File System Infobase Manager

Using the file system for your notes.

I’ve been keeping notes and journals for as long as I can remember. And I was born long before these cool PC/Mac thing’ies became ubiquitous, so my earliest notes were written on the best technology of the day: paper. Then came the revolution, and before too long I got with the program, moved on to the electronics, and started typing up all kinds of stuff in all kinds of applications.

Technology over this time period has been about as fickle as a saloon girl after a roundup, so I’ve used almost every type of system that’s been rolled out since the green screen VAX I played with in 1983. The result was a pile of notes that collected then collapsed into a mish-mash of various file types, in different formats, with incompatible structures, all strewn about various locations on multiple generations of mediums.

For example, in my notes folders I had files produced by AmiPro, WordStar, WordPerfect, Commence, Ecco Pro, and Word. There was text in Lotus 123 files, and Excel spreadsheets. There were files from an outliner app called Think Tank, and others from an outliner called Outliner. There were emails from Outlook, emails from Lotus Notes, stuff from an HP95LX, a HP200LX and a number of Palms. There were text files, doc files, files with extensions I had forgotten from applications I’d forgotten – all kinds of electronic exotica. But I carefully saved them all ‘cause I was sure that someday, somehow, I’d use them.

In 2007 I became a full time writer. All of a sudden this hoard of electronic chaff became a mineable resource. Making sense of it changed from deferrable issue to current todo because someone told me that note taking, journaling they called it, and, crucially, retrieving said notes so they could actually be used, was a key skill for a writer. I scrounged up the old data folders, consolidated them and began the search for a system to manage it all.

IT Architects like to call collections like this, “unstructured infobases” and there are lots of programs around – variously called information managers, PIMs, or Everything Buckets – to help manage them. Surveying the field I adopted two, Journler and DEVONThink, after I demoed a dozen more (and did this all, probably, while I should have been writing).

First, I poured all my notes into Journler, a fabulous but sadly abandoned gem of a program. Journler allowed me to think of my infobase as a structured whole, rather than as disparate segments, and it prompted me to habitualize the process of capturing and synthesizing the random bits of data flowing past my writing desk every day. Primarily the import to Journler standardized all my file formats. From the transition I got a fairly fixed TXT/RTF/RTFD/HTML set of documents, augmented with some PDFs, various image and audio files. This was not an insignificant feat.

When I outgrew Journler (and you always outgrow these packages, always, eventually, each and every one, no mater what the developer says about capacity and growth potential when you sign on) I transitioned to a beast of an application called DEVONThink. DT ultimately showed itself to be both constricting and superfluous. (see my Dating DEVONThink post about this) But DT further refined my file formats and got me to add tags to files in a common data set rather than categorizing by topic into groups.

Along the way I played with Evernote, MacJournal, SoHo Notes, Mori, EagleFiler and Yohimbo. I’ve written about these attempts, and my struggles with DEVONThink, elsewhere. In their own way each of these apps was lacking, but as a group hey all demanded attention to their own set of quirks that their programers thought of as features. You had to conform your dates, workflow, ideas, cataloging, to their app’s functionality. This for me was perfectly backwards.

So, now, while my data format was standardized, thanks to Journler and DT, and, as such, much more usable, the whole process was still not stable, not at least for any time horizon of more than a year of two, since everything was still in someone else’s app. I was dependent on one or another of these applications to make sense of it all, which was kind of where I’d been all along. Then I found a better way.

Now I’m using a system that is stable, and sustainable, and scalable; one that seems to fall into the background while I work; one that is as future proof as can be. It allows me to refer to my notes, do my writing, create new ideas, synthesize old ones and not wrestle with an application while I’m doing it. I think it’s a long term solution that is platform neutral and vastly extensible.

It’s called the “file system”. Yep, the files system, that’s all. The very thing we use to run our computer every day. Shocking huh? After all those applications and proprietary file structures who would’a thunk that the best answer to electronic note taking would be the good old file system?

By using consistent file naming conventions and some highly abstract codes, I have produced a vastly flexible system that is portable, that lets me find just what, and does so without wasting my time in arcane processes, leaving me to learn the quirks of a program that my well be abandoned in a year or so.

I credit a denizen of the Scrivener discussion boards, amberV, with creating the core of the system. In a series of posts she turned the light on for me, the one that let me think of organizing my data in this simple but deeply powerful way. I’ve taken her ideas and modified them, but not so very much as to be able to claim any credit for the origination of the system. amberV is brilliant, and her ability to create vast robustness in a simple design is evidence of that gift.

Her original discussion are here, and here, but just to be clear, the credit for these ideas should go to her. Any problems due to my modification are my responsibility alone.

How it works

The system relies on file naming conventions and folders, two things that are as stable, permanent and accessible as anything that will ever exist in the computing world. To understand this system you have to start with some philosophical ideas about info management. So strap on your seat belts, this won’t take long.

Every note you take, every article you clip, every email you write is metaphorically just a sheet of paper, a slip in your infobase. Think: a giant 3×5 card, or a single page entry in a notebook. The item can be complex or simple, but each is a record, and each record needs to be retrievable in a consistent way, and should be retrievable in multiple ways.

An organizational approach to these kids of slips was developed by a neo-ludite from Japan, Noguchi Yukio, who built a filing philosophy to manage his infobase of folders. Others have used it to manage thousands and thousands of index cards.

It’s not that hard to think of RTFs or TXTs (or DOCs for that mater) as a series of 3×5 cards, and when you look closely at Journler or DEVONThink from an architectural perspective you see that’s really what they are doing: creating a file system for bunch of text, graphic and pdf slips.

So the path from a card management system to an infobase is pretty strait and direct.

We all start out the same way, right? We save a file or two in a folder, then we begin to do more work, maybe on the same topic, maybe on another, and the number of files grows, and all of a sudden we can’t see the structure of our work anymore because of the clutter, so we folder some files, and subfolder others, then the folder and file names don’t make sense anymore, and the tree structure has gone overgrown and tangled.

This happens because the names we use are one dimensional. As the architects like to say, folders and files have only one “axis of information” for retrieval. The FSIM changes that.

