Monday, March 12, 2012

The Virtual Home Method - A Strategy for Personal Information Organization Using Springpad

Lately, I wrote two posts about Springpad and how I use this handy app to organize my life and time-manage my tasks. I never really explain what Springpad is, however, because I got somewhat lost between the terms of personal information management (PIM), information architecture, content strategy, and other big buzz words that left me wondering about what branches of information technology Sprinpad falls under.

I use Springpad to store everything: emails, contacts, projects, bookmarks and articles, images, memos, ideas for gifts, and much more. As I started to use Springpad more frequently within the last year, I created notebooks (or folders) to accumulate all the information in appropriate categories without much thought. The information I had on my hands quickly became disorganized, which started to be a problem when I wanted to retrieve something specific I stored in the past.


It has to be here somewhere.... (source


I've done some research. And then some more research. And even more
Most of the research and the material I found about information and categorization explained why people categorize information, but nothing I found really explained how to do it, or more importantly, how to do so efficiently.
I used to divide my information into two meta-categories, or "categories of categories," which were personal and professional. Each meta-category had additional categories, such as a teaching notebook for work, individual class notebooks for my classes, and places to hang out with friends under another notebook. Without a reason or a method though, it was easy to get stuck: is an interesting article about teaching in the New York Times belongs under my work notebook, or should it be under a more general professional-interest notebook? Should I store my friend's address along with my 'hang out' locations, or does it belong in a different personal notebook for this person? For a while, I was often unsatisfied with my temporary solutions.

After reading through the studies and articles, a reflection period that included much brainstorming, and some quiet time, I came up with the idea of using something I call the "virtual home method" to organize information. While I'm sure I didn't come up with this idea, I couldn't find references to it anywhere, so I present it here as it occurred to me. 

Here is how it looks like: 

The virtual home method: arrows represent the flow of information. 
I currently have four rooms in my virtual home: kitchen, study, tea room and the library. The capture notebook can also be perceived as the balcony, where information is waiting before it enters the virtual home and put in the right room.

The virtual home method makes sense to me, and each piece of information (or a note) has a specific location it belongs in. The tea room contains friends' information, places to hang out, suggestions and invitations to events, etc. The study is my place of research, where I lay out projects, store my journal entries, and collect my online tools for work. The kitchen holds nutrition information and recipes. The library holds all the old articles I am not using anymore under the right tags (project, information, name of a certain person, and old class, etc.) When I look for a piece of information now, all I need to do is to close my eyes for a second and I know where it should be. The more I use the method, the more familiar it becomes and the less time it takes me to retrieve information.

The green box is not part of the virtual home. It represents real physical locations that exist somewhere else, like my classes or the gym. The information in these notebooks is very location specific. For example, my class notes and homework assignments are in the right class notebook, my lesson plans belong in the school notebook, and so on. 

So far this system has been working so well it actually motivated me to capture more information and reorganize my notebook. It has a certain "homey" feeling to it that makes it fun to store and retrieve information. 

The sources I used for my research are in the list below, in case you want to take a look: