2 Tips for Organizing Digital "Reference" Items


Everyone has reference items. It's the non-actionable information you'd like to hang on to. Perhaps it's a business contract that you need to refer to as you complete a current work project. Or maybe it's the manual that came with your car - that might come in handy someday!

So how do you organize and store your reference items?

Well for most people, the answer is they default to a system of semi-organized chaos. Papers get randomly stacked on desks or get shoved into drawers. Emails are left sitting in the inbox. Chaos is the norm.

Despite what some people claim, this is not an effective system.

Two reasons people leave their reference information in a chaotic state:

  1. They've never implemented a more effective system (for whatever reason)
  2. Their system is too hard to maintain

The good news is, there are simple things you can do to improve your handling of digital information.

With that in mind, here's two tips for improving your process of organizing digital reference materials.

1. Organize the Information that is Current to You

If reference information is current to you - meaning you'll probably need it sometime soon - it should be organized into categories for fast access. I find up to 1 year to be a good guideline for "current".

(You'll need a digital tool that supports your categorization needs. Here are some tips on choosing a digital filing system.)

By 'organize information into categories', I mean you take the time on the front end to think through how you might use this reference information, and then assign it to an appropriate category (or multiple categories, as needed). Although this has an initial time cost, it pays itself back quickly because:

  • You can find it faster
  • You can easily see what kinds of information you have for a certain topic

For instance, I keep a category of blog post ideas - any ideas that cross my path get filed there. Then, when I sit down to write a post, I look at my list of ideas to rapidly get inspired (hopefully!).

If I don't take the time to categorize my current reference information, I tend to dump it in the "General Reference" category and it becomes pretty meaningless.

But for those items that truly fall into "well, someday I might need this"...

2. Create a 'Catch-All' Location(s)

You probably frequently run across information that is interesting, but you have no idea how you might use it in the future. Put this information into some kind of a 'Catch-All' or General Reference location and don't feel like you need to organize the information further.

This is where digital information really shines. If you have full-text search, you can find just about anything you need in the General Reference category with minimal effort. And because hard drive space is so cheap, you can store lots of files and easily purchase more space as needed.

For me, an email archive can function as a Catch-All category - I just pour email into there without attempting to categorize it. It's somewhat filtered - I only archive email that I think might have future value, however small - but beyond that, it's just a mass of unsorted email. To find something, I can use the powerful search features built into Lotus Notes, Gmail, and other email systems.

Just remember, if you need to access specific info in the Catch-All location(s) on a regular basis, it's probably in the wrong place. Put it in a distinct category.

So what are tips you have for organizing your digital reference items?

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