Abstract Coding

Most people want to use multiple axis of data identification to work with their notes. (meaning they want to get at their information from different directions at different times). The frustration users have with topic folders is the limitations of the one axis categorization that comes with a file or folder name. It’s the old paper journaling problem transferred to the 21st century. Journals are either perfectly chronological or perfectly topical. I t is very difficult to make them be both chronological and topical at the same time (ie: to use multiple axis of coding), and it is impossible for them to be multi-topical, regardless of chronology, unless you have the transcription skills and determined habits of a monk to copy and recopy items over and over.

When I used Journler, I found that all my notes had not just one but other, more abstract, sets of categories that I would use to retrieve data, if I could. THese went beyond the single topic of the folder it resided in. Besides an item being being about “Art”, or “Productivity”, or “Non-Profit Management”, or “Strategy Formulation”, or “Phenomenological Philosophy”, each slip was also either a chunk of text I had created, which I called “Thoughts”, or things other people had created, which I called “Notes”.

So, besides unique file name and topic categorization there was this additional dimension of categorization about who created the information at it’s origin.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this. The split between “Thoughts” and “Notes”, this distinction between what others have produced (inputs into your creative process) and the syntheses which follows (what you do with it), is really at the core of academic and artistic work. Recently both Merlin Mann and Twyla Tharp have been writing about this at some length and when yo think about it, the input vs output relationship is not only obvious but profound.

In addition to “Thoughts” and “Notes” I realized that there were other categories at this level of abstraction. (When we get to the codes themselves below you’ll see them.) And as with any good system development project I found that what I first believed were categories at this level, really weren’t. So I changed them, and it was easy. The idea is to keep an equivalent level of abstraction throughout the system, and not get spooked about making adjustments.

Chronology

Besides abstraction, the other idea from amberV’s thinking on this was the predominance of chronology for the retrieval of information. Noguchi’s system was based on what he called, “the importance of recency.” He felt time was the best way to find relevant items. For example, I may not remember that the Chomsky article I annotated ended up in “Linguistics” or “Anthropology” or “MIT” or “Chomsky”, but I’m sure going to know that I worked on it in the Fall of 2008. And with date you get surrounding chronological context.

One of the wonderful things about Journler, and to a lesser extent DEVONThink, was the ability to flip through your work, to see what you were doing yesterday, or last week or this time last year, and to see it in the context of a set of ideas: what was I reading, what else was going on, was there an art exhibit of conference going on at the same time that influenced my thinking, what was in the news? Incorporating chronology in the system lets you recreate this function.

Reliance on metadata can be used to get at these dimensions, also but it’s very vulnerable to time and error as anyone who has had their “File Creation Date” redefined in a file copy operation can attest. As can those who lost a set of tags in the hidden OS X DS_ files that did not make the jump to a new folder, or were synced out of existence. So the identification of this information, date in particular, has to be more robust than a metadata tag. It also has to be modifiable and definable. A record may well be best dated in December because that was when you first worked on the project, not yesterday when you created the file. Relying on the file modification dates or other metadata means loosing that control completely.

The File Name

So the system has to accessible from multiple axis, one of which needs to be chronological, and it needs to be robust enough to be application independent.

In her system amberV uses codes added in MultiMarkdown, a very sophisticated approach. I use the file name. For me it’s simpler and I don’t have to learn MMD. For every file I save I add a date, a code, and a unique identifier. That’s the file name.

So this file would be …

090608-W2-File System Philosophy.rtf

Where …

  • 090608 is the YYMMDD date of my choosing (might be today, might reference prior dates if the material needed to be fixed in a different time)
  • “W” stands for Writing, and “2” is a sub category for non-fiction essays.
  • “File System Philosophy” is the unique title, which can be preceded by its own characterization if I desire (I rarely do). The file itself is in a folder called “Dougist” because that is were it was published. But it could have gone in a folder called “Productivity”, or inside a rather extensive tree I have called “Systems”. It doesn’t matter because Spotlight can find the files anywhere.

I like using the file name for these codes because I can use the same system for every file type, RTFs, PDFs, JPEGs, Scrivener containers, whatever. And when you get all your file names coded this way they line up in perfect, neat columns down rows in Finder so what looks like clutter turns out to be a very good visual reference.

I also like using the file name because you can use a bulk file renamer to do all the coding for you. This would be would be an insurmountable obstacle for most people (like me) if they have more than a few hundred files. I use A Better File Renamer and it adds the codes like magic. PathFinder does the same thing, but I like the stand alone ABFR because of its power. And it is very fast. It took me months to structure up my data in Journler, a week to go from Journler to DEVONThink, but less than an hour to go from DT’s export to a fully coded and indexed system using ABFR. And then one day when I decided that I liked “R” (Record) better then “D” (Daily) for my every day records, the renaming took 18 seconds. Similarly, I re-categorized all the sub-categories of personal and professional development from “3” from “4” and it took about a minute.

And here is a key aspect of the system: rather than putting data into an application and using the ho-hum functions of that app to work with my ideas, I keep my data separate and have best-in-class applications, using higher levels of functionality, work on it.

For example, both Journler and DT (and EagleFiler, and notoriously MacJournal) have anemic text editing functionality. I use Bean and Scrivener (and occasionally Word, OmniOutliner, and WriteRoom) on my Thought and Writing files and get full-functionality.

Similarly, on my PDFs I use Preview or Skim, or if I’m really out for some major modifications, Adobe. This was the key architectural point that Alex Payne was after in his article about Everything Bucket applications. By using Everything Bucket applications you give up functionality for compactness and eventually that equation works against your creative process. By working in the file system you use the best app for each specific purpose.

As an example: From a tagging perspective, ABFR is vastly more sophisticated than the internal tags of Together will ever be, and even if the ABFR developer goes belly up, you can just move on to the next bulk file renaming utility and proceed, not modification import or export required. The integrity and functionality of your data is not dependent on the existence of an application.

When you start to contemplate the power you get from Word, Pages, or Chronosync vs what you give up in say, Evernote, the technical obstacles necessary to setting up a files system based info management system begin to melt.

A fellow Journler user, a brilliant and dedicated supporter of the product named NovaScotian, once commented on this approach, “but all you’ve done is recreate Journler,” to which I say, yes, but it’s unbreakable and fully extensible. It will not have file size limits, or file type limitations, it can port data into any project and it provides information supplies to all my work efforts. And some day when OS X is replaced by ??? I’ll still be in business the next day with all my material.

