Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Finding

Finding is about looking for information to meet a specific need. For example, you search the web to find a book that you want to read or a hotel room to reserve for your next trip.

Once you’ve found information that meets a need, you store it somewhere. Later, when you want to find that information again, you face an inevitable question: Where did I put it?

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Here is where many failures in personal information management (PIM) occur. Most of us can recall times when we wasted hours looking for a letter, email message, contract, or some other lost document.

For ways to avoid such breakdowns, I turn to William Jones, author of Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management. He suggests the following.

Remember where to look

Make a complete inventory of all the places that you find and keep information, at home and at work.  Examples include your:

  • Computers
  • Mobile phone
  • Table
  • Physical in-box
  • Email in-box
  • Voice mail in-box
  • Calendar
  • Desktops
  • File cabinets

Keep a list of your personal in-boxes and update it yearly. Can you reduce or reorganize them to make finding information easier?

Use descriptive names and subject lines

Use long names for digital documents and bookmarks if this makes it easier for you to remember their content. Include all the key words you might use to search for the documents later.

Also fuss over the subject line of emails. Include the main point of the message, the desired response, or both.

Become a power searcher

Learn how to search for files on your computer and other devices by name, kind, and content. Also consider getting a desktop search app that extends the search features built in to your devices.

Analyze breakdowns

When you lose information or spend a lot of time looking for it, take a minute to diagnose the problem. What did you lose? Did you eventually find it? Where? What can you do differently to prevent such breakdowns in the future?

Turn to other people

You might find yourself sifting through piles of paper documents or scrolling through hundreds of emails to find a specific piece of information. Stop and think for a moment. Is there someone you can simply ask for that information?

Choose when to stop looking

Sometimes the information you’re trying to find is optional, not essential. You might have enough on hand to write your article, plan your vacation, or make your purchase—even if you can’t find all the information you originally collected.

This gets us back to a core premise of PIM. Our purpose is not to collect information for its own sake—it’s to get stuff done.