What is Organization?
I’m constantly trying to be organized. I’m sure that word means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some guy, it may mean that everything has a specific place. For another guy, it might just mean that he kinda knows where things are. For something like a computer, it should be a relatively easy thing to accomplish…being organized. The problem is not that we can’t be organized, it’s that there are too many ways to be organized, and geeks being fiddly types by nature want to play around with their organizational systems all the time and ultimately their need to fiddle with everything in hopes of finding the be all, end all organizational system leads them to being less organized.
The number one goal of organization should be that you can find the things you need…fast. The number two goal should be that finding things should be easy. If you can’t remember how to find something, your system is broken, at least for you.
So let’s look at the oldest way of organizing files. Folders where how you organized things. It was the only way. Before you could search for things, you had to stick things somewhere. Folders exist on computers because they were all we had (have) in the real world. Imagine being at your desk, and searching for a single document from a single giant pile of everything. That’s how Google thinks you should manage data. Just search for it. On a computer it’s doable. In real life, it’s impossible. But just cause you can do something doesn’t mean that you should, right?
The good thing about organizing your files in folders is that everything has a singular place that it lives. If you put your credit card statements in a “Credit Card Statements” folder, you’ll always know where those PDFs are. You’ll never have to search for them. You’ll know that they’re all there, in that folder, and you can see them all in a list of just credit card statements.
The downside of organizing files in a purely folder-based system is that files only exist in one context. If you’ve got a PDF of a receipt from your doctor, where does it go? Does it go in a receipts folder or a health folder? How granular should your folders be? If go too granular, your folder hierarchy goes nuts and searching for a file turns into Alice venturing down the rabbit hole. If you don’t get granular enough, then you’ll probably have trouble finding your files because you’ve got a giant mess to wade through. Try finding a receipt from your eye doctor when it’s sitting in a general receipts folder and you’ve also got receipts from your family doctor, dermatologist, orthopedist and your ear, nose and throat guy and you’ve been going to these guys for ten years and you wanna find a bill for a very specific visit that you can’t remember when it took place. It quickly becomes a nightmare.
Tags are generally the perferred way of organizing data post-Web 2.0. I think Gmail had the biggest influence on this. Labels and tags let you organize data without committing that data to a specific “place”. You can have a piece of data that sits everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but you can find it and all other related files based on any number of different tags. Going back to the doctor’s visit receipt, you could tag that PDF as “receipt”, “doctor”, “bloodwork”, “vd” and you could find it based off of any or all of those criteria.
There is no real standard for tags. OpenMeta tags exist on OS X and work between the file system and play well with apps that support them, but Apple could kill these in some future update to the OS. OS X has keywords but don’t work across all apps. And neither of these work on other OSes. You can’t take your OpenMeta tags over to iOS, and your OS X keywords aren’t going to work in Windows.
While Google may have created a tag boom, their real goal is to get us to just search. With a purely search-based system, you don’t worry about folders or tags. You rely on meta data and the contents of files for finding things. It’s why Gmail just has an archive. Emails never get deleted. Why delete things that don’t need to be. Space is almost unlimited and if you’re not bothering to organize data, what’s the point of cleaning it out of the system. It’s better to keep it around.
While that may work for Gmail, hard drive is finite. Your MacBook Pro will run out of space if you never delete an email or save every photo you ever download. So data management is a necessity.
The best thing that ever happened to search was the smart folder. Smart folders and saved searches allowed you to take the best parts of folder-based organization and tagging and put them together in a way that let you keep data in a specific place and apply various types of classifications at the same time.
With saved searches you can have a “smart folder” that looks at just your receipts folder, but also only show you PDFs tagged “doctor” and “flut” and restricts the parameters of that smart folder to just PDFs created in the past year.
What’s the Best System?
It’s like they say about cameras. The best camera is the one you have with you. You have to make an organizational system that works with how your brain works. If one big pile and search works for you, have at it. If you need a strict folder-based system to manage your neurosis, then that’s what you should build. For me, I need data to be in a specific place, but I love tagging for its ability to insert a ton of searchable variables. Saved searches and smart folders are what I should be using and I’m going to make an effort to use them more in the future.
What I use the most for finding my files is Launchbar from obdev. Launchbar excels at finding things fast with just a few keystrokes. If you’re reading this you’re probably already familiar with Launchbar (or Alfred or Quicksilver). Launchbar can find things from all the metadata that is index by Spotlight and is great at quickly opening up directories. You can even assign abbreviations to files or folders you often access by pulling them up and typing ⌘⌥A. Try that and make Calendar.app’s “iCal” or Contacts.app into “Add” and see how nice it feels.