Part I: Paper
Having once immersed myself within the infamous “KonMari” de-cluttering process, I understand the importance of maintaining tidy surroundings to one’s peace-of-mind. Mari Kondo is a Japanese tidying wizard, whose philosophy consists of surrounding oneself with only those possessions that “spark joy”. Her revolutionary method applies this philosophy categorically, working outward from the largest buckets – such as clothes, shoes, and books – to the most granular – paper, keepsakes, etc.
After three years, I am still processing “paper”… and this is a good thing.
Within the Kon Mari method, the “paper” category refers to both physical and digital artefacts, and I repeat this definition here. Mari Kondo does not recommend keeping paper, particularly because of its cumulative tendency. Her advice is to “toss it all”, with three categorical exceptions:
- Papers that require an action, such as bills to pay and forms to sign
- Short-term reference materials, such as financial documents and warranties
- Essential documents, such as birth/marriage certificates and social security cards
This sounds simple enough… (Spoiler Alert!) It’s not.
In my experience, paper is the unwieldiest of all the KonMari categories. And it makes sense: not only is tidiness entropic (to maintain a higher-degree of imposed order, tidying must be re-engaged iteratively), per Claude Shannon, information itself is entropic.
In the modern information age, the adaptivity of an enterprise depends upon its ability to process information into knowledge, and yo distill knowledge into information.
This selective pressure entirely sums up the corporate buzz around “data-driven decisioning” and “managing data-as-an-asset”:
- To compete, the enterprise must continually innovate
- “Innovation” is the process of adaptive knowledge management – of continually sensing the environment, of continually responding to the emerging environment with new products, behaviors, strategies
Paper is one essential medium of information, which coveys a set if potential meanings across the enterprise. For this reason, many companies have “record management” policies. Yet, while such policies validate the importance of information retention, they fail in terms of assuring the usability of that information-as-an-enterprise-asset.
The hoarding of documents for their “someday” utility is a futile resource-management strategy.
Rather than spontaneously emerging as a corporate asset, growing collections of archived information grow noise exponentially. As the volume of information increases, the sets of potential meanings within that volume grow, thus expanding the entropy of the information.
Despite several decades of promise, AI-embedded “learning systems” nevertheless are handicapped in their capacity to extract meaning from information – their ability to deconstruct information into actionable insights remains highly-dependent upon human design and interpretation. What we can do innately as thinking, thinking man(kind), embedded learning systems can yet only approximate for highly-specific purposes.
And herein lies an opportunity for us both personally and professionally as knowledge workers.
Information is only useful when it is at work, i.e. when it produces meaning. The management of information, therefore, is a process that must support the optimal production of meaning – for ourselves, our families, our teams, our departments, our clients, our offices, the enterprise, etc. Otherwise, information devolves into noise.
Decisions for what to save and where to save information, therefore, must reflect the utility of that information to produce relevant meaning across different contexts.
And this potential “utility” is our “spark joy” metric for information.
Mari Kondo’s no-nonsense approach to tidying “paper” is just as relevant to the enterprise as it is to the individual. And following her simple criteria is an excellent starting place for overhauling your own professional information-management practice.
What to obtain that holiest-of-all seemingly-impossible objectives: inbox-zero?
- Create a simple folder hierarchy that groups together
- your actionable emails
- your short-term reference emails, and
- your long-term reference emails
- Delete (or archive/hide) the rest
- After your initial categorization, you can define (per David Allen or any other “getting stuff done” framework) a process for moving actionable tasks though to “closed”
- Manage statuses with colored flags, or sub-folders
- You might also separate your reference material into project and deliverable folders
- And don’t forget to leverage your mailbox rules to tame your inbox flood to a manageable stream.
Your computer documents should be subjected to the same rigorous culling:
- Keep material you frequently reference
- Archive anything you are unsure of and monitor
- If you frequently reference something living in the archive, move it forward to your short-term reference and vice-versa
- Delete the reference material that do not reference for more than a year
- Rationale: if you don’t reference it, you already have extracted the meaning you need, and the document is at the end of its useful life
- Keep your work products. Keep your projects.
- These are longer-term resources for you, for your team, for your office, for your corporation
- Keep “in progress” work in a Staging folder, close to where you work
- Move “closed” projects to an archive, where they can be managed per the retention policies of your customer or employer
- Keep authoritative material, such as templates
- Archive previous versions of authoritative material, keeping the most relevant source at the forefront of your file system
- Delete duplicates of the same version of artefacts
- As you advance in your file management, leverage the use of shortcuts of reference material
Groom your information resources regularly.
The key to managing the “paper” category is to regularly process new information through to action. The key to managing innovating is regularly processing new information through to action.
Whoa, look at you, innovator!
Now, share this, and go spark some “paper” joy…
— the grumpy IT girl