Search Results for: personal information management

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Perhaps you quickly found the information you were looking for but discovered that it was outdated or incomplete.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




Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Making Sense

Keeping a commonplace book allows you to systematically capture the best ideas that come from your reading, conversation, and thinking on many topics. While that alone is worth the effort, there’s an even deeper pleasure that awaits you—making sense of it all.


Take the information you’ve captured and look at it from many angles. Play with it. Massage it. See if you can link ideas in new ways. Look for connections that no one else has seen before.

The result could be a new blog post, book, course, product, service, career, or relationship.

In his book  Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones explains two primary ways of taking isolated pieces of information and making sense of them.

“Top down” methods

One option is to create a hierarchy of ideas with the main topic at the top and supporting details at various levels below it. This is the “top down” approach, and there are many ways to do it.

Mind mapping, for example, is a visual way of showing the links between ideas. It’s useful for brainstorming. To create a mind map, take a blank sheet of paper and write your main topic in the center of the page. Circle it. Then write related topics on “spokes” that radiate outward from the center. For examples, see Brett Terpstra’s posts about mind mapping (starting with How I Mind Map).

Concept mapping is another cool option based on research in cognitive psychology. Concept maps look like mind maps, but the main concept sits at the top of the page instead of the center. And instead of connecting concepts with simple lines, you add words to describe the precise links. For the theory of concept mapping, examples, and a free app, see this website from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.

Of course, there’s always the classic top-down method for organizing ideas—outlining. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the traditional outlining format with forbidding levels of Roman numerals, letters, and number. Any method that allows you to create a hierarchy of ideas will work.

For instance, see Workflowy—a robust online outliner that you can use to organize all your project and reference information. Other online outliners are listed here. And if you’re a Mac user, check out Omni Outliner.

There are tons of other top-down approaches. You’ll get more options from my posts on creating a framework for your ideas and writing a message hierarchy.

“Bottom up” methods

The second sense-making method that Jones recommends is something that you already know how to do. Card sorting is one of them:

  • Write down your ideas on index cards—one card for each idea.
  • Sort the cards into piles—one pile for each set of related cards.
  • When you’re done, survey the piles. Each pile represents a specific category or topic.
  • Place the piles in a logical order. Now you have a rough diagram of the structure for your article, book, or presentation.

This is called a “bottom up” method because the main topics emerge only after you sort through a lot of details. In contrast, a top down method starts with the main topic and proceeds through supporting details.

You can use many tools, both digital and analog, to organize information from the bottom up. For examples, see the literature on affinity diagramming. Also see The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book, Using Your Commonplace Book for Creative Thinking, and Organizing 11,000 Ideas—Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It.

More options

Experiment with all these techniques, use them in combination, and invent methods of your own. Also check out apps that are based on the various methods.

But remember that there’s a lot you can do with tools that already own—paper and pencil, index cards, sticky notes, office software, and the way you set up files and folders on your computer.

Any tool is simply a path to unlocking your potential for making sense of information and thinking creatively.

Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Managing the Flow

One goal of personal information management (PIM) is to have current information on hand to meet a current need. But equally important is making sure that your personal information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands or distract you from doing what matters to you.


In his book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones says that there are three distinct issues to consider here:

  • Managing your personal information as it flows out into the world. This starts with protecting the privacy and security of your passwords, credit card information, and other confidential data. It’s also about attending to the public image of you that’s created by outgoing information, including your presence on social media and other online venues.
  • Managing the information that flows in to your life. You’re out of control here if your in-boxes are overflowing with unread messages, your desktop is strewn with papers, and your computer is filled with files and folders that are disorganized or irrelevant.
  • Staying “in flow” as you use information for personal purposes. We use information in order to create things—anything from a text message to a book manuscript. But completing creative projects requires us to set aside time for deep work without interruptions.

Following are ideas from William Jones about how to deal with these issues.

Manage your personal information as it flows out into the world

There are mean people in the world who want to hack into your bank account and steal your credit card number.

Beyond them is all the information about you that’s managed by government agencies, marketing companies, and corporate IT departments. Every link you click and every character that you type while you’re online can be tracked.

“The best place to exercise control is at the points where information about us (e.g., our credit card number or email address) is about to flow outward,” notes William. For example:

  • Find the privacy settings for apps that you use often and websites that you frequently visit. Determine which settings you can change and their resulting effects.
  • Read the privacy and confidentiality policies adopted by websites and app developers. Buried in the legal jargon you might find mismatches between those policies and your preferences.
  • Control how much personal information you put online, especially on social media websites.
  • Use Ghostery or a similar app that blocks advertising and indentifies who’s tracking your online activity.

Manage the information that flows in to your life

You can cope with incoming streams of email and news with shortcuts, such as skimming rather than reading in depth. But at a certain point, even the shortcuts break down.

The best way to control inflow is at the source—not at the level of individual events (You’ve got mail!):

  • Reduce inputs. Review the number of bookmarks in your web browser, feeds in your RSS reader, and mailing lists that you’ve joined. Delete as many as possible. When choosing sources of information, keep the 80/20 principle in mind.
  • Give up on keeping up. “Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” wrote Richard Saul Wurman in his book about information anxiety. Use your personal interests—not some vague intention about “staying informed” or “keeping up with the news”—as your primary way to filter information.
  • When faced with a decision, don’t force yourself to discover and research all the options. Keep searching only until you reach a satisfactory outcome—for example, finding a qualified person for a job even if you haven’t reviewed all the resumés.

Staying in “flow”

Companies invest heavily in finding ways to capture our attention. That’s the reason for beeps from your appliances, telemarketing calls, online advertisements, pop-up windows, and all those silly noises that your smartphone makes.

Contrast that stimulation with your experiences of being “in the zone” and “flow.” These are times when your attention is so completely absorbed in a task that time disappears. You perform at higher level than usual without a sense of struggle or effort.

You can’t always control the conditions that create flow. But you can take steps to prevent from being pulled out of flow when it happens:

  • Reduce interruptions from others. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t respond to email or text messages. Close the door to your office, studio, or room. Go online only if it’s absolutely necessary for what you’re doing.
  • Reduce self-interruptions. Before you begin a deep work period, get prepared. Assemble all the tools, materials, and information you’ll need to complete your task.