10 Ways to Improve How You Manage Information



“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.

Information Management is a Hallmark of Better Productivity

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.

10 Ways to Master Information Management

Here are ten of my favorite ways to manage information better:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

Hack Your Way Through the Information Jungle

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.

2 More Ways to Improve Your Information Management

As a bonus, I’m including two additional techniques that significantly changed my game:

1. 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.

2. 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.

If you can master information management, you will have a continuous edge in work and life.

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  1. Beautiful!!

    As a consultant I hang out a lot with many folks and I observe how they manage info. Here are three main types:
    – Give up and die by 1000 cuts. No info management. Most of folks are here, like 65%. Everything in Inbox, like 8000 emails, 3000 unread.
    – Follow complex systems or procedures to manage info – same result, a death by 1000 cuts, but this time with pride. 34% are here. They are proud to have the system that kills them.
    – Lean, Aikido, Say-No-More-Than-Yes style info management. … I am still looking for a guy 😉

  2. Hi JD .. great ideas as usual. I’m in that process of cutting, cutting, and chucking – preparing for my new blog and the future – which means being organised so I can achieve so much more. Having a to do list – made out the night before is really helpful.

    Do you use Evernote .. or similar systems?

    Thanks – Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  3. JD this is an excellent post, I have really enjoyed reading it and creating from it my own way of managing the information that you have created. I have posted your article along with my comment on my blog http://destech.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/10-ways-to-improve-how-you-manage-information/
    Mind Mapping is an excellent tool for filtering, managing and organising huge amounts of information. I don’t ever use a list as it is so restrictive. Mind Maps will help all managers and leaders manage information effectively.

  4. I don’t really have to deal with too much information. Creating list and putting things where you would look for them are my favorites. I follow them religiously.

    Creating collections is an interesting point. While theoretically I know this point, I still have to apply it practically.

    What happens when the same piece of information falls under two categories/collections? And for some pieces of information, context determines where and how it should be stored. How do you work that out?

  5. I think the archive old things point explains storage rental facilities. I’ve gotten to the point where whole file drawers are sent out for storage (and marked for disposal on a specific date).

  6. I love the idea of reducing friction. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. We want to feel important, so we create all this friction that isn’t necessary. I’ve actually been working on this when I write an article. I notice that I’m grasping instead of relaxing. I can only do one thing at a time, I may as well enjoy it as much as I can without worrying about all the background stuff.

  7. Great list !

    It’s almost like you’re working for my company, and not Microsoft 🙂

    My favorites (similar to our design philosophy):
    – Create lists.
    – Create collections.
    – Put things where you look for them
    – Keep things flat
    – Organize long lists or folders using A-Z
    – Bubble up key things to the top
    – Create views

    As a competitor to MS OneNote, I would love to hear your opinion on how it works compared to these principles. I believe MS OneNote is a great tool, and very powerful, but maybe a bit difficult for non-power users ?

    I guess this comment could be considered spam, but you don’t have to post the comment – I would really like your view on MS OneNote vs. this list 🙂

  8. J.D., great post!
    you got me especially on that last line,..
    ‘The key is to make it easy to use your information, and don’t let it become a burden.’ –that is my ‘challenge’ – I discovered today my talent is in orderliness not so much organi’zing’ -I’m good at zen if it is physical items. I’m simple, practical creative and tidy! Mind you, especially in the electronic world (anything on my computer haha,. fair game – email, desktop, my photo files they are messy. I can find what I need but I wish I had a better ongoing formula or something,..I love my e: drive so it makes room for all the sentimental)I am still figuring out which system will work best for me though as I am getting started into the business side of things. I’ll probably enlist some help! 😉 ~Jenn

  9. I do create daily to-do lists. I don’t know how I would ever get anything done without them.

  10. Good list. I chuckled at #4 and thought, well yeah. How often I wish I could call my glasses and give them a unique ring, loud and clear, announcing where I’ve put them. Haha!

    I agree with #5. This is an amazing phenomenon to me: if something gets stacked on my desk, it gets lost. I do need to see in order to find. The stacks are straight, but they’re still stacks, full of hidden goodies.

    Organizing isn’t the problem for me; I know the rules and can sort and place. But living within the organized and keeping it that way, is. (I even tackled Organizing from the Right Side of the Brain a few years ago, and bless the author. You still need left brain skills to implement and STAY organized.)

    So I read all lists on how to in an effort to keep trying. Printed yours out. Thanks…

  11. As I mature in the ways of productivity, it’s exciting to see how my own techniques at which I’ve intuitively arrived align with those of a Master such as you.

    Among others: create lists & collections (efficient ones!); put things where you look for them: & bubble up key things to the top.

    @Atle Iversen I use OneNote for much of my work, & often have three to five instances open. The Ctrl+1 checkbox shortcut & it’s use of tabs to creat collapsible hierarchies are keys to my successful implementation. The section with my To-Do page is where important items bubble; I put them where they “belong” when they reach critical mass.

    OneNote allows me to indulge my productivity system easily, quickly, & with minimal friction. I’d appreciate it if mind mapping functionality were integrated, but I’m doing fine without it.

    That To-Do page/section is actually where I exercise Agile Results, particularly the Rule of 3, Monday Vision, Friday Reflection pattern:

    J.D., thanks for another great post–the validation is inspiring.

  12. Very helpful!!

    And as to number 3, how did you know my post today was about oraganizing my photo collection? wow. Archiving takes me to the next step of my project, thank you.