The Tags

Now whether this coding goes into the file name, as I do it, or the first line of the document as others do, or the last line as a tag, or in the multimatemarkdown text is really less important than getting your head around the actual codes you will use.

Here’s my set.

The six File Name categories I use are:

• Record -R- Just personal recording. Ideas; observations; people watching; basically anything you might put in a diary. AmberV said, “It was liberating to separate thoughts from diary for me. In the past, I’ve had a problem with feeling guilty about keeping a mundane diary. I always felt like I should be doing something of quality in it. This category is not about quality–simply getting the “facts” down. I don’t have to worry about it being filled with eloquence, or using only the nicest inks, nibs, and papers. Just get it all out.”

  • 1. Diary
  • 2.
  • 3. Action (ToDo, Project, etc) (Sub type “P” -R2P- for major projects)
  • 4. Development

• Thoughts -T- AmberV described it as, “I draw the line between Record and Thoughts by saying, something that intends to “become” something goes in thoughts. Whether that be a thing that is already taking shape, or just an idea that might expand later. Perhaps creative things that are not attached to any particular project, like a line of prose. If I feel it is going to be become a story, or if it is a list of subjects for the next time I take my camera out, then it goes in Thoughts. This is where I am most liberal about sub-categories. It just makes sense to designate which book something is about, or whatever.” (Was once C=Creative)

  • 1. Snips, Fiction
  • 2. Observations, Non- Fiction
  • 3. My processes and procedures, (Craft processes synthesis T3-W)
  • 4. My life ideas, dreams (Goals: T4-G)

• Notes -N- Notes is just that; very similar to Record, except it is material that I have collected as opposed to produced. Everything from research for books, to funny anecdotes. This is also where I store bulk documents downloaded from the web or scanned from paper media. (Was once I=Information = Reference)

  • 1. Research
  • 2. Book notes (to sort and get my book list)
  • 3. Processes (Craft notes N3-W)
  • 4.
  • 5. Refference
  • 6. Quotes (??? Quotes are currently sub-categorised by QUOTE)

• Communications -C- Forums, emails, letters to friends, blog posts, tech support, and other things like that go here. I’ll sub-categorise this one too, if it is a person or forum that I frequently communicate with. (Was once M=coMmunication)

  • 1. Private
  • 2. Public
  • 3. Meetings (Large or small, F2F to conferences, includes phone call notes)
  • 4. Work submitted for review

• Writings -W- Thoughts that have grown, matured and been awarded a drivers license. This is my work of creation. Before long, writings end up in a Scrivener file, but output of versions are kept as separate files with the name of the recipient as a sub-category.

  • 1. Fiction
  • 2. Essays and Non-Fiction
  • 3. Writing about my writing (The process of my writing, what I am writing about)

Projects – P- Transformational efforts that can have notes, thoughts and records. The P is usually affixed to the containing folder. All writing work is project work, but it is not included in this category.

  • 1. Active Projects
  • 2. Finished Projects

The other axis is Contextual and is File Folders

  • Journal - Just like a paper one, a chronological list of items. Created from a smart folder that gets every code above.
  • Topics - A vast sea of labels in sub-folders, roughly mirroring a library catalogue system or the course offerings at a University, culled based on my interests. Few of these are in current use for a project, but if they were, there would be an alias to them in a Project Folder. When does an item end up in Topics and not Journal? At some level of substance a card will belong in Topics; it’s arbitrary. The parallel question in a paper based system would be, when would you copy out your journal notes and file them with torn out articles in manilla folder.
  • Projects – The main difference between Projects and Research is the transformative nature of the work occurring; sequential steps to get something done. Sub-folders are by year, because Projects are (should be) time bound with beginnings and ends. Quite often there is a Scrivener file in a project folder.
  • Writing - Writings are different, somewhat timeless and un-categorizable. My writing folder is a special case; a combination of Journal, Research and Project. A purist would have put current writings in Projects and future ideas in Research, but it’s my system, so I have them separate. Groupings by my Fiction vs Essays, WIP vs Published, a few topical smart folders, mostly in support of potential writing projects.
  • Organizer – This folder tells me where to go. It is a series of subfolders on my current contexts, like Writing Projects, Current Projects. The idea here these folder holds aliases to the data files in the rest of the database. The key is that these aliases are to current work. I once used flags and labels for this function, but I found that what I wanted to see was that I had a current project called “Develop Community of Writers”, not the 34 files associated with organizing a reading in February.

Other

Labels - I use labels arbitrarily to sort items in large folders. For my WIP, labels connote stage of development, from “goofy uncharacterized thoughts” to “ready to send out”. In class folders they separate administrative stuff, like syllabi, from thing like notes and assignments. The point is they have no global significance, their meaning can change from folder to folder.

X Files – Managing the undone. If I have unfinished work in a file, like I only partially completed a draft, I’ll add “X-” the the file name. I have a saved search that collects all these X files in one place, like a flagging system. Sometimes, if the list gets to long I’ll add ordinals to the X, “X1-” or “X2-” etc so they sort by some priority. I’ve also used labels in this situation too. I keep a little folder over in Organizer called “Administrative Tasks”. If something comes up that I will need to do, and that doesn’t fit anywhere else I’ll make an RTF/TXT here just so I have a file with an “X-” in its file name. It then shows up in the saved search. I’ve tried and tried all the todo list managers. OmniFocus alone devoured a collective month of my life. If you need to manage a list with that level of precision then you are a project manager not a writer. iCal todo’s, or a little rtf with tasks, work just fine. I could be convinced, maybe, to use TaskPaper for this stuff, but I’d manage it the same way, in the file system.

Current Jags Folder – In addition to the Organizer folder, my most used folder is called “Current Jags”. It lives in the Organizer folder. I tend to have a lot of stuff I‘ve pulled down and saved but haven’t gotten around to reading or filing yet. I keep my desktop clean so it can be used as a work space for the current activity I’m on, so all this unprocessed stuff goes into Current Jags. To help you understand it’s purpose I’ll tell you that at one time I called it, “Reading”.

