The more documents end up in the cloud, the more important it is to have a good filing system.
Russian journalist Solomon Shereshevsky needed neither a recorder nor a writing pad for his work. No word and no appointment slipped through his brain lobes. No statement, no event escaped him. A dream? On the contrary. Shereshevsky was unable to separate the important from the unimportant, the urgent from the timeless. As a result, he drowned in information garbage – and ended up as a sad memory artist at the fair.
Most people would like to be neater and more organized. They would prefer to remember every birthday, every idea and every note – or at least have them quickly available. Forgetting is considered a weakness, an admission of not having things under control. Forgetting means failing. And that's easier today than ever before.
Both professionally and privately, we produce program shortcuts, screen shots, appointments, documents, folders and emails. How nice that there are at least numerous cloud services available to us for archiving important information. We store ideas in Evernote, articles in Pocket, projects in Trello, and messages in Slack or Microsoft Teams.
But the more data we collect and sort, the more difficult it becomes to keep track of our digital archives. According to Statista, 293.6 billion emails were sent worldwide every day in 2019. It's no wonder, then, that the software company Workfront concluded in its State of Work 2020 study that employees in Germany now spend less than half (45 percent) of their working week completing their actual tasks. Instead, 13 percent of their time is spent on administrative tasks – and another 13 percent on sending, answering and sorting emails.
The daily flood of information is so enormous that you're usually lost after just a few days. "Even search functions only help to a limited extent," says Herbert Hertramph, a social scientist at the University of Ulm, "because they often deliver far too many hits and you have to look at every result."
After all, we've been using our digital organizational helpers for more than just professional purposes for a long time now. In the U.S. in particular, the numerous services that at first glance promise organizational blessings have also found their way into the private, family sphere.
But what does it do to us when we only remember things digitally? Does a shopping list really have the same significance as the deadline for an important project? And does every snippet in our lives really need its own subfolder and every email its own inbox?
"We have a strong urge to categorize things," writes neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his book "The Organized Mind." He continues, "But we don't benefit from it." For one thing, we forget anyway. Researchers call this phenomenon "digital amnesia." When our device teaches us that it reliably stores phone numbers, reminds us of appointments and files notes, our brain shuts down, so to speak. Half of all 16- to 34-year-olds already believe that their smartphone contains virtually everything they need to know or remember.
But there are now far too many filing cabinets in our lives. There are tons of storage locations, knowledge services, and email folders – all of which have their own passwords and access data that are stored somewhere (but where again?).
To optimize this finding process, book author Levitin advises creating categories that contain a maximum of four things. Our working memory can hardly manage more than that. That means, for example, keeping items that have a common purpose in a single place, whether physical or digital. The worst mistake is "when everything piles up in different input folders in different places and you think you already remember the important things," says sociologist Hertramph.
The courage to leave gaps
So there's no way around it: We need to declutter. "It's no use just shutting the laptop like the doors of a messy closet," says tidying coach Annika Schwertfeger, "the chaos doesn't disappear." Even worse, it makes you feel extremely stressed. "Not only do you lose track of things, you also lose a lot of time," Schwertfeger says. In other words, the tidier our desktop and inbox or services like Slack are, and the more willing we are to send information into the valley of oblivion, the more productive and concentrated we are.
Sociologist Hertramph also advocates "less is more" and recommends sticking to a single app for organizing. "If you save a bit everywhere or constantly use a new tool, after a short time you don't remember where you had saved the information." His user interface is therefore predominantly empty and black. He allows himself just a handful of program icons; he has hidden all the others.
In addition, experts advise the following seven steps:
1. First of all, create a proper folder structure – both in the email box and on the desktop or in Google Docs.
2. Radically hit the delete key in services like Pocket or Evernote and start from scratch.
3. Put documents, notes or emails that can't be categorized in a single "miscellaneous" folder – not in many different subfolders.
4. Three main folders are enough: Store important documents that you don't need every day in the "Archive". These include insurance documents, receipts for next year's taxes, travel expense reports, certificates and the like. Everything you are currently working on ends up in the "Current" folder: drafts for a new project, an unfinished article, documents from the project you're working on at the moment. And a "Look up" is reserved for addresses, short notes, directories – documents that you will need again and again.
5. Always name files according to a similar pattern, for example: Date-Keyword-Content.
6. If you like to make handwritten notes – go ahead. Many studies show that the brain remembers things better when they are written down by hand. However, it is even better to photograph or scan the note afterwards and save it.
7. Schedule fixed daily times for "cleaning up", for example in the morning or at the end of work.
Above all, however, experts recommend staying calm – because it's not so bad to forget something sometimes. Canadian researchers Blake Richards and Paul Frankland from the University of Toronto recently discovered a particularly good example. In a study, they found that the most charming form of forgetfulness, the ever-famous scatter-brainedness, is an indicator not of incompetence or mental overload – but of special intelligence.