Managing Management Costs

Every system that requires your attention and responsibility comes with some sort of "management cost," this includes servers that run websites and email, as well as the notes you take and--in my case--the novels you avoid writing.

This post, and really the last one as well, grows out of my interest and desire to stay organized, to work effectively without spending too much time and energy thinking about organization. Except of course that I write a bunch about this sort of thing on the blog, so maybe I'm a bad example of success. At the end of the day we're all just folk', I guess.

The argument at the present moment revolves around consolidation rather than an approach to design or organization. And the basic premise is: "no matter how complex your organizational problem is, you can probably accomplish what you need to by doing less."

  • Feel like you spend too much time reading email, or have too many email inboxes to check (personal email, work email, special project email, listserv email, facebook email, etc.)? Forward your email into one box and filter the hell out of it so that you only read what you really have to and it's manageable.
  • Feel like you have too many todo lists? Compile them into a single list and use some sort of tag system to organize it.
  • Feel like your notes and documents are scared in too many places? Combine them and use some sort of search tool to find things when you need them.

And so forth. In the analog information world (i.e. with papers, notebooks, and books) we often take the approach of sorting things into distinct piles of similar sorts of things, and arranging things physically in our worlds to reflect this basic sorting. For instance, "the science fiction books will be on the first three shelves, the 20Th century philosophy on the next three, college textbooks on the next, and [...]" These habits, combined with unfortunate conventions like referring to hierarchical organizational units of a file system (e.g. directories) "folders," encourages us to translate these real-world conventions to our digital existences. This is undoubtedly a bad idea.

The more data you pile together in one place, even dissimilar data, the more powerful it becomes. Say you have a PDF collection of articles on the anthropology of death and dying, post-colonial literature, and linguistics hanging out in different directories of your file system, and you begin to do research for a story you want to write set in the 1930s in India, where do you look? What if there are relevant articles in all three folders. What if you have a dozen or two dozen folders? What if you have a number of hierarchical organizational trees, and you store your notes, the actual text of what you're working on, and your reference materials separately with parallel hierarchies? [1] Quite suddenly you're over-organized and disorganized all at the same time,

The more "system" you have the more difficult it is to manage. The key to success, or part of it at any rate, is being minimalist about your organization. Recognize that adding responsibilities, projects, directories, lists, email accounts, and so forth all come with a cost. And sometimes, being a little less organized means that you're able to get more done, if that makes sense.

If your experiences reflect this (or run contrary to this logic,) I'd be very interested in hearing about how you have solved, and have continued to solve the issue.

[1]This kind of system actually makes a lot of sense in the paper world, but is borderline absurd in the digital systems.
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