Spotlight Comments - I use them sparingly. I have &trips tagged on R1’s about travel so I can search on them and see a history of all my sojourns. Similarly some N1’s are tagged &wrtitersonwriting when I have taken a note where an author speaks about craft. But I go back and forth about adding this text to the rtf itself so it is less susceptible to being washed away in a file copy someday. All my reading notes were once tagged &books but N2 took care of that.

More on file systems, archiving and note taking from Dougist…

Dating DEVONThink

Writing Tools – Journler

The Low Fi Manifesto – Data Architecture, and Journler

Shifting Mediums

WriteRoom and Notational Velocity

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32 Comments

  1. Doug
    Posted September 5, 09 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I got a very nice note from James Hoover, the developer of Bean.

    He pointed me an old (for the web) post done by Merlin Mann on 43Folders.com about his text based system.

    My txt setup

    Doug

  2. MEbmeier
    Posted September 7, 09 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    This topic is fascinating to me. I breezed over it about a week ago and now I’m taking some down-time, which is valuable to me right now, to re-read your notes here and click through to some of the links. Thanks for taking the time to lay it out in detail with some relevant links.

    Hope you are well,

    • Mike
  3. Posted September 19, 09 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Doug, Very thought-provoking article. Your system is quite elegant and simple. Given all that elegance, I’m just a bit baffled by your choice of a numeral sub-category coding. That sort of coding requires a lot of mental effort to remember what number stands for which sub-category, doesn’t it? Would a three letter abbreviation be too costly in terms of filename length? I ask because I’m using your set-up as a guide for my own notation system, and I’m wondering if there’s an advantage to the numeral coding over an alphabetical abbreviation.

    In my variation of your system, I would name: 090608-W2-File System Philosophy.rtf 090608-Wess-File System Philosophy.rtf and 1,2,3 under W would be fic, ess, prc

    Do you use numerals for sorting reasons, or filename length reasons, or is there another reason I’ve overlooked in your article?

    Thanks, Conrad

  4. Doug
    Posted September 21, 09 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Conrad,

    Sometimes we just get caught up in the system we learn. amberV used numbers for the second level sub-category, so I did too.

    Now, in retrospect I like it (but I wanted to be honest in how I came up with it.)

    You are right, I find file name length to be an issue. The numbers can help with that. You will notice I completely skipped over my own Y2k issue by only using a six character date. I cheat by foldering pre 2000 files in a separate directory.

    Also the use of the number signifies a second coding element. Letters are different than numbers, obviously, and for my eye, the distinction means that two things are going on, T+1 = Notes + Fiction. I feel I would miss that with Letter + Letter. As to the complexity, I have found it remarkably easy to deal with. I’m not a great memorizer so I worried about a list of abstractions, but you can see that I have some internal consistency (3’s and 4’s are actions and development) but failing that I have a txt file called “DDB File Codes.txt” that have then all in a table and spotlight is fabulous in calling that up in case I need to remember the distinction between an R1 and an R3.

    All of which would have at one time given me pause, but once I learned how simple it was to recode all this stuff with a bulk file renamer I lost all fear. I’ve giggered the codes a few times now, flawlessly. If I ever end up adding a new set of tricks to my repetware, I feel confident I could add or re-code in some X’s of L’s or V’s with ease.

    I also learned to use full text search for the bulk of finding activity. It takes some trust to not “put-somthing-someplace-so-I-can-be-sure-to-find-it” and just use spotlight, but once you do it becomes very liberating. That and chronology and I can find just about anything.

    Doug –Edit–

    And come to think of it, the two element code, with a number and a letter aids Spotlight searches. Few file names will have say R1 or T2 in them but they may well have combinations of letters that you come up with for codes. Hence the abstration of the code serves an additional purpose of making for clean search results when tagrgeted on file name.

  5. Posted September 23, 09 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Hi Doug,

    I see what you’re saying – that’s interesting. Unfortunately, on my machine, that doesn’t make much of a difference. Since Spotlight searches source code, a lot of source code files on my machine have abstract combinations of letters and numbers in them, so a quick search for “T2″ returned 48 files on my machine, while a search for “Rpur-” (Research material, related to an upcoming purchase) returned only 4. To be fair, a search for “T2-” would probably be just as precise, but in my case, the abstraction is still too hard to remember.

    Actually, what’s a bit reassuring, is using HoudaSpot, I can search for files using the query “-R*-“, and if I didn’t correctly remember the three character code (e.g. I used pch instead of pur), I can find those and quickly correct them. Which brings me to the other reason I prefer the three character coding: longevity.

    If, in three years, I go looking for files again, I don’t have to worry if I’ve remapped the 1,2,or3 to mean something else by then. I’m not sure that the switch of a 2 from one subtopic to another will happen suddenly or gradually. If it happens suddenly, then there’s no problem; just rename every single file that used the 2 and map it to something else. But if it’s gradual, for example, files related to buying a house, then exploring more options and re-evaluating rentals, then mortgages, then escrow services, then being a landlord, and so forth. The files, notes, and documents, may slowly evolve in terms of meaningful category, and reside in different project folders, but remain related in my mind. In hindsight, a subcategory of “property” or “dwelling” may have been appropriate, but I don’t know that starting out, and there isn’t necessarily a moment when I decisively change subcategory. The three character mapping is less likely (though not for certain) to obscure a subcategory after a long period of time.

    Lastly, there’s an issue of adopting your entire methodology. I really think it’s great, but it’s also clear that you and amberV have a great deal of experience with managing your own notes, research material, and work. You show a great deal of sophistication as is evident by the elegant category schema you use. Imagine a college sophomore trying to adopt this file-based methodology. They’re not going to know how many categories and sub-categories they’ll need. Maybe early on, they’ll have way too many. I see this with new adopters of GTD that use way too many contexts. Over time, they’ll develop the level of sophistication you and amberV have, but early on, they might end up with a dozen sub-categories. By the time they’re seniors, they may no longer remember what ‘2’ meant three years earlier, but they’ll likely still know what Rhis (Research for history class) or Recn (research for econ class). If sophistication is required to make good subcategory selections, then that requires codification.

