Ch. 3: A Framework

Keeping Found Things Found
The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management

By, William Jones



Chapter Three

A framework for personal information management

PIM activities are an effort to establish, use, and maintain a mapping between information and need. Finding and re-finding activities move from need to information. Keeping activities move from information to need. Meta-level activities focus on the mapping itself. In an ideal of PIM, we see everything more clearly: where we are now, where we want to be, and how we can get there. We get to our goals faster, with greater comfort?ur way and not the way of the road.

Art consists of limitation. . . . The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.
English essayist, novelist, journalist, and poet G. K. Chesterton (1874?936)


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3.1. Starting out

Chapter 2 concluded with the positive thought that our information and information tools can work with us so that we can have things our way rather than the way of our immediate physical environment. An analogy was made to a 10-speed bicycle. By using the different gears of a bicycle, a cyclist can maintain a roughly constant rate of pedaling even as the grade of the route varies. An information item can have a similar function. We see a film, listen to a song, look at a picture, read a book or article, or respond to an email message at a time and place of our choosing. Performer and audience, author and reader, information sender and receiver no longer need to be present at the same place or time for an exchange of information to happen.

Technology brings new tools which create new modes of communication. The telephone, voice mail, email, instant messaging (IM), blogs, wikis, and personal web sites made easy through services like MySpace and Facebook?hese and other modes not yet invented explore a space of possibilities for audiences reached, levels of interactivity, and required synchronicity of communication.

With so many modes to choose from, and as the richness or ?andwidth of communication increases, the disparate physical realities of people who are party to the communication become less and less relevant. You might be in a park somewhere dressed in your workout clothes. I might be at home in my bathrobe. Our conversation with each other via our avatars in a virtual space such as Second Life is unaffected by these circumstances of our physical world. Physical space is mostly irrelevant (until it rains on you or until my power goes out).

But tools are not always strictly our selfless high-tech servants letting us have things our way and not the ways of the physical world. Tools make their own demands. Tools must be maintained, upgraded, backed up, and synchronized.

Moreover, an active conversation (or channel) enabled by a mode of communication rarely provides equal benefits to each person who is a party this conversation. It? nice to call someone far away at a time of our choosing. But on the receiving end, the presence of a telephone means that no gathering?ot dinner, not even a funeral service?s safe from random interruptions by a caller clueless to the situation he is calling into.

The negative counterpart to the picture of Figure 2.3 of Chapter 2 is depicted in Figure 3.1. Our rider now has a hilly ride indeed, with ups and downs of the physical world and new hills brought on by information technology. Now new tools, and the new forms of information they bring, add to and accentuate the bumpiness already present in the environment. People still stop by our office unannounced for old-fashioned face-to-face conversations. But these conversations are now interrupted by calls through the mobile and office phones and by beeps from the computer announcing the arrival of new email messages or requests for IM conversations.

Figure 3.1. Tools can add to and accentuate the ups and downs of the immediate environment.

Does our day ever give us a ride like that depicted in Figure 3.1? How would we know? One clear sign of trouble: We?e spending too much time managing our information and information tools and not enough time doing the things we want to do. Consider this description:

I spend a lot of time working on a computer. Have four of them, two at home (there is a reason for two), one in my office at Tufts and a laptop that I take on trips. I am forever transferring files from one system to another (despite some minor incompatibilities among systems), always checking to make sure that I am using the latest version of some document or manuscript (that I didn? update it on another system and forget to put the latest version on the system I am ?ow using). I correspond with a sizeable number of people, get/send thousands of emails a year, some of which I want to keep on file, many of which I don?, so I am purging files often, but not often enough to keep from feeling that things are out of control. Often looking for some scrap of prose that I know I wrote a couple of years ago for future reference, but not remembering what I labeled it or where I filed it. Etc, etc.

How many of us can relate? What we?e often doing instead of the things we want to do is personal information management. Getting in a position to do work is rarely as satisfying as doing the work. This ?IM overhead may be increasing even as the apparent order of our information spaces decreases, and we may feel as if we?e losing control of our information.

