Principles of Keeping Personal Information Effectively

Posted on October 4, 2009

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PIM is arguably as much about the user as it is about the system, since the overall effectiveness is critically dependent on the right behavior of the user as well as the system, or the combination of both. Therefore, as a PIM researcher, I often think about what the best practices of doing PIM myself so that the system support and provide incentives for these practices.

As a starting point, these are things I found over the years, mostly on the ‘keeping’ side of PIM:

Keep only when it reduces access cost

When a large portion of information is a few googlings away, it doesn’t make sense to bear cost of keeping it yourself. Keep it when re-finding is relatively costly (and uncertain).

Check what you have before finding or creating

In many cases we get so lazy that we don’t check what we kept before and find or create from scratch. This can cause extra effort sometimes, especially when we already put some effort on that item. For instance, I often find, print and read a paper only to find that I already read this and have annotated hardcopy somewhere in my paper archive.

Keep with findability in mind

Attach a cue so that it can be easily found later. Put tag or use seachable keywords so that it can be found again efficiently when is needed. It’s as good as you don’t have it if you can’t find it later.

Simplify decision when keeping

I hate using folders to organize files because I have to make multiple decisions and the possibility of finding is dependent on each decision. Using simpler hierarchy or labels reduces cognitive burden and improves findability.

Keep a single reference

DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) principle holds true for personal information as well. If you have to look at many places for finding something (e.g. your plan for project A), you will be confused each time and end up having many different versions of same information.

Sharing the information whenever possible

Sharing is often the best way of keeping, since it will motivate you to complete your thoughts, strengthen your memory and getting further feedback from other people will help you develop thoughts. For instance, when I found an interesting paper, I sometimes send a email of comments to the author rather than write a summary and keep it myself.

From many points I made above, one lesson is that effective finding is key for effective keeping, while it seems obvious the other way around (e.g. more tags, better findability). The possibly of easily finding what we have enables us to keep smaller amount of things with less effort.

In the following post, I’ll write about how I tried to address each point in LiFiDeA — PIM system prototype I’m working on. I’m also curious on what your wisdoms are in personal information management.

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Posted in: PIM