    David Allen provides such codification for choosing good contexts, but novice adopters still make mistakes. The system must be robust for making those sorts of mistakes, and is why I’m in favor of a more explicit coding. Frankly, a file named “090920-Research-purchase-home buying tips for novices.html” is ideal to me, but both tedious to type out, and likely too long to be visible in small Finder or Explorer windows. So I’m trying a four-character coding for now: One capital letter for the major classification, and a three character sub-category, though I’m already leaning strongly toward using four-characters for the sub-category.

    I’m still a novice with all of this, but I’ll continue to report my experiences here. Thanks again!

  6. Posted October 12, 09 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this detail–it echoes what Mark Hurst talks about in his book “Bit Literacy,” on keeping things simple.

    Question: where do folders fit into your philosophy, Horatio? Insofar as your workflow is concerned, when do you create folders and how do the folder names/file names intersect? From what you’ve described, it looks like you don’t need folders at all–the filenames segregate batches of related files from each other.

    Thanks!

  7. Posted October 12, 09 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Mike,

    You are right in assuming that they are almost unnecessary. At times I feel like they get in the way and add unnecessary filing decisions. Having said that, I do have folders that act almost as GTD types of Contexts. My Documents folder is sub-foldered into Writing, Organization, Administration, Commerce, Reference, Gaming, Topics…

    Topics for example is then broken down into 50+ folders with one or another areas of interest (Art, Linguistics, Writing craft, …) . In my Writings folder the sub-folders tend to be project based; one for each more developed work.

    As a rule I reach for a folder before I reach for a tag using Tagit (OpenMeta tags).

    But as you sensed I find myself dissolving folders over time and collecting their contents into larger and larger groupings.

    Doug

  8. Posted October 27, 09 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    We have a little note organizing product called TopXNotes (www.topxnotes.com) and I am very intrigued with your approach to tagging and how you might compare and contrast it to other approaches. We now have customer defined categories that are somewhat like tags in functionality, but not as automatic as some approaches. I would be curious if you use Tagit for your notes, a similar approach, or just tag all manually? Fascinating work on using the file system. Jim Lee, Tropical

  9. Posted October 27, 09 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jim,

    I do use Tagit, but very sparingly. There are only a few times (up until now) when I’ve needed the extra dimension tagging provides. Once I got comfortable with OpenMeta it seemed like a good place for those few times when I want to stick a tag on an item.

    I had used Spotlight Comments for a while but those are very susceptible to loss since they are actually stored in hidden .DS files that go missing with some regularity. (The same reason that I do not trust “Created Date” or “modified date” for long haul information storage, it just doesn’t stick around for very long)

    At one time I used tags for action items, kind of like MailTags, but with out the mail. But now I keep “my verbs in OmniFocus, and my nouns in my file system” as someone else once said, so many tagging functions like “Follow Up” or “Uncompleted” or the like I handle in OF.

    In general I like the idea of tags, so long as they are durable and editable. A tag list can get out of hand very quickly (such as using “trip” or “Trip” or “trips” with consistency) and the editing tool has to be robust. Journler did this very well, I have to say, but that of course ends up being a very sad story.

    I’m off to go look at TopXNotes now.

  10. Carlos
    Posted December 3, 09 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    Doug,

    I too was inspired by amberV’s posts and I came up with my own file system note taking method.

    I took the index card methodology and apply it to files. I see each file as being an index card. I give each file a name, something like 20091202-M-douglist_file_system_method.txt

    I use M to represent “message” which can be an email, a post, or a blog comment. Except for research category (R category), I only use one character tag. For my research category I use a second character to designate whether the research file came from a book (B), or newspaper (N), magazine (M), etc. So a research file from a book might be: 20090812-R-B-you_can_negotiate_anything.txt

    Within all files, I also store keywords (tags) that help me categorize my notes even further. I have another file that cross references the keywords with the file names. So if I am looking for all files that have a given keyword, I can just take a look at the cross reference file.

    I can also link from one file to another, which helps me group related notes.

    I can maintain this note taking system very easily.

    My goal was to develop a system that can last a lifetime. If computers went away, I can continue this system on paper.

  11. Posted February 19, 10 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Hiroshimo

    Domo arigato!!!!

  12. Posted February 25, 10 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Excellent post on this issue. I’ve been planing on writing about this same issue but I’m still struggling with some features.

    After beign a self-nonpaid-software tester for the sake of finding the ideal application to read, record, anotate, and retrieve any information, I’ve ended almost without knowing relying on my learning application (supermemo). The reasons did not seem obvious at first. However, more and more I kept relying in it,because of the individuality of each file to keep articles, the possibility of editing on place and the fact that even if this program did not exist in the future I wouldn’t loose any file. It can manage images to, so it seem an ugly (very bad UI) long term soulution. Then I realized that because of troubles with backup it wouldn’t be so. But my file sistem did have a consistent backp procedure. That was the Aja! moment.

    I started relying on files, as well almost a year ago, but I’m not on MAC, which by does not leave me a decent option to “Scrivener” or “DEVONthink” and this fact makes me look with comptempt my OS. From your experiences I can tell, I would have endned at the same end of the road – “File System Commonplace”. I still envy Scrivener though.

    My format follow similar principles, but it uses keywords also. By using Desktop applications I’m finding less need to include the author and I’m thinking on changing to categories insted of keywords, but I’m not certain if it is a long term solution.

    File System Commplace format: 2010.02.25-Title_Autor-Key1.Key2.Key3.ext

    Have you included keywords on your naming convention before? If so, why did you stoped doing it? Is it that you preffer two word code, primarily, for the sake of typing speed?

    How do you manage bibliographic references?

    Have you tried “hiperlinking” documents in this file systems? (while making this system platform independent and application independent)

    Good luck!

    PS: I probably sent a previous unfinished comment, please disregard and deleted it.

  13. Posted February 25, 10 at 7:08 am | Permalink
    >>Have you included keywords on your naming convention before? If so, why did you stoped doing it? Is it that you preffer two word code, primarily, for the sake of typing speed?

    I avoid them for the sake of sanity. If the system expands past the point of easy recall I will stop using it. The breakthrough for me was the flight to abstraction the system provides. Since info gathering is by design a diverse and hard to predict activity, the code system has to work at a level of abstraction applicable as far as I can foresee. More and more I’m using in-text multimarkdown tags to augment foldering for categories. But by far the best finding tool I have is a well crafted full text search using spotlight.

