Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Keeping

Once you find information to meet a specific need, where do you keep it so that you can find it again later?


Perhaps you also collect information that might be valuable in the future, even if you don’t have a use for it right now. So where do you keep that?

Technology gives us countless options for keeping. You can file away information:

  • In a note-taking or writing app
  • As bookmarks in your web browser
  • As archived emails
  • As print-outs stored in file folders

And those are just a few of the options.

In addition, each tool that you use imposes its own way of organizing information. Dealing with these differences can sometimes turn a “simple” task—such as writing an email—into a time-consuming chore. Finding the information you need can mean opening up several apps and sifting through piles of paper documents, all in different versions and formats.

Following are ways to avoid such hassles. They’re a mashup of ideas from Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management by William Jones and Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

Capture ideas on the run

Some of your best ideas will come at random times—while you’re showering, walking, waiting in line, or engaged in some other “unproductive” activity. Make it as convenient as possible to capture those ideas in any context. Keep index cards and pen in a pocket or purse, use a notes app on your smart phone, or find another option.

Inventory your in-boxes

Think about all the places that you temporarily store new information until you can deal with it later. Examples are your:

  • Physical in-box for paper-based documents
  • Voice mail inbox
  • Email in-box
  • Computer desktop
  • Physical desktop
  • Note-taking apps, such Evernote, OneNote, or nvALT

Keep a current list of all your in-boxes. Can you get away with fewer of them?

Also empty your in-boxes at least once per week. For help in doing this, turn to the GTD method—especially the suggestions for processing and organizing.

Collect project information

Remember that the main purpose of PIM is to do what matters most to you. Information is simply a means to that end.

Here’s where you can steal more ideas from GTD:

  • Keep a list of all your current projects—the outcomes that you want to achieve this year.
  • Store information related to each project in a central place, such as a folder on your computer or a note-taking app.
  • In that central place, include references to project information stored elsewhere—for example, emails, paper documents, and calendar entries.
  • Keep track of the very next action you’ll take this week to move each of your projects forward. Note these on a to-do list or calendar.
  • Also keep a list of projects that you’re not committed to yet but would like to consider in the future—a “someday/maybe” list.

Collect reference information

Reference materials include information that you might want in the future, even if it’s not related to a current project. Examples include your personal book collection, legal documents, insurance policies, and contact information for the key people in your life.

“Soft” information—such as collections of inspiring quotes or useful articles on various topics—also function as reference material.

Again, the goal is to keep this information centralized and easy to find:

  • Organize reference information with a “flat” structure. Avoid complex layers of folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders. Instead, create documents and notes with descriptive names, even if they’re long and look a little weird.
  • For an additional level of organization, use tags. You can only place documents within one folder, but you can assign multiple tags to any document. For example, you could tag a book manuscript by status (first, second, or final draft) and by genre (fiction or nonfiction). For more on tagging, see these articles by Brett Terpstra and Ian Beck.
  • Store most of your reference information digitally. Then you can search it by using key words in file names, tags, or both.
  • Use the logical tool. Some reference information is most easily stored in a specific app, such as a contact manager or calendar.
  • Round out your reference collection with a personal “scratch” file. This is a single searchable list of the names, facts, and numbers that you look up most often. Store this information in a single document, using an app that you have open most of the time.

Notice how you look for information

Whenever you find important information, anticipate how you will find it in the future. What are the first places you will look? Based on your answer, how can you store this information for easy finding and later use?

If you know that you’ll need certain information at a specific time, then instruct your future self about how to find it. Send yourself an email message, set a reminder, or enter a note in your calendar.

Pick your battles

Finally, remember that you don’t have to organize all your information. It’s probably not even possible. There comes a time to stop tinkering and just get some sh*t done.



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