It doesn? have to be this way. Our tools of PIM can automate or obviate some PIM activities. In other cases, our tools can better leverage the activities we must do so that we get more benefit for the cost of our time and effort. Tools can sometimes improve by simply ?etting out of the way so that, for example, needless restrictions or inconsistencies in the management of information are removed. In short, there? room for considerable improvement in our PIM tools. But before exploring this space of improvements, we need to better understand what PIM is and what it is that we do (or sometimes avoid doing) when we?e doing PIM.

Toward a better understanding of PIM and PIM activities, this chapter moves through the following sections:

  • The section Perspectives on personal information management considers various definitions of PIM and the characterization of PIM activities in relation to the management of a very large, amorphous store of personal information.

  • In PIM activities to map between information and need, key PIM activities are assessed for their role in helping us to establish, use, and maintain a mapping between information and need.

  • PIM-related activities and PIM-related areas reviews the relationship between key PIM activities and other important human activities that are more likely to be placed on the ?se vs. ?anagement side of the informational coin. PIM as an area of study is also situated with respect to other fields, ranging from cognitive psychology and cognitive science to fields of database, information, and knowledge management.

  • Weaving PIM activities together returns us to the practice of PIM through a review of two personal scenarios of information management and use.

3.2. Perspectives on personal information management

PIM is easy to describe and discuss. We all do it. We all have first-hand experiences with the challenges of PIM. But PIM is much harder to define. PIM is especially hard to define in ways that preserve focus on the essential challenges of PIM.


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In rough equivalence to the input-storage-output breakdown of actions associated with a store, key PIM-related activities can be grouped as follows:

  • Keeping activities affect the input of information into a PSI. Input can come directly as the result of a finding activity or incidentally via encounters with the environment.

  • Finding/ re-finding activities affect the output of information from a PSI.

  • Meta-level activities include the maintenance and organization of information within the PSI.

The characterization of PIM as the management of a store of personal information (albeit a very large, amorphous store) provides a useful starting point as we try to develop a framework for PIM (Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2 From one traditional perspective of information management, the PSI is a store and PIM activities affect the input to, output from, and internal composition of this store.

But this ?nput-store-output characterization is also seriously limited. First, the characterization separates information management from information use. As noted in Chapter 1, this separation sometimes seems to make sense. We find a paper document from a filing cabinet and we read it. Perhaps later, we put the document back in the filing cabinet. Finding and keeping (putting back) are PIM actions?he steps from store to use and back again.

But in many situations, information management and information use are much more tightly interweaved. If we highlight a passage in a document, for example, is this information use or information management? Perhaps both. The acts of highlighting and deciding to highlight may draw our attention to the information so that we ?se it in the sense that we understand it better and internalize its implications. But at the same time, the highlighting is an act of information management. We?e distinguishing highlighted passages from the rest of the document? content so that our attention on a second read later will go first to these highlighted passages, just as it might go first to the more visible items on a desktop when we enter our office.

To return to a main theme of the book: Good personal information management needn? and shouldn? occur as a separate activity from information use. To be effective, information management and information use must be interweaved.

A second, related point is that the input-store-output characterization of PIM leaves a lot unsaid concerning what happens inside the store. How are items of information grouped, named, labeled, and interrelated? What role do organizational elements such as folders and tags play? In what ways do tools help and sometimes hinder the process? Information items, organizing constructs, and tools are all part of intricate mapping between information and need. This mapping provides a framework for understanding PIM and key PIM activities.

3.3. PIM activities to map between information and need

The following statement will guide discussion of PIM activities for the rest of this book:

PIM activities are an effort to establish, use, and maintain a mapping between information and need.

This simple statement can be expanded, and PIM activities interrelated, with reference to the diagram in Figure 3.3. Needs, as depicted in the leftmost column, can be expressed in several different ways. The need may come from within a person as she recalls, for example, that she needs to make plane reservations for an upcoming trip. Or it may come via the question from a colleague in the hallway or a manager? request. Needs themselves are evoked by an information item such as an email message or a web-based form.

Figure 3.3. PIM activities viewed as an effort to establish, use, and maintain a mapping between information and need.

Information, as depicted in the rightmost column, is also expressed in various ways?s spoken comments from a friend or as a billboard seen on the way to work or via any number of information items including documents, email messages, web pages, and handwritten notes.