    >>How do you manage bibliographic references?

    Zotero in Firefox

    >>Have you tried “hiperlinking” documents in this file systems? (while making this system platform independent and application independent)

    One of the features I mis in “everything bucket” applications is wikilinks, the easy link between documents. Scrivener has an internal wikilink, Journler did as well. DEVONThink has a very good one. TinderBox, of course is based on it.

    Right now I add the names of files in text to a document, if i feel there is value in a link – someone recommended adding index cards of links as separate file – then using spotlight against the file name. Sounds complicated. It is very easy. I have a rough draft of a post about this process because it is not yet a solved issue. Stay tuned.

  14. Posted March 11, 10 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting post, thank you for taking the time to write it. (And while I’m at it, I’ve been enjoying reading your other posts as I discovered your blog.)

    I’m trying to implement a system similar to this one, and I was wondering if you also integrated administrative stuff filed away (such as bills or bank statements), and if so in which category. (I’m tempted to create a new one for them, but I realize that the strength of the system is in keeping down the number of categories.)

    Thanks,

    Alan

  15. Posted March 12, 10 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I do. I added an “A” (administrative) tag a few months ago. The dividing line between R and A is the same as T and N. R was something I did, A is for items others sent to me. In this case the “cost” as you noted of adding a new tag was offset by the feeling that these really are different than my other data items.

  16. Posted March 12, 10 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks, this is what I ended up doing.

    I’m trying to implement something similar to what you did, inside EagleFiler (with the insurance that if I stop using it, the file naming convention will preserve all the metadata). One thing I did not find clear from your description is where you store your files: you mention aliases very often, so do you keep everything in one folder then do aliases from there?

  17. Posted March 13, 10 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t really use that may aliases.

    In my documents folder I have what I think of as my root folders…

    • Admin (Bills, finance, taxes and such)

    • Commerce (Ephemeral project files)

    • Gaming (yep. I’m one of those)

    • Organizer (Of less and less use over time)

    • Reference (Static items like System notes, shortcuts, graphics files)

    • Topics (The biggie, home to 100+ topic sub-folders)

    • Writing (The other biggie, where all my work resides)

    Why? I like having a specific environment for things like my Writing work. Some day I’ll post a screen shot, but I’ve added icon graphics and background pictures to all my root folders reflective of their individual purpose. My Writing folder has a zen like sprig of wheat on rice paper and its icon is a star burst (kind of).

  18. Posted March 13, 10 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    OK, thanks. A screenshot would be great, for sure.

    I’ll keep playing with this system for a couple weeks, and see how well it goes. I’ll probably come back here for additional questions ;-)

    Thanks again,

    Alan

  19. Posted March 20, 10 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    I have an additional question: do you keep everything in your system, or do you have an additional “file storage” place that does not follow the naming convention?

    For instance, in my EagleFiler library, I store fonts, some dmgs of applications I keep when I install a new machine, and other binary data. As I’m slowly migrating data to the system, I’m wondering if it should all go in.

    Thanks,

    Alan

  20. Posted March 22, 10 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I try and push everything that is not tagged above the Documents folder to keep it out of the way. I’ll say that as i moved material over I did it on an “as I get to it” basis. The writing files were renamed first then Topics, but Admin were not done till recently. if i don’t touch an archive there was no immediate need to convert the file. Now however, just about everything is over, and of course everything new is in the system. TextExpander and some other keyboard shortcuts make it easy to name the file at the point of initial saving.

  21. Posted March 23, 10 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    For anyone who is looking, this post was the one that Merlin Mann quoted (and almost cited) in his podcast interview with Katie Floyd and David Sparks on this month’s Mac Power Users.

    http://macpowerusers.com/2010/03/mpu-023-workflows-with-merlin-mann/

  22. Khalid
    Posted April 22, 11 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Scrivener user , Amber by the way as it was revealed o Scrivener WS is a guy !!

  23. Simon
    Posted August 18, 11 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Great post, many thanks!

    I’ve been trying to get my head round your post and AmberV’s comments, plus the forum posts. I understand the filename system. I have a few questions:

    1. Do you apply your system to all files you create on your computer including proprietary or only text files?

    2. The folders are causing me an issue. Since the filename pretty much covers the file, there would seem no need for folders, except that you would end up with a single folder with a massive amount of data. Would it be best to use a few folders that cover broad areas such as ‘work’, ‘family’, etc.. This one really baffles me.

    many thanks

  24. Posted August 19, 11 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    @Simon

    Good questions. I’m writing a reply as a post that should be up shortly.

  25. Simon
    Posted August 19, 11 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks Doug, I look forward to it.

  26. lanyip
    Posted November 5, 11 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Dear Doug – this is an excellent, thoughtful and really useful post – many thanks.

    I stumbled across your blog as I have been researching how to best simplify and future proof my workflow: leading to text files, NVAlt and Simplenote. One issue with these solutions is the flat folder structure, tags get you so far but you are still presented with a long list of files. So your and AmberV’s excellent posts made a lot of sense as a means of providing additional, searchable, robust, easy categorisation.

    So I gave a lot of thought to how best to adopt this system for myself. I first mapped all the types of docs I have and the groupings that made most sense to me. After many hours of thinking, rereading your post multiple times to clarify the theory, moving things around etc, I ended up with effectively the same six tags as you. It feels like this was my own doing rather than being influenced by you, but either way it does perhaps mean that this system can be more readily transferable to different people or situations than folder structures.

    Next was the question of sub-tags. I came at this in a different way. My approach rests on two principles: ease of remembering, and allowing automatic cross comparisons between wholly different documents. The answer, for me, has been to have only a single sub-tag (either 1, 2, 3, or 4) and for the meanings of these sub-tags to be identical across all tags. This obviously removes some information that your system allows, but for me the benefits will hopefully outweigh the cons.

