Processing Reference Material
Last time we discussed Processing in broad-stroke principles: what is it, and how does doing it on a computer bring quirks and nuances to the job. This time, I want to focus on one part of the Processing stage: reference materials. Specifically, how do you set up a system that handles reference materials capably?
Let’s first cover what makes a good reference system. David Allen talks specifically about this in the book—using the filing cabinet as the housing for the system, and the alphabetical file as the contents of it. Allen spells out some first principles, so I will, too.
To begin with, it needs to be easy—even a pleasure—to use. Allen says that filing should be fun. I say that holds on the computer, as well. If you’re setting up a digital reference/filing system and it becomes a drudgery to maintain, you simply won’t do it. As a consequence, your reference material will remain unfiled and of little or no use to you. (There is an important qualification to this, which I’ll discuss in a moment.)
Also, it must be omnipresent, yet nearly invisible. What do I mean? You must be able to access it from pretty much anywhere (think of the concept of putting the file cabinet beside your desk, so that it is always accessible). Otherwise, your hands are tied when it comes to some filing. At the same time, it has to get out of the way when you’re not using it. How easy is it to get work done when you can’t find the window you’re working in?
Finally, it must house, index, and retrieve all of your needed materials seamlessly. I’ll talk more on this as I discuss specific directions below, but here’s the gist of what I mean: if your system can’t, at least to a degree, handle the sort of materials you work with in reference, what good is it?
Digital or Analog?
Naturally, a good filing cabinet may be the hub of your system too; in fact, it may be that your circumstances, preferences, or other limitations keep you in the analog world when it comes to reference archives. Back in the day (he writes with a pseudo-elderly voice), I remember printing hard copies of everything I wanted to save, and sticking them into an elaborate filing system. You may do the same thing today, by necessity or by choice.
Over the years, my file system grew, and the last time I moved (a little better than a year ago), I moved three four-drawer filing cabinets and two two-drawer cabinets, all full. The problem wasn’t the quantity, however, but the inefficiency. I knew I had a lot of good stuff in my files; I just didn’t know exactly what I had.
David Allen addresses this with his usual aplomb: he includes a culling of the reference file with every annual review (no, you’re not off the hook on deciding whether to throw it out, just because it made it to reference the first time). He also recommends more frequent culling by weeding through a couple of files at a time during lulls—while waiting for the coffee to brew, for example. These are great methods—but my problem comes when I want to use what I have, but don’t remember exactly which file it’s in.
For example, I have dozens of journal articles from grad school, and yes, I actually do reference them from time to time. But every time I do, it seems like I come across an article I was looking for last time I was referencing these. It’s too late to be of help, but a reminder that I want to keep the article. Plowing through these is inefficient and frustrating—hardly GTD zen.
So I’ve converted my hard-copy files to digital files. If you read my review of the Fujitsu ScanSnap S500m, you know how—scanning each one with an OCR-compatible scanner. Now my files are accessible and easy to find. My recommendation is that you find a way to do the same; if not with a ScanSnap, then with another (probably similar) method.
Spotlight—a Great Start
Now on to how to work with files once you have them ready for reference. And the first stop on that exploration has to be Finder—the Mac OS’s long-time organizer of files. How convenient!
Thanks to Spotlight, the problem of reference material being “unfiled” is reduced, and in some people’s minds, eliminated. As Steve Jobs himself quipped at Spotlight’s introduction, “A lot of us are never going to use the Finder again. We’re just going to go right here [to Spotlight] to find anything.”
I can imagine Steve’s (and others’) documents folders simply being one big stash of documents of all types—indexed and searchable by Spotlight, of course—and users accessing these files by searching every time they want to open them. Maybe this is enough for some! If so, I recommend that you pick a location (“Documents” makes sense to me) and commit to it, simply dropping everything into that place.
Though it is easy to choose your desktop and the target, you want to be sure to stick them somewhere other than that. For one thing, the desktop will eventually fill up to such a mess that you can’t use any of these icons efficiently (speaking from experience!). Also, as Rob Griffiths of Macworld points out, keeping items on your desktop uses system resources—slowing your whole computer down eventually. Plus, the very metaphor of a cluttered desktop like that is so contrary to GTD that you should recoil from the thought.
If you go with the “Spotlight is enough” reference system, you might check out some of the handful of utilities designed to add Spotlight-searchable meta-data to your files and folders. Branding Iron, DropLight, Folders2Tags, and SpotMeta are just a few of these. Think of these as your digital P-Touch labeler. You’ll also want to stock up on Spotlight plug-ins, which boost Spotlight’s abilities to read the contents of different types of documents.
If you need something more—something more akin to a virtual file cabinet—then there are a number of options available. A lot of the decision here is flexibility with document usage.
For example, if you work only with PDFs, then there are applications designed to handle these very nicely. I recently reviewed Yep! for ATPM, and found it to be a great option for PDF management. Giles Turnbull also recently looked at Yep! as well as a few other options with his O’Reilly article Smarter Ways to Work with PDFs, which you’ll find a very helpful read.
If you work with more document types than simply PDFs, there are still a handful of options. ATPM editor Michael Tsai is partial to EagleFiler for some reason. Others may find Bare Bones’ Yojimbo to be a great option (particularly if they want something like the Web-accessibility that Webjimbo offers for their reference files). DocumentWallet is a nice complement to the ScanSnap scanner I mentioned earlier. And DEVONthink is sort of the big daddy of all of these.
What each of these applications have in common is simply this: they offer a freeform, unstructured database of sorts, housing, indexing, and providing search tools for one or (in most cases) multiple types of documents and information, allowing you to drop everything in one place and search them capably. They also offer multiple ways of getting that information into them, so they are accessible from many places in your Mac.
How It Works
For me, the system is straightforward. I drop information into my database all day long, from multiple applications. Hotkeys, drag-and-drop, Automator actions, and Services menu tools allow me to put clippings from Web sites, e-mails, PDFs, and other documents straight in. I can also scan paper documents in using my ScanSnap. Practically speaking, the work is mostly done by this point—I now have the information I need and want readily accessible in a digital file cabinet.
Be careful, though. To stop here is, in GTD terms, to drop loose papers into your file drawers without a folder or label. Be sure you impose the information on your data that will help your file cabinet help you—in this case, meta tags, a hierarchy of folders and sub-folders, and other organizational tools that make the searches more efficient.
In the same way that Allen recommends that you work over your reference files, I do too—but with this twist: periodically go into your files (whether in Finder with Spotlight, or in one of the applications listed above) and work with their meta data, organize them into folders (if that is helpful for your system; for example, DEVONthink “learns” associations by groupings into folders and subfolders, so searches are more efficient when they are well-grouped), and review them. Don’t be afraid to delete files you no longer need.
Your reference files may very well be the most important part of the GTD process for you—they are for me, in some ways—but without a good system, they aren’t helping you, and they may be hurting you by fooling you into believing that you have access to information that you really don’t have. Take the time to set this up well, and learn how to use it.
Also in This Series
- The Last Action · May 2012
- Master List, April 2011 · April 2011
- GTD for iOS/iPad · February 2011
- E-mail Tricks and Tools · August 2010
- Master List, May 2010 · May 2010
- Inbox Overload · April 2010
- Master List, February 2010 · February 2010
- Getting Back on the GTD Wagon · December 2009
- Master List, June 2009 · June 2009
- Complete Archive