Connecting between need and information is a mapping. Only small portions of the mapping have an observable external representation. Much of the mapping has only hypothesized existence in the memories of an individual. Large portions of the mapping are potential and not realized in any form, external or internal. A sort function or a search facility, for example, has the potential to guide one from a need to desired information.

But parts of the mapping can be observed and manipulated. The folders of a filing system (whether for paper documents, electronic documents, email messages, or web references), the layout of a desktop (physical or virtual), and the choice of names, keywords, and other properties of information items all form parts of an observable fabric helping to knit need to information.

All PIM activities we consider in this book have some relationship to the mapping in Figure 3.3.

3.3.1. Finding: From need to information

We have a need. We try to find information to meet that need. Needs can be large and amorphous (the need for information relating to a lifestyle change, for example) or small and simple (for example, the need for the phone number of someone we wish to call). The need may come packaged in an information item: an email request, for example, or a web-based form requesting certain information for its completion. Many needs correspond to tasks, such as ?repare for the meeting, ?nswer my boss? email, ?eturn the client? call. Other needs, however, may not fit tasks except by the broadest definition: for example, ?ee that funny web site again or ?ear ?ive to one for old time? sake.

In their efforts to meet a need, people seek. They search, sort, and browse. They scan through a results list or the listing of a folder? contents in an effort to recognize information items that relate to a need. These activities are all examples of finding activities. Finding is broadly defined to include both acts of new finding, where there is no previous memory of having the needed information, and acts of re-finding. More broadly still, finding includes efforts to create information ?rom scratch, as in ?inding the right words or ?inding the right ideas.


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But there are also many similarities between the finding of a physical object and the finding of an information item, whether digital or paper-based. We can fail to find the walnuts we need for a dinner salad for any of several reasons, each with its analog in the finding of a digital information item. The walnuts may not be on the shelves we look through in the kitchen. Perhaps they aren? in the kitchen at all. Or the walnuts may be right there in front of us on the shelf but in a container that we do not recognize. Or, in the midst of everything else we are doing to prepare dinner, perhaps we forget to look for the walnuts?or this, too, is a failure of finding.

Similarly, we may fail to find a web site we have bookmarked for our current project for any of several reasons. We may be looking in the wrong folders, or perhaps the bookmark is on another computer entirely, or we may fail to recognize the bookmark even though its listing is on the display. Or, in our rush to complete a project, we may forget about the bookmark altogether.

3.3.2. Keeping: From information to need

Many events of daily life are roughly the converse of finding events. Instead of having a need for which we seek information, we have information ?n hand and must determine what, if anything, we need to do with this information. Large amounts of information come to us through the searches we do or through regular channels of communication such as surface mail and email. We also encounter information by happenstance in many different ways and forms. We come across an interesting announcement for an upcoming event in the morning newspaper. A colleague at work may whisper news of an impending re-organization. While searching or surfing the Web for one need, we frequently encounter information that might be useful for some other need.

Decisions and actions relating to encountered information are referred to collectively as keeping activities. Is the information at all relevant, or potentially useful? Do we have an anticipated need for this information? We can safely ignore much of the information we encounter, because the likelihood that we will need it is small and the cost of not having the information is small as well. Other information can be ?onsumed immediately with no need to make a special effort to connect this information to need.

Then there is a middle area of encountered information. We may have a need for this information, but not now. We must then decide whether to keep this information and, if so, how. Even if we judge the information to be useful, we may still decide that no special action is required?erhaps because we already ?ave this information somewhere in our PSI or because we can easily return to the information?or example, by repeating the same search or the same path of hyperlinks that brought us to the information in the first place.

If we decide to keep the information we have encountered, then we must decide how. Keeping activities must address the multifaceted nature of an anticipated need. When and where will we need the information? We must also assess our own habits and anticipate our own state of mind. Will we remember to look? Will we remember to look in this particular folder? Will we recognize the information? Will we even remember why we kept it? Information kept in the wrong way may prove useless when a need arises later on.

As an example, a salesperson gives us his business card with his phone number. Do we need to keep this information at all? The answer may be no, either because we don? care to contact this person again or because we?e certain we can easily access his phone number by another means. On the other hand, we may decide this information is important enough to keep in several different ways. We may write the phone number down in a notebook or in a calendar to be sure of calling him again later, and we may also enter this information into a contact database. But none of these methods of keeping will be any good to us if we?e stuck in traffic and want to call him on our mobile phone to tell him we?e running late for the meeting. (If only we had also entered her number into our phone!)