    Getting into the detail, I was struck by AmberV’s use of internal and external for several of her top tags and in your system 1’s and 3’s often denoting similar meaning across tags (so I do not profess to be wholly original). I mapped out what I thought could be the most useful binary distinctions between my documents and came up with: internal/by me vs external/by others; abstract/reflexive vs practical; informal/personal vs formal/official; draft vs completed. The first two of these resonated the most as both readily applying to just about everything but also allowing useful distinctions across all tags. Two sets of binary tags leads to four combinations in total, so to reduce typing one number would denote a combination of both variables.

    So my system uses the following: 1 = by me and reflexive (e.g. diary entries, charting my weight, wedding speeches, fiction writing, meeting notes, letters to friends) 2 = by me and practical (e.g. tasks lists and project work, made-up recipes, meeting actions, job applications, letters to the bank) 3 = by others and reflexive (e.g. friend’s fiction, health reports from the doctor (as these just record my health rather than require action – potentially financial statements could fit here too), articles about the creative process or say meditation, letters from friends) 4 = by others and practical (e.g. recipes from the web, letters requiring action, training material)

    I realise there is a blurred line between these sub-tags, as there is with any system, but it makes sense to me. My file name structure is very similar to yours, though of course a bit more detail may be required in the prose name. I have also added at the end of the name the option for additional metadata (e.g. which chef wrote the recipe). I previously have used [] to denote this sort of information but I realise that ( ) makes more sense so that spotlight searches on “[…” will only bring up tags.

    I am only just starting to use this system and have yet to proliferate across all files (where my first step is to get consistent dating in the file names) so I have still to see the benefits of this system, meaning it may well change.

    Finally, again, thanks for the inspiring and insightful analysis and practical help, and I hope this comment is of some interest to you or other readers.

  27. DonM
    Posted December 30, 11 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Most interesting. I’ve been collecting digital notes and scraps of paper since the mid 1960’s. I’ve been cataloging since the 1970’s in other than cardboard boxes. Of course collecting it together is what brought me here. I use the Library of Congress Catalog system for my file scheme. Since I spend a lot of time in libraries it helps me when I’m away from the computer looking for a book. In Windows I found Paperport. It looked for things and controlled a scanning process and allowed me to use my own file name structure. In the Apple world I’m reading about Devon, hoping to find something more useful than my Windows system. I use something similar for my web bookmarks and that became a disaster as it seemed over time browsers and bookmark managers would loose the structure if it was too deep or I found find pieces of the structure attached to the wrong place. I have fears of this happening to files as I move things around. When I had a research assistant I had something close to the ultimate computer. I got the consistency I needed and used a file naming structure that included date, type, LofC code, a short name. Does anyone remember file name limitations of 8 characters? I have lots of files with that problem. Any system becomes too difficult as it gets larger. Even 8 digit file names using an accession number becomes difficult. Any system that attempts to record indexing information outside of the file is a problem as operating systems and hardware and software applications evolve. As I moved from computer to computer over the years I always thought it would be simple to keep the last computer going to move to the new file system / media. It’s not that easy. I have a bunch of little tape cartridges, Iomega 40 mg cartridges, and I don’t remember what else. I once used a Panasonic Worm Drive to keep very large files. Because of MS-DOS file size limits we had to patch the operating system to manage the files. Pretty tough to move them. Those disks have files that can’t seem to be read by anything. While it would seem that I am ready to return to paper and pencil I do keep trying. But in the back of my head I’m always wondering if the system I choose will allow me to print out all of my material into a nice not so little book of paper that could be read by any human. But then, there is that language problem….

  28. Posted July 4, 12 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Dear Doug,

    Your systems are very useful and have given some great extra ideas, especially the software to be able to rename files. I have about 10 million files on my system, not all named the way I want.

    From about 2007, I have been using a system that Dr Marc Dussault (see http://www.marcdussault.com) told us about in some seminars, which I find quite useful and incorporates most of the keys that a search program (eg the search feature in Windows – yes, I am in the dark side) would need when looking for a file. He has also found it quite useful in storing and retrieving all his files created in his attainment of 4 PhD degrees.

    So, the format is as follows -

    YYYY MM DD HHmm – author SURNAME author Firstname – Subject Description – version number 0…x.(file extension)

    HHmm is optional – useful though if many people or you are working on the same file many times on the same day

    version number is also optional – similar reason as per HHmm – and one could choose just one or the other to differentiate or both if you want to be sure and or are an AR.

    So, as an example, a Word document by John Smith made on 4 July 2012 at 8:17pm and entitled “The nocturnal habits of widgetised dooverlackease” and this is his 15th version of the document and he intuits that there may be another 140 versions to go, the file name would be -

    2012 07 04 2017 – SMITH John – The nocturnal habits of widgetised dooverlackease – v 015.doc

    Of course, one could also add any other fields in the name, such as W2 as above – for items written by oneself, type 2, and inserted in the above format according to the general rule of the type of information going from left to right in the file name goes from the most general to the most particular – in this case from reverse formatted date starting with the year and ending with the version number.

    Using this method, in addition to alluding to shades of the Noguchi Yukio method, results in files being listed chronologically not just by date, but also by time (using 24 hour clock field separated by 2 spaces from the date field – my doing), and then by alpha on the surname, then by all the other fields.

    I prefer to use spaces to make it more readable rather than to concatenate all the numbers and or the letters or to use the horrid underscore_to_separate_words. However, in spite of most applications being able to handle these spaces, I have found that if you use spaces for picture files (jpg, png, gif, tiff etc) names, and in spite of most image manipulation programs handling these file names with no problems, sometimes you find that web applications where you may upload such a picture file with spaces in the name results in an error which is fixed by concatenating as per the start of this paragraph.

    I hope the above is useful.

    All the best, cheers and enjoy.

    Michael

  29. Posted July 4, 12 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Excellent comment, and 10M records is a ton. I’m in the tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand max.

    • Question: How many versions would there be at exactly 2012 07 04 2017? I’d bet only one, so wouldn’t that make the versioning superfluous? A time stamp seems to do the same thing as a version stamp.

    For book notes I use a notation that goes: Date_YYMMDD-N3-Author_last_name – Title

    (note the space between name and tile)

    Two comments: – Every time I look at my book list I want to do a mass rename to get rid of the space, but inertia is a powerful force. – At one time I used Last_Name First_Name but found that those first names are remarkable unnecessary, especially since I’ll have it in the text file as well, so now everyone, including al the Andersons and Smiths out there only get one name. So far it seems to work, but then again I’m not at 10M.

