Breaking A Costly Habit You Didn’t Know You Had

Breaking A Costly Habit You Didn’t Know You Had

Dave has spoken to my Vistage Chair group several times. Because of his prompting, I’m working my out of the habits I learned when I was in high school, then a DOS user and later, a Windows connoisseur. During Dave’s most recent presentation, I realized that although I’ve made major strides on my desktop, my iphone organization was still the “old way”. Thank you Dave, for challenging me to more productive with my technology.

Recently, a Fidelity Investments form asked for my mom’s social security. I don’t know it and I couldn’t ask her because she died in 2005. There’s no one alive today that knows her SSN and I’ve never seen it in any document. And yet just seconds later, I was recording the correct 9-digit number on the form almost as if by magic. Curious?

No one would ever manually traverse the Internet looking for desired information. I’m not even sure how you would do that. Instead, we rely on Google’s brain to keep track of everything, and to find it for us exactly when we need it. Remarkably, we never worry that Google might lose track of something important. But this is not a Google story. Rather, it’s about my own information architecture … and potentially yours.

Think about it. Almost everybody organizes their information hierarchically, relying on their own brains to manually traverse an increasingly complex tree. I’m talking about the files in folders on our computers. Folders, within folders, within folders!

Almost everybody organizes their information hierarchically, relying on their own brains to manually traverse an increasingly complex tree. Click To Tweet

Personal computers were popularized in the 1970’s before we invented powerful search capabilities. To organize our files back then, we adopted a paradigm invented almost one hundred years earlier. If Wikipedia is accurate, in November 1886, Henry Brown patented a “receptacle for storing and preserving papers.” Find the relevant filing cabinet, locate and open the correct drawer, look for the right folder within that drawer, get to the right folder within that folder, and then retrieve the desired document from that folder. That’s hierarchical organization.

This paradigm was fine in the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, and maybe even in the 00’s. But these days, we are dealing with 10-times more information … than just three years ago. And we’ll have 10X more three years from today.

There are at least two major problems with hierarchical filing as information expands exponentially:

It’s a huge time synch saving (and more so retrieving) files this way, in part because a computer can have an almost limitless number of levels of folders. I was amazed to discover that one of my ‘branches’ is 13 folders deep. That’s a lot of clicks to find and open a file.

It’s terribly unreliable. How many times have times have you tried to find a file and failed in your first attempt? And second! There’s a reason for this. Hierarchical filing is one-dimensional, but information multidimensional.

Hierarchical filing is one-dimensional, but information is multidimensional Click To Tweet

Let’s say you have a Word doc that relates to your customer “Acme Stores”, that it documents a “Priority 1” issue, and that it is part of your larger “Project Reboot”. Which folder do you put it in; Acme_Stores, Priority_1, or Project_Reboot? At best, perhaps you have a Project_Reboot folder, which contains various customer name folders including the Acme_Stores folder, which itself contains a Priority_1 folder, as well as Priority_2 and Priority_3 folders, as do the other customer name folders.

Great … until you need to find all your Priority 1 files scattered across numerous different end branches of your hierarchical tree. And what happens when you want to start associating sales people’s names with various files? (Side note: Using ‘tags’ also helps solve this problem – an article for another day.)

Abandoning the hierarchy is a better way. It’s not just a little better, it’s a revolution in how we organize information. But it’s initially uncomfortable because it requires you to break your hierarchical thinking and to give up your perceived control over your information architecture.

Like Googling the Internet, you will instead rely on “search” to find your files. Once you decide on this, you can put everything in one folder. Or maybe 17. Yes, seven years into my nonhierarchical journey, I have thousands of documents (PDFs, notes, Microsoft Office files, photographs, scans, etc.) “organized” in just 17 different folders. And none of these folders has any subfolders! It’s an extremely flat system.

In fact, roughly half of my documents are in “Dave’s Main” folder. This is my default location unless there’s a reason to partition my files (for example, to share different subsets of them with my wife or my accountant).

Back to the story of my mom’s SSN. Years ago, I inherited a huge pile of documents from my parents. With my nonhierarchical filing scheme, there was no need to look at these documents. Instead, using my Fujitsu ScanSnap 40-page-per-minute, double-sided scanner, I simply scanned them into my computer. My software (in this case Evernote, although there are many other options) performed optical character recognition and indexed them for search.

So how did I find my mom’s SSN? Well, I knew my dad’s SSN and guessed that perhaps I had some documents that contained it along with my mom’s. While I didn’t even know that I had it, in less than a second the search function found a 1995 Marriott Timeshare Purchase Agreement (don’t get me started) that contained both parents’ SSNs. Amazing.

Now think about this. I have 200 apps on my iPhone (and growing). Back in the day, I used to organize my apps into folders so that I could manually locate them (hierarchically). But why? I’ve abandoned hierarchy here too. Last night when I needed the Uber app, I activated search by swiping from the middle of the screen and typed “ub” and there it was. Faster, easier, and more reliable!

Abandoning hierarchy while embracing search is a truly revolutionary new behavior. The question is, can you break your costly hierarchical habit?

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