Consider still more variations in keeping. We keep appointments by entering a reminder into a calendar. We keep good ideas that occur to us or ?hings to pick up at the grocery store by writing down a few cryptic lines in a notebook or on a loose piece of paper. We frequently re-keep information inside our PSI. For example, as we encounter a forgotten web bookmark during a spring cleaning, we may decide to move the bookmark to a new folder where we are more likely to notice it. Or, as we comb through the documents associated with a completed project, we may decide that some of these documents still have value in connection with a new project and should either be moved to a corresponding folder or assigned a label for this new project.

Just as an email sent represents one or more acts of finding,, an email received invokes one or more acts of keeping. Is the message spam or ?emi-spam? (announcements for conferences, meetings, or fund raising events, etc. for which we have no time or interest)? Does the message require immediate attention, or can it be dealt with later? If later, should the message be flagged or moved to a special folder? And so on.

Just as disparate acts of finding share in common a movement from need to information, disparate acts of keeping share in common a movement from information to need.

3.3.3. The meta-level and the mapping between need and information

A third set of PIM activities is focused on the mapping that connects need to information. These are collectively referred to as ?eta-level activities or, simply, ?-level activities since, in English, many relevant terms begin with an m. M as in ?apping or ?eta. M also as in essential PIM activities such as maintaining collections of information, managing privacy (and, more generally, managing the flow of information into and out of a PSI) or measuring and evaluating.

In the coming chapters, we?l consider the following kinds of meta-level activity:

  • Organizing. Organizing activities involve both the thinking that goes into deciding on a scheme of folder organization or tagging for an information collection and also the actions taken to implement this scheme. Keeping and organizing activities are distinct but interrelated kinds of activity. Both are covered in Chapter 5.

  • Maintaining. Maintaining activities include information back-ups, updates and format transformations with an eye for near-term and the longer-term preservation. These and other maintenance activities are discussed in Chapter 6.

  • Managing privacy and the flow of information. We need to manage both the outward flow of information from us and about us as well as the inward flow of information directed towards us. Activities to manage the inward and outward flow of information are discussed in Chapter 7.

  • Measuring and evaluating. We need to measure the costs and benefits of current elements in our practices of PIM. And we need to assess the costs and benefits of alternatives. How well do current supporting tools, schemes of organization and overall strategies work? What should we change and how? Activities to measure and evaluate are discussed in Chapter 8.

  • Making sense. We need to make sense of the information we have and of the needs for which this information is applied. Activities for making sense of things are discussed in Chapter 9.

?eta- is commonly used to mean ?eyond (everyday PIM activities) or ?bout (the mapping or a PIM practice overall). But another, more original sense is ?eta- as in ?fter. After other PIM activities are done which is to say, later but not now. We might say that the m stands for ?a?na or ?aybe tomorrow but not today.

Activities of keeping and finding are triggered by many events in a typical day. Information is encountered, and keeping decisions are made (even if only the decision to do nothing). The information needed for a variety of routine activities (calling someone, planning the day? schedule, preparing for a meeting, etc.) triggers various finding activities. But there is often little in a typical day to trigger meta-level activities such as maintenance and organization. Meta-level activities can and often are postponed for weeks on end.

3.3.4. Putting more ?eta into a balanced practice of PIM

Finding and keeping activities need to complement each other. It makes little sense to take the trouble to keep information if this information can? be found again later when it? needed. Searching can dramatically improve the ease with which we find information but, as we?l explore more in Chapter 4, without some effort to keep information?t least to note its existence and relevance to projects in our lives?e may forget even to look for this information later.

The effectiveness of keeping and finding activities depends, indirectly, on the effectiveness of an underlying organizational scheme and the strategies we apply to implement and maintain an organization over time. Lots of time can be wasted with bad schemes and bad strategies. Worse, information may be effectively lost even though it is right there?omewhere?eatly filed away. A bad organization can be worse than no organization at all.

