Northern Colorado Business Report
“Taking out the Trash”
By Kai Staats
4 November 2011

As Moore’s law has seen the regular doubling of processor power every two to three years, the cost of storage, both local and on-line, has declined at a steady, rapid pace, giving rise to a tremendous capacity for capturing our digital lives in words, photos, video, and sound.

What has accompanied, even compelled the need for this massive increase in storage space is in part the amount of data we generate. High resolution photos have surpassed print film while lossless audio now carries the quality of the live performance. What’s more, the human tendency to horde everything digital has been compounded by advanced searches which tend to lead to the abandonment of organization.

Many years ago, when Google first introduced Gmail, a battle ensued at my former company, my engineers believed the answer to all their email woes had finally been granted–a single repository coupled with a Google powered search.

However, month after month I witnessed a gradual degradation of response to both internal and customer email. I investigated, and at times, had to intervene.

“I sent an email last week, but have not yet received a response,” became a common theme.

“Are you sure you sent it to me?” was a common reply.

“Yes. Quite certain. Should I forward a copy to you?”

“No, no. Hold on, let me search … oh, here it is. Well, I didn’t see that one ’cause I have more than two thousand email in my Inbox and a few hundred unread,” stated with a grin and a sense of pride, as though the goal of the game was to accumulate the most unread emails.

“That seems like a problem. How about using labels and filters?” I asked.

“Why?! Look, with Gmail I just search and find any thread at any point in time,” and a quick demonstration ensued.

“But you didn’t see my email until just now, and the customer has been waiting for a reply.”

An uncomfortable silence followed, and then recognition of the problem at hand “Right.”

I knew the fight was not about Gmail vs Yahoo! or Kmail vs Apple’s Mail app. This was about implementing a system of organization that was well planned, scalable, and flexible over time.

I defended the use of folders and automated filters which delivered email to unique, associated Inboxes. He was not alone, most of my staff replaced even a minimal sense of organization with Gmail’s paradigm, despite the decrease in response time, and worse, lost communications.

In response, I initiated a competition: my more than twelve thousand email comprising the summary of ten years of communications, archived in the logic of several hundred nested folders against just a few thousand email and Gmail’s search put to good use. The goal? Find a particular email on an exact date sent to a known client about a non-ambiguous subject, granting at least three parameters by which one could search.

Challenge after challenge, I won every time. None of my employees could beat me in accuracy nor timing of information retrieval. Three, at most four mouse clicks and I could locate any email to any customer in just a few seconds.

Yes, I spent thirty minutes every now and again re-organizing my email directory structure to accommodate an increased load, or to gain a greater level of efficiency when I realized that re-sorting directories by one parameter was more effective than by another. But the time I spent in organization was more than compensated by the hours saved in daily operations and what’s more, I gained a strong visual component, a sense of ownership of my data.

What I experienced then, and to this day I believe holds true, is that the most important of all factors in an age of information overload is forming good habits of data organization and of equal importance, taking out the trash. To keep everything, all the time, independent of the number of folders, is to fail to process data on a regular basis, thereby failing to assign value across the board.

No matter where we store things, in a closet, a file drawer, or on-line, the process of managing objects and data is the same:

  1. Organize – Create a system of organization which accommodates scalable growth
    and rapid, painless retrieval.
  2. Prioritize – Assign dates, names, and/or project titles.
  3. Discard – Establish value to the data that remains.

Most methods for teaching data organization seldom discuss deletion. But the process of determining what to throw out is the same as determining what to keep, establishing a mental image that is as effective as any advanced search function.

The next time Gmail responds, “Who needs to delete when you have so much storage?!” consider the clarity of mind you will have gained through managing your data.