43 Folders

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Folders for organization _and_ action

I recently ran across a mostly-helpful post on a website that mentioned the importance of using email folders for "organization." For some reason, this made me wince. I suspect it's because the day I got good at email was the day when I stopped organizing my messages and started focusing on doing something about them. Is this a distinction without a difference? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why.

As one of the holiest sacraments in the Church of Productivity Pr0n, folders -- be they physical, digital, mind-mapped, or purely notional -- represent the canonical way to put information into thoughtful piles. Folders of any sort afford a kind of higher-level, low-stress thinking that GTD fans in particular seek out. Folders do lots of stuff well:

  • allow me to keep like with like
  • let me not have to think about the things I don't need to think about right now
  • help me know how to find things when I do need them
  • assist me in switching gears quickly
  • make my life less chaotic and messy

So, yeah, folders are great at all of these things, for sure, and yeah, they do help you to get organized, especially in the sense of having less stuff in your life that's sitting around unprocessed. But at what point can a folder become an impediment to smart and timely action? Put more generically: how do we not allow the buckets and cubbyholes in our lives to become affordances for procrastination and dis-organization?

One way is to understand that the life of information (as well as physical artifacts, for that matter) doesn't end when it goes into whatever you consider "the right place." Quite the opposite, getting organized just means you've glued handles onto the various stuff in your life -- you'll still need to pick it up and carry it around from time to time.

So, first off, be mindful about what's likely to happen to a folder's contents hours, days, months, or years from now.

  • When and under what conditions will the need for this information reappear in your life?
  • How will you find this information when you need it? Is it stored where you'll first look?
  • Does this information exist in solitude or are there other bits of information, tasks, and appointments that should always stay with it?
  • Can you combine a few folders into one? Or would this benefit from being broken out as its own thing?
  • Does the naming, granularity, and location of this information support its likely future purpose? Or does it just reflect today's anxieties and your weird semantic peccadillos?

Above all, try to envision the future moment at which this information will become useful and necessary again, and make sure your filing and piling support that scenario and lead quickly to any needed actions.

So, second, and more to the point of email and physical "pending" folders, I think it's useful to think of all the information in your world in terms of potential activity. Remember that demonstration from 8th grade science? The bow drawn back represents potential energy, and the arrow in flight is kinetic energy. Don't get stuck thinking that kinetic action is the only game in town, and definitely and don't let your byzantine folder system lull you into missing all the action potential currently unmined in your files.

The danger of too much foldering in your email program, in particular, should be self-evident. The more folders you have, the more thinking you have to do on both ends of information and action management: you have to first ruminate on the "right place" to put that email and then you'll again have to recall where that right place was once you need it again. Is there a way you could just convert it to an action right now and be done with it forever? And is an email folder actually the best place for you to store a particular piece of information that you'll need again someday? Only you know, chief.

For me, these folder structures just get simpler and simpler all the time; 90% of my email work now goes from "In" to either "Respond/Action" or "Archive." What else is there to maintain? Do you really need five levels of time- or project-based archiving when you have a modern search-friendly program like Mail.app or Google Desktop? Maybe. Again, it's your call.

But, as ever, if you're fussing and thinking and fiddling and wondering about this stuff, you aren't doing it, and dammit, that's what this is all about. Turn messages and papers and notes and ideas into actual or potential actions as quickly and efficiently as possibly, then just retire the digital or physical corpse to the archive graveyard (or, better yet, just pitch it). Doing too much else is a recipe for procrastination and inaction.

Bottom line: ensure that all the folders, buckets, nets, and boxes in your life exist to support action above all else. The short-term buzz of "getting something out of your way" will fade quickly and is way offset by the future hassle of having to dig it out of your crazy nested system later on. Organize to act, not the other way around.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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