Considerations of organizational schemes and strategies for keeping and organizing move us to the meta-level where the focus is more directly on the mapping between information and need. Which organizational schemes and strategies work best? How can we know? By what measurements and evaluations? Do our practices of maintenance ensure that the information, once found, is correct and current? Do we get the right version of a document? Or do we face a confusing ?one of the above choice between several documents versions? Can we manage the flow of information, incoming and outgoing, in ways that reduce the occasions to find and keep information? For example, subscriptions, RSS feeds, even our friends and colleagues can provide us with useful information we might otherwise need to find on our own (if we think to look in the first place).

But the meta-level activities are the ?fter activities?he activities we postpone or never seem to have time for in a typically busy day. Don? worry! This book is not a long harangue about the virtues of self-discipline and organization. With each PIM activity explored in Chapters 4 through 9, with each solution area explored in Chapters 10 through 13, we consider variations of the same theme: information management and information use should not be separated from each other. One supports the other; they are intertwined.

There are three general ways that better information management can leverage and be a part of our daily use of information.


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3.4. PIM-related activities and PIM-related areas

PIM shares considerable, potentially synergistic overlap with disciplines such as cognitive science, human?omputer interaction, information science, artificial intelligence, database management, and information retrieval. Having explored what PIM is?ts purpose and its constituent activities?t is time to explore what PIM is not or, rather, it is time to explore how PIM relates to but differs from other fields of inquiry that study the interactions between people, information, and technology.

3.4.1. Cognitive psychology and cognitive science


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The potential for a mutually beneficial interplay between cognitive science and PIM is considerable. Human activities that have long been a subject of basic research in psychology but that also have clear relevance to PIM include problem solving and decision making. For example, work on a big project such as ?lan my wedding can be viewed as an act of problem solving, and folders created to hold supporting information may sometimes resemble a problem decomposition. In turn, the decision to keep or not to keep can be viewed as a signal-detection task and, as such, invites questions concerning the rationality of our keeping choices and our ability to estimate costs and outcome.


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3.4.2. Human?omputer interaction/human?nformation interaction

Much of the work of the PIM-related research reviewed in this book originates from practitioners in the field of human?omputer interaction (HCI). But PIM research emphasizes the broader study of how people manage their information over time using a variety of tools?ome computer-based, some not. PIM includes a consideration of our personal use of information in all of its various forms, including paper. Although it is difficult these days to imagine a practice of PIM that doesn? involve computers, nevertheless, computers are not a primary focus; information is.


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3.4.3. The management of data, information, knowledge, time, and tasks

The study of information management and knowledge management in organizations also has relevance to the study of PIM. Issues seen first at an organizational level often migrate to the PIM domain. The merits of various schemes of classification or the use of controlled vocabularies, for example, have long been topics of discussion at the organizational level. But these topics may find their way into the PIM domain, as the amounts of personally kept digital information continue to increase. This migration has already happened in the area of privacy, protection, and security.

PIM stands to benefit from advances in the fields of information retrieval and database management. For example, database techniques might be applied to mine and structure personal information. Other techniques might realize essential efficiencies in support of deeper levels of unification in underlying data structures.

There is sometimes discussion of personal knowledge management (PKM). Given the usual ordering of data < information < knowledge, one is tempted to think that PKM is more important, or at least ?exier, than PIM. Even though the term "knowledge" tends to get excessive and indiscriminant use when the term ?nformation would do just as well, some useful distinctions between the terms can be drawn. One distinction essentially says that "knowledge" is what is in a person's head or perhaps also embedded in a tool or a system. Knowledge is implicit, difficult to see, difficult to articulate.

Knowledge acquisition/elicitation has been an important area of study in its own right, receiving special prominence in the 1980s with all the (mostly unmet) expectations concerning the promise of expert systems. This area morphed into the knowledge management movement of the 1990s, with its focus on finding ways to capture, share, and better leverage the knowledge embedded within corporations and other organizations (in key people, teams, and processes).

By extension, we could say that a key challenge of PKM would be to make explicit?o elicit?he knowledge of a person. The P in PKM is not because focus is on the individual person. P would mean, rather, that a person perceives some benefit in the elicitation of his/her hidden knowledge. Doing so could be revealing or even therapeutic.

