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How to be organised and think differently about data

Getting and staying organised is like losing weight – short-term solutions don't work. You've got to make lifestyle changes that you and your employees or business partners can stick to in the longer term.

In a series of articles over the next week, I'll provide tips on how to get both your business and your own personal data organised by addressing the following points:

1. How your business thinks about information (which we're discussing here).

2. Naming conventions for folders and how to think about them.

3. Naming conventions for files.

4. Information sharing.

5. How to manage email.

A diet for being organised

When it comes to losing weight, some people find that a diet of five or six small meals throughout the day works for them, while others need three regimented meals and absolutely no snacking in between. Some people buy a gym membership (the impetus to actually go might come from the money they've spent) while others are better off fitting little bouts of exercise into their daily routine, like taking the stairs instead of the lift, or cycling to work.

The point is, the same solutions don't work for everyone. It's the same with being organised.

Ways of thinking about information

Getting – and staying – organised has to be a lifestyle commitment for your business. Every employee and stakeholder involved in the day-to-day operations has to be able to stick to the program. Your system for being organised has to consist of practices that fit into everyone's routines, whether it means taking small steps consistently, such as deleting unnecessary files as you go, or taking larger steps on a regimented schedule, such as reserving every Friday afternoon for cleaning out inboxes.

So before you put yourself and your co-workers on a new diet for being organised, take a moment to think about how your business views information organisation. Some possibilities are:

  • By date or month, such as when something first occurred or is scheduled to be completed
  • By project name
  • By the name of the person responsible
  • By fiscal quarter

Matching practices to reality

It's important not to try and fit one of these organisational systems onto your business if it doesn't reflect how your team actually operates. Ask your colleagues, if they needed to find a particular document, maybe an invoice or a contract, where would they look first? More importantly, how would they look? Do they search their computer or the company's network by vendor name, date, product description? Do they open a folder and skim file names, or sort by date, or sort by file type? How long does it take them to find the information? Are they wasting time because they're searching in a way that doesn't help them narrow down their results quickly?

You don't need a formal meeting to do this. Just drop by and ask. It will take you two minutes.

There may be more than one answer. At times, you might remember the month and year in which a project launched, while your colleague might fixate on the name of the project. And in both cases, the information isn't necessarily static. Maybe the project had a codename during its development, and maybe it launched late. In the next article about folder naming conventions, I'll explain how to implement a system that can handle these kinds of incongruities.

Sleep on it

Doing this exercise should help shape your understanding of how your business should structure its information – but sleep on it for a day or two, and then try it again before making any decisions or changes to your existing structure. Sometimes we forget why certain practices are in place, and changing them abruptly could inadvertently destroy some other business rationale.

For example, I used to work in an office where freelancer contracts where sorted into two actual hanging file folders, one for invoices and one for tax forms. It seemed to me to make much more sense to merge them into one. Why have two file cabinets and two folders both labelled "Doe, Jane"? Whenever I needed access to invoices, I typically also needed to look up the freelancer's tax information. Why not just simplify the system? One reason that's obvious to me now but wasn't at the time is that many people in the organisation needed access to the invoices, but few people should have access to the personal data, such as national insurance numbers. It's a good thing my manager understood this rationale and was able to explain it to me before I reorganised the entire system.


The first steps to take away from this article are:

1. Ask your colleagues and yourself: "How do I think about our information?"

2. Let the answers mill around in your head for a day or two before you come to any conclusions.

3. A structure of some kind should start to emerge. When you can see it, don't worry about reacting to it just yet.

Remember that getting organised is like staying fit. Nothing is going to change overnight, and it's more important to make the right lifestyle changes for you and your organisation – changes that will stick.