Thursday, January 5, 2012

Getting Organized: Storing your Life’s Data

Information storage: Digital Notebooks vs. Outliners vs. Mindmaps vs. Files

If you write, do research, plan conferences and events, blogging, or just handle large amounts of business or family information (and who doesn’t these days?), collecting, organizing and retrieving information is the big task for almost any computer user. And it should be. That’s what computers are designed to do.

In ancient times, before PCs, students were taught in school to divide research information into small units that fit on 3x5 cards in order to write their research papers. You could sort the cards easily (and randomize them by simply dropping them). You kept track of bibliographic information by using numbers or codes on the data cards. Finding the card with the exact information you wanted was a bit more challenging. But it was fairly efficient and entire libraries of information could be searched using those little 3x5 cards in catalogs. (3x5 cards are not dead. People still use them to track information, with or without Getting Things Done planning. See’s pocket briefcases for a luxurious example.)

Then, back when Macintoshes were new and all, I had a nifty outlining program called Acta which was a terrific place to keep data (notes from phone conversations, research, text documents and much more) and handle information – the challenge was keeping it all together hierarchically.(That card system experience served well in this kind of environment.) If you have the type of mind which thinks that way, an outliner is a wonderful way to store bits of information. Even today, I have a two terrific Windows outliners, Maple Professional and Treepad, but I never use them. Why? Because the notebook applications have come of age.

A notebook application lets you organize pages of information. Pages can hold text, graphics, web pages, tables, photos, sound files, videos, and sometimes PDF files and spreadsheets – almost any type of data. You can clip and save a web address or the entire web page. You can paste a phone number in, or an entire directory. Just as on a bookshelf, you can organize your information into separate notebooks (or separate card files if you prefer that analogy). You can think hierarchically, so you know where to look for any kind of information. Or you can use tags to make it easier to find things, even if you just dumped all your information into one huge notebook. OneNote has notebooks with Tabs for various sub-divisions, and pages for each tab. Evernote has Stacks for organizing related notebooks and tags which you can use to find things. Most notebook applications allow you to share individual pages or entire notebooks and allow teams to work collaboratively. Or you can publish it to the web so anybody can read it if they have the URL. (Try THAT with your 3x5 card.)

So in a notebook you give up some hierarchical features, but you can save lots of other types of information.

Mindmaps are great for creating and collecting ideas and building a more visually oriented outline. Instead of folders, you have nodes off a central idea. You can collect different file types insert text and graphics, enter web links, and some allow you to attach files. You can collect large amounts of data, but finding it is much more hierarchical, and most mindmaps don’t use tags to find individual bits of information. With Freemind, for example, it’s easy to see the connection between a mindmap and an outline. Select the central core node, copy it, and paste it into a Word file, and you have a beautifully formatted outline with all your mapped information. I often use Freemind (a free, open source mindmap program) to gather ideas creatively, to brainstorm, or just get the creative juices going. Other people sometimes use a mindmap as their daily organizer. But I use a notebook to collect data.

You can also use separate files (say, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, graphics files) to capture information and store it into folders using Windows Explorer (or the Mac desktop). But it’s harder to find the information you want. It’s a great way to store large amounts of information and individual documents and templates, but not a great way to access it later – or to find the connections between different bits of data in different folders. It also takes much more effort to collect the information and save it all into separate files.

Any computer user can use any of these systems to organize their information. A notebook has the advantage of flexibility, allows you to combine a lot of file types, and makes it easy to find information, whether you are a hierarchical guy or a tagging gal (or vice versa).

When it comes to collecting and retrieving information, one data location isn’t enough any more. Almost all of the popular notebook applications are available on the cloud so you can access it from any computer or your phone or tablet. Some, like OneNote and Evernote also have installable applications for your computer (PCs only for OneNote; PCs and Macs for Evernote). Most, nowadays, also have smartphone and tablet applications so you can access your data (or collect it) even when you’re away from your computer.

The ways to capture information have also increased. Instead of just typing in data, you can scan it, photograph it, write it, use a smart pen (such as Livescribe’s) which can remember what you write or draw. You can record audio files, and some software (like Google Voice) will take your phone messages, transcribe them into text, and send to your notebook via email. Camera phones are becoming common ways to capture such diverse things as short notes (such as sticky notes), encyclopedia references, contracts, the location of your parking space at the mall or airport, or the contents of that box you’re packing for the big move. Web browsers often have dedicated clippers to automatically save any highlighted web information (or entire pages) into your notebook. It’s the various ways of collecting this information that make notebooks the organizer of choice for many info junkies.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the specific applications, including my favorite, Evernote.

Keywords: notebook, application, mindmap, outline, Evernote, OneNote, Freemind, information management