How to Organize Your Reference MaterialAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“If your filing system isn't fast, functional, and fun, you'll resist the whole process.” ~ David Allen
Many of the things that fall into your hands do not require any action but contain valuable and useful information for some of your tasks or some future project.
In GTD, we call this type of information Reference Material and, although it can be physical material (books, magazines, bills, printed reports, etc.) I would argue that today the vast majority of reference material that reaches us has digital support (links to articles, e-books, text documents, spreadsheets, PDF files, emails, etc.). In my case, I am not exaggerating if I say that 95% of my reference material is digital.
Normally, we do not give too much importance to the Reference Material, because it doesn’t contain any actionable information. It’s not something that seems to have some strategic importance or urgency, so we capture it and that’s it. However, if this isn’t carried out properly it can jeopardize the rest of our GTD system and, therefore, our personal productivity.
Organizing reference material requires time and effort, and if it isn’t done right, it is normal to finish with the drawers full of papers haphazardly. On the other side, the ease to capture things in the digital world can get us to end up with the hard drives of our computers filled with gigabytes of data which we are unable to find.
For the Reference Material to be really useful it must meet two things: first, it should always be within reach, and secondly, it should both allow storing as well as finding and retrieving the information we need quickly and easily.
The Reference Material, at your fingertips
The first and best advice of David Allen on the implementation of a Reference Material system is that its files must be at hand.
Saving a document should be as simple as dropping it in a documents folder. If you can not store anything in less than one minute, your mind will resist processing that material and things will accumulate in your inbox. Also, you will stop collecting things that could be useful for the mere fact that you do not trust your storage system.
For physical material, I use a file cabinet which is right next to the chair where I work. Each folder has a label at the top to identify clearly the type of documents it contains. There is also a set of books that I frequently consult while working. These are on my desk, stacked aside.
In the digital world, you have endless possibilities. You can create a directory structure to store your files on your computer, or use a cloud service for the same purpose. I do not recommend that you use your computer because, although hard drives don’t fail very often, when they do it could be disastrous (and when this happens, we coincidentally forgot to make a backup, or the backup is also not recoverable).
Having the information in the cloud allows you to access it from anywhere and any device, and that’s the closest thing there is to “having all the information at hand.”
One single system, well sorted
David Allen recommends a single A-Z alphabetical sorting for the physical data containers. That doesn’t work for me, it’s too ambiguous for my brain: for example, the electricity bill, should it be in the H, of House, the B, of Bank or Bills, or in the P, of Payments? My folders have clear and direct names, and I don’t waste even a single second thinking. The electricity bill, to the “Home” folder. I recommend you to start using the most natural labeling you can and that you adapt it to your way of thinking as you find material that you do not know where to place immediately.
In the digital world, the system you use must have at least a search function to help you retrieve the information immediately. In the end, no matter how good you structure the folders or directories that contain the data, some things that could conceptually be in two or more places will appear and you will not remember where you put them.
Ideally, the system you use must allow you to classify the entries with tags. Using tags allows to create categories without requiring a hierarchical structure between them. Thus, you could assign multiple tags to something that could belong to several concepts (#home #banks #receipts), and its location would be immediate.
The main problem of digital systems is that it is almost impossible to stick to one. You can use Dropbox or Box for static files, but these systems don’t allow you to include notes or links to websites, so you’re forced to use additional tools such as Evernote and OneNote. Also, if you need to edit dynamic files in the cloud, you need additional services such as Google Drive or Microsoft Office. And what about those e-mails that contain data that you need to save? Another source of digital information.
This is a major problem because sometimes you will remember that you have information about something, but you will not remember in what format you captured it or in which of all these services it is. And this simple fact makes your combination of Evernote-Dropbox-Google Drive-etc. services, in reality, rather nonfunctional.
The ideal is to have a Reference Material list in a specific GTD application, as FacileThings, that allows you to include items from different sources, tag them and search them. A single list with references to all your lists.
One last tip: Purge your Reference Material from time to time — at least once a year. We keep many things just if we could someday need them, but usually not “remove” when we know that we do not need them anymore. This Diogenes syndrome can lead to a vast and outdated reference system that you no longer want to manage, and this will negatively impact your productivity.