Saturday, February 19

Thoughts on organizing

I'm cleaning up my office here at work. I'm a "knowledge worker" so I accumulate a bunch of "knowledge" (notes, paper, documents, filesetc.) and they tend to accumulate in piles on my desk and floor.

The sedimentary effect of a pile of papers can be quite interesting. If there is a pile that has built up for several months or years the recent papers are on top and as I dig deeper into the pile I dig further back in time. There is a strange cross of archaeology and This-is-your-life while I clean my office.

There is a progression of states I go through as I dig down into a stack once I get past the era currently stored in my short term memory. The first state is the, "what the hell is this?", state. This occurs when I pick up a piece of paper that that I swear I have never seen before. I wonder "how did this get in here? Why is this in here? I had nothing to do with this." After staring at the document for a few seconds the fog of memory pulls back and I remember "Oh, yeah I worked on that with Dave. He was wondering if the frequency of the frob-nitz was dependent on the thickness of the thing-a-ma-bob." Then comes the realization, "Hey wait a second! I wrote this! This was a memo to Charley describing the unintended dependency of the frequency of the frob-nitz on the thickness of the thing-a-ma-bob. Look, there is my name on it!" Then comes depression. "This was only six months ago! I worked on this study for at least a month. I spent a week alone trying to figure out how to correlate the frob-nitz frequency to the thing-a-ma-bob thickness. What else have I forgotten! Am I getting senile. I am getting too old!" Luckily this doesn't happen for every document but it does happen more often than I like, and it happens more frequently the deeper I dig into the stack.

Some of the people I work with have an office full of "knowledge stalagmites". I don't know how they can work that way. If I have more than four or five piles that are more than two feet thick I haveto go through and weed out the junk, or my desk becomes useless.

Weeding out the junk, of course, requires deciding what to throw away and what to keep. I keep things based on the probability of using it in the future. If I am pretty sure I will never need a tidbit of information again; In to the round file it goes. If I am positive I will need it again I have to keep it and figure out a new place to put it. (Sometimes the new place is the foundation of a new stalagmite, or an extension to an already existing stalagmite (This disrupts the implicit chronological information of a stalagmite, but archaeology isn't an exact science anyway)) Most of the information I have falls some where in between "I will need it", and "I won't need it", and requires a judgment call. For the older things the decision is easier that for the newer things. I have a better sense of whether or not I will need older documents. Sometimes they have entered into a formal document tracking system and when I need them I can get them from there, so I can throw out my copy. Other times the whole project has been scrapped, and my notes don't amount to a hill of beans. In these cases I am pretty safe throwing the stuff out. The newer stuff is trickier. Will a project that has been put on hold ever restart? Will there be a problem with or a question about the changes I made to the doohickey project, so I will need this piece of information? Newer information frequently ends up as a new stalagmite. Older information that no one else has or frequently used reference information gets filed for the future.

Another rule of thumb that I use to help me justify throwing out a piece of information is:

If I can't find this when I need it, it is worse than not having it at all.
My rational for this is as follows. I am pretty good with computers. Computers are pretty good at generating information and data. If I am not careful I can bury myself in information, and none of it will beuseful because none of it will be accessible. In the end the only useful piece of information is the information in my hand. When I want a piece of information that I know is stored in my stalagmites I have to dig through all the other pieces of information looking for the one I want. The "what the hell is this" process described above happens during this search and distracts me from what ever it is I'm trying to do. The worst case is the flip side of the "what the hell is this" process. I need a piece of information, and I don't know I already have it in one of my stalagmites. I have to go through the whole process of creating it again. Some times I remember "hey! I've done this before" and then I remember the information I am looking for is in my stalagmites. Other times the absence of a piece of information completely stops an activity and with so much else going on something slips through the cracks. Later, when I'm cleaning my office I stumble on the piece of information and go through the "what the hell is this" process with the added state of "Oh I'm a doofus! This answers the question Phil had about the whats-a-ma-giger."

Now I'm all motivated to clean my office. So, I guess I better get back to it. Oh wait, it's time to go home! Imagine that! I'mprocrastinating cleaning my office until tomorrow!

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