But here's an important point: Knowledge elicited is usually written down in some form?erhaps as a list of "principles and rules that I use when I do x." These may be represented in plain text, if-then rules, complicated diagrams, and the like. Others may read and learn so that they acquire and internalize some reasonable facsimile of this knowledge. In this case, we can say the knowledge has been transferred. But the vehicle of transfer is information. Knowledge written down is information?o be managed like other information.

We?e back to PIM.

Similarly, a discussion of time and task management on a personal level quickly takes us back to a discussion of PIM. Some tasks?ike mowing the lawn or sweeping the kitchen floor?nvolve few, if any, information items (except perhaps for a to-do list or a Post-it reminder). But many other tasks we complete in a day?uch as making a plane reservation or responding to an email message?ake heavy use of information.

Moreover, our external representations of tasks and time are themselves informational. We may carry a finely tuned internal sense of time and also a good memory for our various daily appointments. Likewise, we may choose to keep a small number of tasks in our head. But at some point, barring extraordinary feats of mnemonics, we?e forced to externalize and to depend on external tools. What is time without watches, calendars, timelines, Gantt charts, and other means of external representation? Similarly, what is task management without at least a to-do list? These forms of external representation are information, to be managed like other information.

3.5. Weaving PIM activities together

The previous section addresses the question of how PIM as a field of study relates to other disciplines such as HCI, and cognitive science. But how do PIM activities relate to one another? Two stories help to illustrate.

At her place of work, Jill has been given a ?se it or lose ultimatum in January concerning the eight weeks of unused vacation time that she? built up over the past few years. Neither her boyfriend nor any of her friends can join her for an eight-week-long vacation. No matter. She? excited by the prospect of traveling alone. She begins to think of all the many exotic places she can visit over the summer.

  • Finding. Jill finds information on the Web?ots of it?elating to different vacation options.

  • Keeping. Jill is in gather mode. As she sees vacation-related web pages, she creates bookmarks in the top level of a ?acation folder supported by her web browser so that she can return to these pages later when she has more time to read their contents.

  • Organizing. As bookmarks begin to number in the hundreds, Jill organizes them into subfolders by country, kind of vacation, travel options, hotels, and so on.

  • Maintaining. Jill weeds out old bookmarks that represent activities she is no longer interested in so that her collection of bookmarks is not such a jumble.

  • Managing information flow. Jill gets ongoing updates on travel-related information through several RSS feeds. Jill also subscribes to digital and paper versions of several travel magazines.

  • Measuring and evaluating. Jill? web browser provides her with statistics telling her that, over the past three months of vacation planning, she has used only 3 percent of the vacation bookmarks she has created. Although Jill spends only a few seconds to create a bookmark, the total time spent so far to keep and organize several hundred vacation bookmarks is over 3 hours, vs. less than 2 hours to actually read the web pages accessed through these bookmarks. Jill decides it? time to focus more. She narrows down to planning a grand tour through Europe (other continents will have to wait).

  • Making sense. Jill has a very sophisticated trip-planning tool that makes it easy for her to plan various tours through Europe. Even with eight weeks, there is only a day, or two for each location that Jill wants to visit. The trip-planning tool makes it easy for Jill to select all the places she wants to visit in Europe. The tool also helps her to order the locations she wishes to visit, plan travel from location to location, and arrange for places to stay along the way. Jill can see several different views of her itinerary. She can even see a speeded-up first-person video simulation of her trip as planned, including location sights and sounds, hotel check-ins, train travel, and taxi rides. After one viewing, Jill is exhausted! She decides to scale back on travel plans and a pick a few places in Europe where she can stay for longer periods of time.

Jill? efforts with different the kinds of PIM activity engaged in her vacation planning are depicted in Figure 3.4. ?anage flow as a kind of meta-level activity helps to streamline more event-driven activities associated with finding and keeping. ?easure and evaluate as a kind of PIM activity has application to several other kinds of PIM activity, including the management of information flow. Finally, ?ake sense is a kind of PIM activity that can be applied to and build on all PIM activities and associated structures, strategies, and supporting tools. Jill used a simulation tool that was able to accept as input Jill? carefully planned, carefully organized travel itinerary?he product of many rounds of finding, keeping, organizing, maintaining, managing information flow, and measuring and evaluating. Jill was able to make sense of her itinerary as representing a vacation she was not likely to enjoy?nd in time to make corrective changes.