    Synergy is for sure afoot here today. The collection point also ties into my blog post lists such as Great Mysteries and the Typos, so I guess I am already doing this. Neat.

    I am interested to next delve into the concept of “keeping it flat.”

  13. Wow, great post J.D.! For a unorganized person as I am (I am working on it though:), what you’ve written is going to be extremely helpful. I am actually going to implement some of the points right now. Thank you!

  14. Come folks dump the list and go for the Mind Map as it gives you much more freedom. A list is like trying to run with you hands tied to your ankles, possible but very difficult. I urge all you list makes to try a Mind Map today!

  15. @ Alik

    Thank you!

    I see too many people give up or become a slave to the system.

    It seems like it always comes down to measuring effectiveness against what you want to accomplish.

    @ Hilary

    Leaning down so you can spring up is powerful. It can be tough to let go, but it’s the key to growth and new adventures.

    I do use Evernote. I originally used the online version until I found the desktop version. I really like the desktop version. It’s become my personal information management tool.

    @ Tim

    Very nice!

    I’m a fan of Mind Mapping. In fact, I actually use it for mapping out everything from my life to projects. It helps me create a quick simple model, as well as share ideas with others.

    @ Avani-Mehta

    Some of my favorite collections I now have are:
    – Quotes
    – People Lessons
    – Life Lessons

    I find collections combine the power of lists with the power of themes.

    I used to worry about normalizing information. Now I just copy it to wherever I need it, even if it means showing up in multiple collections. I used to link too much or cross-reference and it was fragile and I hopped around too much. Storage is cheap.

    @ Fred

    It sounds like you have a nice system for eliminating waste. I definitely have a lot of paper waste that needs to go.

    @ Karl

    That is the key — doing one thing at a time and enjoying as you go.

    Just like having a place for things, I think having a time for things help creates opportunities for flow, peace of mind, full engagment, … etc.

  16. @ Atle

    Thank you!

    I’ve used OneNote several times but it always ends up heavy for me and I find it hard to get the views I need to see.

    With any tool, it’s not the tool itself, but the scenarios it’s optimized for and how you drive them. I found OneNote better suited to large collections of notes and research with rich media. I tend to need more lists and views, and just “pages” of notes at a time. I use Word docs for my hard-core notes collections.

    The other key to tools is knowing the driver’s guide. I never became a OneNote power user; I only got good enough to find out that it was more than I needed for my day to day.

    @ Jenn

    Thank you!

    I think creating a folder system on your computer that works for you is always a challenge. I literally spent years testing different models until I found a pretty good pattern.

    At a high level, I use:
    – _Archive
    – Docs
    – Dumpster
    – Ideas
    – Projects
    – Resources

    Archive is where I stick things out of my way, usually by year. Under docs, I put all the docs I create (docs, slides, mind maps, visios, … etc.) Dumpster is where I can create any temporary things that I can just delete. Ideas is where I store potential projects. Projects is where I create a folder for each active project I’m working on. Resources is where I store everything that I don’t create (docs, PDFs, slides, training, … etc.)

    The important thing is I factor out my stuff (docs, ideas, projects) from other people’s stuff (resources.)

    @ Vered

    It’s such a small, yet so powerful practice, and so practical.

    @ Barb

    There’s a trick for remembering where you put your glasses. Whenever you put them down, make a quick mental picture of something dramatic (e.g. if you put them on a glass table, imagine the table shatters.) Have fun with it.

    I think the key to organizing is actually letting it go. I use to spend too much energy trying to stay organized. Instead, now I focus on periodically sweeping.

    A friend of mine practices 10 minute bursts, where he spends the first 10 minutes doing rapid cleanup before he starts. I tend to do this more often now, too.

    @ Jimmy

    I think that’s the beauty of principl-based approaches — they make it easy to arrive at the same spot, with lots of ways to get there.

    I think the big thing for me was learning how to get information out of my way. I had to learn to create new lists and to archive information, so that I could trave light.

    @ Jannie

    Thank you!

    Perfect. Photos are actually a great example.

    A friend of mine once showe me his amazing photo collection. It was completely organized by time, but then he created views on it. It was easy for him to store by time … just stick it in a folder for the day, within the month, within the year. I was so simple, but so effective — it got rid of the nightmare of trying to be clever about what to name everything.

    The secret of keeping things flat is having a way to archive. For example, here’s how I store my projects on my computer:

    – _Archive
    – Projects
    – 2008
    – Project A
    – Project C
    – 2009
    – Project C
    – Projects
    – Project X
    – Project Y
    – Project Z

    Notice how my current projects are flat and quick to find.

  17. @ Lana

    Thank you!

    I hope it saves you lots of time and helps you get exponential results.

    @ Tim

    Mind Maps are great. I think in terms of scenarios
    – lists – great for linear processing and scanning long, related sets of items.
    – Mind Maps – great for mapping out concepts, getting the big picture, and framing things out against a bigger back drop.

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  19. Okay. This simple sentence among your replies here stood up and took notice with me. You wrote:

    ‘The important thing is I factor out my stuff (docs, ideas, projects) from other people’s stuff (resources.)’

    I haven’t done that. I’ve treated resources and action files this way…

    Resources: What has been done and is worth keeping for future reference or needs to be kept for record purposes.

    And Action: Current docs, ideas, projects, and other people’s stuff that supports those.

    All this reading and I got my Ah-Ha! Thanks!!!

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