  30. Simon
    Posted July 4, 12 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Doug,

    Your blog has helped me considerably in developing my file system and I’m happy with it. I year down the line it works well. That was until I bought an iPad!

    Have you got any tips for naming conventions on an iPad where screen real estate is at a premium? Let me give you an example. My normal naming convention is as follows:

    2012-07-04-2237-major category-minor category-title.ext

    On my mac this display well. On my iPad I get:

    2012-07-04-2237-m...

    I hope you can see my problem. I could of course place the date/time stamp and category’s at the end of the document, but different apps handle the displaying of file names differently on the iPad. I need to shorten the file name.

    At the moment I’m looking at placing a header into each document with all the data and use the title alone for the document. The difficulty here is that the file name no longer gives me all the information I need. Worse, how do I integrate this with my mac file system?

    Any help would be much appreciated!

  31. Posted July 5, 12 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Dear Doug,

    Many thanks for your reply – much appreciated.

    Yes, I agree with you re the time field being enough and version then not needed, as per my previous comment -

    “HHmm is optional – useful though if many people or you are working on the same file many times on the same day

    version number is also optional – similar reason as per HHmm – and one could choose just one or the other to differentiate or both if you want to be sure and or are an AR.”

    Just depends on how exhaustive one wants to be. Also, re first and last names – I guess to cut down on file name length, one could compromise and just put the full first name and then just the initial of firstname, so SMITH J or SMITH_J or SMITHJ if the surname is obvious or BRZEZINSKIz if not.

    Simon -

    I feel for you – I get the same problem if wanting to look at filenames if pics in a folder are shown as large icons or icons.

    A suggestion, FWIW, would be to get rid of the spaces and the time stamp and use a version number instead (see my earlier post).

    So, instead of

    2012-07-04-2237-major category-minor category-title.ext

    Use

    20120704-MN-titlev.ext

    where -

    M = a code for Major category – have a note somewhere containing a keylist letting you know what each letter stands for – if you need more than 26 categories, use another letter so eg you could use MM, which would give you 676 categories = 26 x 26

    N = minor category – same logic as above.

    v = version number – leave out the letter v and put a single (or more if you think you may have more than 10 copies) number. No need for a space, as hopefully the title would end in a letter anyway, so you know that this number is the version number. Maybe use the number 0 (zero, not the letter o – this font doesn’t differentiate) for the original and then 1 etc for the versions.

    It is a pity the beautiful iPad truncates the vision of your longer filename in that way – it has shades of the limitations of MSDOS that the Mac promoted itself to be better than in the sense that Mac filenames could be longer than the then DOS limitation of 8.3 characters before Windows upped it to 255.

    Maybe you may want to consider contacting Cupertino and suggest that they fix your problem in iOS for the next iteration of iPad or seek one of those keen Apple Shop support guys to see if he can fix your problem now. There must be a workaround (apart from the above) where some obtuse setting can be tweaked so you can see your full filename. Maybe the file listing should be set to detail and not icons or something, or you can adjust your column width in the listing a la darkside behaviour (Windows).

    All the best, cheers and enjoy.

    Michael

  32. Garry
    Posted February 9, 13 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Undoubtably this system is very effective and I found your progress to this system very interesting.

    I came from the opposite side using the file system (smart folders as they came available) from the day I started using computers in 1982. I stayed with this mostly future proof method for 30 years.

    Unfortunately in 2005 I had a stroke and tried to keep using my system (similar to yours) once I had recovered. Recovery has left me with memory problems. When I get in the car to go to a destination that I visit every week, I really have to concentrate how to get there as my brain amy send me to a different place. The place may be a Food Market, but I may find myself not at the local food market but one in my memory much farther away.

    Anyhow, this explains why my file system using my methods in the file system for 5 years was not working at all. It ended up in a hopeless mess and made me confused, upset and despondent at my inability to file consistently. Trying to recover form this mess has taken 3 years trying different methods. My brain would work somedays and not others. I even tried using Evernote to keep track of things and that ended up even more disastrous.

    I have downloaded many applications, CP Notebook, NValt, Writeroom, Scrivener, DayOne etc etc etc to try to help different aspects of my data storage. I really need to hold a lot of notes; a whole lot more than “normal” people do; because I forget. I need a prompter to help me remember, it’s in there somewhere if only I could get to it. CP Notebook was a great help but failed eventually jus because it took tooooooo long to attach files in the right place. I constantly was rearranging information.

    Eventually after looking at this program quite a few times, and not recognising the power of the program I bought it after wasting money on other solutions. Yes, I bought DevonThink Pro. For a person that cannot name files consistently but can remember my own tags, I just place place it in the inbox and let the smart groups I created in Devonthink, take care of the rest based on my tags. I prefer to do this than using the absolute power of DevonThink because eventually I would get confused by how DevonThink sorts my stuff. Based on my tags (I use Tags) I can file it exactly all the time. I tried using Hazel and still do for simple sorting from my downloads folder into broad categories based on file extensions, but failed for further sorting as I had to remember my file naming system.

    So now I am very happy but still sorting out some mess with DevonThink Pro. I create groups in DevonThink and copy my smart groups to the same named Groups when I need to export it out of the database. At first I was worried about the security of my data but I also use Dropbox to hold my data, which stores all the files as a simple data structure. So if the database ever gets hopelessly corrupted I haven’t lost my data. It is still there in the basic file system (on a Mac it is a system supported package file). But I will probably not need to do anything like that as a take daily and weekly backups.

    DevonThink is fast and I have found very intuitive (probably based on my experience in IT), able to get up and running without reading the documentation. Now I may need t read it to find out what else it can do.

    DevonThink has streamlined my filing and note taking, I Index files that I created with Notebooks in iOS. So I have all the information in DevonThink to file anywhere without having to remember any strict filing system. If I didn’t have my disability I would still happily be using the naming system, but my brain doesn’t work that way anymore. DevonThink Pro has taken me from despair to being confident that I can manage all the data that comes in and that I create. It’s great, I don’t care if she is not as pretty as some because I need her brains to help my brain to find things.

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