My memory is terrible. I am constantly being “gently” reminded of things by Mrs Cloud Productivity. Because of this, it is crucial that my memory has a fallback system; something it can lean on when things seem unclear. Through school I was always stronger in the science and mathematics than I was in English or art, tending towards objective thinking over subjective. I was taught that it’s not as important to remember the result as it is to remember how to get to that result. Simply put, remembering one process is much easier than remembering a thousand results, and remembering how to get information is easier than remembering the information itself.
Building upon the first system of ultimate productivity, capture, the system of reference is a critical factor in becoming efficient in both your work life and personal life, and everything in between.
Defining the System of Reference
The system of reference is a personal library of sorts. It is a place and a method of storing any kind of information and being able to quickly and easily retrieve it when needed. The system of reference should be able to cater for many types of things: ideas, projects, reference material, photos and video, and even physical things such as letters, for example. As items are captured and processed many of them will become un-actionable items that may need to be referred to at some point. These items cannot be left unchecked. Should the event arise when that information in needed, trying to find it could be a nightmare – where should you look? Under the bed? At the bottom of your desk draw behind last week’s vegemite sandwich? Next to the phone? Or on the fridge behind all the photos? The possibilities are endless.
Applying a systematic process to managing all these items consolidates the number of areas that such items could possibly exist. That’s not to say that absolutely everything needs to be in a single location, that just isn’t always possible. What is important is that those places are consistent and small in number. Having items one day stuck to the fridge and another day under your keyboard creates inconsistency that really troubles the brain to the point where the problem of locating that item lingers in the back of your mind, continuing to attempt to solve that problem. Like a monkey on your back these problems keep nagging and nagging, demanding attention, demanding the problem to be solved! Employing a trusted system of reference keeps these monkeys at bay because whenever one of them needs to find something they will know exactly where to look and exactly how to find it, freeing up your mind to do better, more creative and enjoyable things.
Principles in Developing Your Reference System
There are two approaches to building a system of reference and they are not mutually exclusive. That is, it is quite possible and acceptable to use either or both approaches at the same time. The two approaches can be boiled down to “structured” and “unstructured”. Let look at these two approaches in more detail.
The Structured Approach
The structured approach to building a system of reference is akin to a library. There is a system in place that allows anyone that knows the system to browse and find exactly what they’re looking for. The typical library uses the Dewey Decimal system. Creating your own system can use any type of logic, as long as that logic is consistent. Creating a personal system will involve categorising or “tagging” items in your reference system. Additionally, each item would have a name or subject. With such an approach it is easy to browse your reference system for any items relating to one or more tags or categories, and then browse to find the item with the most appropriate title. Your system could be primarily based inside a digital app, or even a good old filing cabinet.
Consider the filing cabinet for a moment. Each item can only exist inside one folder at any time. This is like its “category”. However, each item inside a folder could have any number of post-it notes sticking out from the edges, using either a colour scheme or writing things down, these post-it’s act as “tags”. With this approach a tag can span multiple folders making it easy to identify “bills” for example, when your folders may be split by “gas”, “mortgage”, and “credit card”.
Many digital systems follow the same principle. Evernote, for example, allows a note to be stored in a single notebook, but have any number of tags attached to it. Additionally, each tag can be used on any note, in any notebook. It is for this reason that so many people have flocked to Evernote, myself included, for their system of reference.
The Unstructured Approach
An alternative method of maintaining a system of reference is heavily dependent on a digital tool. The unstructured approach relies on search in order to locate stored material. As content is added to the reference system it is, for the most part, left unchecked. Sometimes just knowing that the things you need are in a handy location is enough. It is then that there is a big dependency on the reference system being able to locate what you are looking for. That is, you are relying completely on the system’s ability to surface what you need when you need it.
When attempting to reference purely text content, searching should be relatively straight forward. However, it is those occasions when you need to search for a PDF or document that these simple searches can fail, depending on the tool being used. Some apps allow searching through all content, including PDF files, office documents and images. It is these tools which truly excel with the unstructured approach.
And still, there is a kind of art to finding exactly what you need with the unstructured approach. Searching can be as simple as giving the app a single keyword. However, that can result in ambiguity and return many unwanted results. Masters of the unstructured approach combine multiple advanced searching techniques to pinpoint exactly what they need. Such techniques include:
- Phrase searching
- Metadata searching
- Negative searching
Many tools will search for each keyword you enter in the search as a unique word. This can be problematic when you know the keywords you are looking for sitting next to each other in a sentence. Phrase searching forces the app to searching for the exact phrase entered. For example, searching for hello kitty will typically result in every piece of content that contains either “hello”, or “kitty”, or both. Wrapping both keywords in quotes (“hello kitty”) will only show results that contain the exact phrase “hello kitty” and can quickly narrow down search results.
With digital tools every time a new piece of content is created, or edited, there a number of properties that are updated in the background. These properties may include the date and time the item was created and changed, the location the item was created and much more. Often these properties can be used within a search to narrow down your results. Building on the example above perhaps you want to find only items that contain the phrase “hello kitty” and that were created in the last seven days. This could be searched for with something like: “hello kitty” created:-7
Of course, each app will handle this type of searching in their own way, so it’s best to refer to the documentation for the app you use.
Just as it is possible to search for keywords and metadata that exist in the content you’re looking for, many apps allow searching with keywords and metadata that do not exist in your results. For example, searching for content that contains the word “hello”, but does not contain the word “kitty” might be done so by adding a minus symbol before the negative keyword. For example, hello -kitty.
My Reference System
Personally, I use a combination of the structured and unstructured approaches to managing my system of reference with Evernote. This includes bills, web articles, ideas, blog posts, project notes and much more. Through the capture process any reference content is ends up in my Evernote inbox – the Inbox is simply the default notebook that I have renamed to “.Inbox”. I then regularly review this inbox and for each item I tag it appropriately, adjust the title of the note and link it to any other related notes. The note is then moved to the right notebook and I move on to the next note.
With this structured approach I am able to browse within a notebook, and/or filter on tags to refine a search to find the right content. Additionally, I am able to use keyword based searching to find exactly what I need. The keyword search paradigm is my preferred method for recalling content. I often search with a combination of keywords and tags to really hone in on exactly what I need. Evernote can quickly become a massive repository of information – I currently have 5407 notes, and for some people that’s nothing – so being able to quickly and easily find exactly what I need is critical. After all, what’s the good of having a second brain if it doesn’t work either!
What about the important stuff?
Not all documents can be, or should be, digitized and stored in the cloud. Items such as financial records still have a physical place. I store them in a small expandable filing box/thing and then shove it under the bed and out of the way. I do this, of course, after capturing it to an offline Evernote notebook so that I can easily reference it whenever I need to.
Back to School
All this brings me back to my initial thought – high school mathematics. Nowhere in the process of setting up and managing a system of reference do I bother to attempt to remember “what” is in that system. All I need to keep in my mind is the method, the “how”. If the “how” turns up nothing, then it simply doesn’t exist – and yes, I have been caught out on the odd occasion when something has slipped through the system, but those events are few and far between. We’re only human, right?