when you find it or add some sort of pointer to the actual location. While you might logically think something belongs in a certain place, the real test is where you intuitively look for it.
- Keep things flat. Out of sight, out of mind holds true for information. Avoid nesting information. Keep it flat and simple where you can. Think in terms of iTunes or a playlist. A well organized playlist is easy to jump to what you need.
- Organize long lists or folders using A-Z. When you have long lists or big collections, then listing things A-Z tends to be a simple way to store things and to look things up fast. Once a list gets long, A-Z or a numbered list is the way to go.
- Archive old things. When information is no longer useful for you, consider archiving it to get it out of your way. This usually means having a separate location. I’m a pack rat and I have a hard time letting things go, so I tend to archive instead. It let’s me get things out of the way, and then eventually get rid of them if I need to. Archiving has really helped me get a ton of information out of my way, since I know I can easily rehydrate it if I need to.
- Bubble up key things to the top. When you have a lot of information, rather than worry about organizing all of it, bubble up things to the top. You can effectively have a quick, simple list or key things up top, followed by more information. Keep the things up front simple. This way you get the benefits of both exhaustive or complete, as well as simple. Whenever you have a large body of information, just add a simple entry point or key take aways or summary up front.
- Know whether you’re optimizing for storing or retrieving. Distinguish whether you are storing something because you will need to look it up or refer to it a lot, or if you are simply storing it because you might need it in the future. For information that I need to look up a lot, I create a view or I make it easy to get to the information fast. For example, I might use a sticky note since I can quickly put it wherever I need to. For a lot of information, you simply need a quick way to store it. What you don’t want to do is have to work to hard, each time you need to file a piece of information. This I is where having a place for things, using lists, and organizing information in a meaningful way comes in handy. For most of my reference information, I organize it either by A-Z or by time. This way I don’t have to think too hard. I don’t create a bunch of folders for my email. Instead, I just store it all flat so it’s easy to search or browse or sort. For example, if I need to find an email from somebody, I simply sort my email by their name. Just by asking the question whether you’re optimizing for fast filing or for fast lookup will get you improving your information management in the right direction.
- Create views. Create views for the information that you need to frequently access. For example, you might put sticky notes of information that consolidate just the key things. As an analogy, think of your music store versus your playlists. You store might be a large collection organized A-Z, but your playlists are views that are more focused or have themes. You can apply this metaphor to any of your information collections.
Well, there you have it. Those are my top 10 favorite techniques for organizing information. I’ve had the privilege of learning and modeling from many great colleagues and mentors. The beauty is, I get to practice my information management skills every day while hacking my way through the information jungle. These skills save me a ton of time whether I’m reading books, taking notes, learning something new, or just about any time I’m dealing with information. It’s deliberate practice with immediate results.
Two More Ways to Improve Your Information Management
As a bonus, I’m including two additional techniques that significantly changed my game:
- Periodically sweep things. No matter how well you organize things, you’ll need to periodically sweep. Sweeping simply means cleaning things up after the fact. Periodically, allocating a block of time to go back through and clean up some of your messes. Things will always get out of disorder over time. Time also changes what’s important. When you revisit things, after the fact, you also gain the benefit of hind sight. Make the time now and then to make a pass through your collections. Get rid of what you don’t need. Archive things that you don’t currently need. Restructure your information to support your usage scenarios. This is one of those vital practices that really makes the difference if you actually do it.
- Reduce friction. Whenever you find that you’re working too hard to either find, organize, or use your information, pay attention to the friction. Work to reduce the friction. This might mean getting more information out of your way. It might mean bubbling more things up to where you can find them quickly. The key is to make it easy to use your information, and don’t let it become a burden.