Tag Archives: organization

The End of Being Organized

Software is getting better and better at helping manage your life, so that you don’t need stay as organized as you used to. In fact, this article from one tech journalist is even titled “stay disorganized.” In the abstract, this is a good thing. Why should people have to remember stuff, or spend time organizing their lives, when computers can do it for them? Isn’t that one of the reasons we have computers…to do the boring stuff for us? But for people who are really organized, like me, this means that technology is taking away one of our comparative advantages. Historically I have been more productive than average, since I was really organized about my work. Now technology has reduced that advantage.

I think the first step in this direction was when Google introduced Desktop in 2004. It searched your PC much faster than the old Windows Explorer search, so that you could find files (word docs, spreadsheets, etc.) even if you couldn’t remember where you saved them or what you named them. That was awesome, except that I already knew where all my files were, because I was an aggressive user of folders and subfolders (sharp-eyed readers know that I have previously commented on folder people vs. non-folder people). Thanks to Desktop, the five minutes I spent working while someone else was searching for a spreadsheet was reduced to five seconds. My productivity advantage disappeared.

Then Google brought that functionality to email (no folders at all when Gmail launched), again eliminating the advantage of my clever folder systems. And now we are seeing apps that apply that same computerized organization to your entire life. What if you forgot to print a travel itinerary, or even write down your flight number? No problem, Google Now will do all that for you. So much for my advantage of having a detailed itinerary prepared, breezing me to my destination ahead of everyone else. EasilyDo and its competitors will help manage your duplicate contacts, remind you of your mom’s birthday, and even buzz you when you haven’t returned your CEO’s phone call.

For society, this is great, freeing up space in people’s brains to write, or cure cancer, or develop more organizational apps. For me, it’s a disaster. I had one claim to fame – being organized – and now it’s gone. I guess I need to find an old has-been app.

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Folder People vs. Non-Folder People

In reading reviews of the new Apple OS X (Lion), I was struck by how many reviewers mentioned the All My Files, Mission Control and Launchpad features, all of which display files and applications in a way so that users don’t have to organize their work in folders. I was reminded of when Gmail first came out, and everyone talked about how it didn’t have folders, because you could just search for whatever email you wanted to see.

This was alien to me. I have always organized my work in folders, both in my computer and in real life. When I worked in finance, each new deal got its own accordion file into which went a series of manila folders: due diligence, projections, legal issues, etc. So organizing my computer files and email into folders and sub-folders seemed completely natural to me. How else could you display your work on a computer?

Folders. Very neat, very organized. Even with a mustache.

And there I went, blithely assuming that everyone was comfortable with the folder metaphor. Sometimes I would look at someone’s computer where the desktop was a mass of unorganized icons, but I assumed that was an aberration; I must have just caught them in the middle of a crazy project.

It wasn’t until I read about computer scientist David Gelernter that I realized there might be other ways to look at your information. He developed something called Lifestreams in order “to minimize the time users spend managing their documents.” Lifestreams dumped the file and folder metaphor in favor of “a time-ordered stream of documents.” That seemed crazy to me – I would much rather look for documents “from Project Neptune” than “from sometime in 2003, which I think is when I worked on Neptune” – but it was clear that other people, even computer science people, didn’t think that way.

It appears that lots of people don’t think the way I do. Maybe most people. But whether the count is lots or most, clearly many would prefer to avoid the folder metaphor. To quote from one review of Lion, “The addition and prominence of “All My Files” is yet another vote of no-confidence in the user’s ability to understand and navigate the file system.”

So let’s add another dichotomy into which we can divide people: folder people vs. non-folder people. While improvements in search technology may eventually make this distinction obsolete, right now it seems like the non-folderites have the upper hand, with user interface designers catering to them. That’s fine, as long as folder capability still exists. But if that capability disappears, folder thinkers will have no choice but to rise up and let the Lifestreamers tremble. We have nothing to lose but our files!