Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Measuring and Evaluating

If it’s too hard to manage our personal information, we won’t do it. We’ll stop viewing our commonplace book as a strategic asset. We’ll descend into the hell of “information overload.”

This is why it pays to reflect on the ways that we practice personal information management (PIM) and measure the results in some meaningful way.


Once per year or so, we can ask:

  • How well are my current tools—analog and digital—actually working for me?
  • Would new tools work better?
  • Am I using my tools in efficient and effective ways? Can I do something differently to save time, money, and effort?
  • Overall, am I managing information to complete projects and connect with people who matter to me?

Do an annual review to answer those questions. The following suggestions—based on the book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management by William Jones—can help.

Use the critical incident technique

Think about the last time that you had a “information breakdown.”

Maybe you spent an hour looking for a lost document or the information you needed to write a short email.

Perhaps you quickly found the information you were looking for but discovered that it was outdated or incomplete.

Or maybe you invested in expensive new app and decided later that it was just too hard to use.

You can get value from such incidents by asking:

  • What information was I trying to find?
  • Where did I look for it?
  • How did I eventually find it?
  • When I found it, was the information useful?
  • Why did I decide to buy that app?
  • What made the app hard to use?
  • What will I do differently to prevent breakdowns in the future?

Use the experience sampling method

For this method of psychological research, participants are reminded to stop at various points in the day to answer questions about what they’re doing at that moment.

You can do this informally to evaluate the ways that you manage information. Take a moment to ask:

  • Am I working with information right now?
  • What exactly am I doing? Finding information? Keeping it? Maintaining it? Managing information flow? Making sense of information and creating something?
  • Am I doing this in a deliberate way—or just coasting on autopilot?
  • How do I feel about what I’m doing? Am I enjoying this? Am I resisting because the activity seems pointless or difficult?
  • What results do I want from this activity?
  • What can I do differently to get better results with less friction?

Reflect on key activities

William Jones breaks PIM down into 6 key activities. They offer another lens for evaluation. Does your system for managing information (tools plus behaviors) help you:

  • Find information efficiently by searching, scanning documents, or both?
  • Keep information easily by capturing it and organizing it for later use?
  • Maintain your system by archiving information that’s not in active use and backing everything up?
  • Manage how much information flows into your life while controlling your privacy and security?
  • Make sense of information by revealing patterns and relationships between ideas?
  • Measure and evaluate your system by collecting data to answer the above questions?

Find a confidant

William Jones studies PIM by asking people to give him a “tour” of their information collections and talk about the ways that they do the above activities. In the process, people get a new perspective on their system and ideas for making it better.

You can do something like this by sharing your PIM practices with other people and asking about theirs.

Before changing your system, consider the costs

Creating a combination of apps, tools, file names, folders, and tags to manage your information will take time. Once you have a system that works for you, stick with it for a while. If you’re ever tempted to change it, weigh the benefits and costs first:

  • Don’t fall for a flashy new “killer app” right away. Ask these questions first. (Trust me on this. I’ve spent entire days moving from one note-taking app to another.)
  • Do trial runs. Many software developers offer trial versions of their apps that you can try for a limited period at no cost.
  • If you do decide to change your system, then do it completely. Set aside a full day to make the transition to a new app or other set of tools. Trying to maintain two competing systems—your old one and the new one—is a one-way ticket to information hell.
  • Remember: the status quo is always an option. True, you might miss out on the latest bells and whistles offered by new tools. But if you’re currently managing information in a way that supports your priorities, then you’re doing well.