Figure 3.4. A depiction of PIM activities as engaged to research and plan a vacation.

Or consider this example involving Alice, whom we first met in Chapter 1, as she attempts to manage her email.


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The human brain must continue to frame the problems for the electronic machine to solve.
Russian?.S. inventor, pioneer, and executive David Sarnoff (1891?971)

3.6. Looking back, looking forward

PIM activities are an effort to establish, use, and maintain a mapping between information and need. This basic statement leads to a framework (see Figure 3.3) in which to place the following groupings of essential PIM activities:

  • Finding/refinding activities move from need to information. This grouping includes explicit search queries as sent/posted to a web-based search service or to a computer desktop-based search facility. The grouping also includes various activities of sorting, browsing, and ?osing around that people use to get back to information for reaccess and reuse. And the grouping includes activities to publish (in a journal, for example), post (to a blog, wiki, or online forum, for example), or send (via email or surface mail, for example) information in an effort to meet one or more needs.

  • Keeping activities move from information to need. This grouping includes decisions concerning whether to make any effort to keep information for an anticipated use and, if so, decisions and actions concerning how to keep the information. Should information items be piled (where?), filed (which folder?), tagged (with which tags), or committed to memory? Keeping also includes the decision to attend to information in the first place. Emails received invoke a sequence of keeping decisions: What is this? Do I need to deal with this now, or can a response wait until later? If later, should I flag, tag, or file the message so that I can remember to deal with it later?

  • Meta-level activities focus on the mapping itself as a fabric weaving together information and need. Meta-level activities include efforts to organize (via schemes of piling, filing, or tagging), maintain (through backups, periodic cleanups, updates, and corrections), manage privacy and the flow of information (e.g., through subscriptions, friendships, policies of disclosure), measure and evaluate (supporting tools and strategies, current and prospective, of a PIM practice), and make sense of personal information. Since meta-level activities are rarely forced on us by the events of a day, these activities invoke a more original sense of ?eta as in ?fter?after keeping and finding activities, as an afterthought, or as activities placed in a receding ?omorrow that never arrives.

PIM relates to and provides a productive meeting ground for several disciplines, including cognitive psychology and cognitive science, human?omputer interaction and human?nformation interaction, and the fields of database management, information management, and knowledge management. PIM distinguishes itself from these disciplines for its focus on the ways people manage information, digital and paper-based, over time in order to meet goals and fulfill various of life? roles . What problems do people encounter? How can supporting tools (and teachable strategies) help? In a world increasingly defined by the information we receive and send, PIM?he ability to manage this information?s one of life? essential skills.

This chapter began with Figure 3.1? depiction of a world where our life? ride is made worse, not better, by our information and informational tools. Even as demands of the physical world persist, our informational world introduces new demands on our time, attention, and energies.

Your reality or mine, informational and physical, is probably somewhere between Figure 3.1? depiction and the depiction of Figure 2.3 in Chapter 2. The phone + email device we take with us may make it possible to attend our daughter? soccer game when otherwise we might feel duty-bound to stay back in the office and work through a stack of unanswered email messages sitting in the inbox. On the other hand, as the phone rings during the soccer match or as we?e distracted by the arrival of new email, our reality may begin to resemble that of Figure 3.1.

As we consider, first activities and then solutions for PIM, we need to keep both depictions in mind. And with reference to Figure 2.3, we should keep the vision of an ideal of PIM that is even better than the one already described. To be sure, our information and information tools, if managed properly, can enable us to have things our own way. We work through email messages, for example, at a time and place of our choosing.

But a good practice of PIM, with good supporting tools and strategies, can do much more. Assume that you or I, as the cyclist in Figure 2.3, have a destination in mind. We have goals to achieve and roles to fulfill. A basic means?nds approach makes it clear that information, properly managed, can (should) help us to:

  1. See the destination (goal state) more clearly. Is this really where we want to go? Do individual goals of our planned destination contradict or complement each other? Self-help books often encourage us to make our goals more real through detailed descriptions made explicit and external (e.g., as a written document to be pasted to the bathroom mirror or self-sent in email). There is good psychological evidence to suggest that the technique of making goals explicit works.

  2. Assess alternate routes to the destination. Which roads are in good repair? Should we take a chance on a shortcut?

  3. Get there faster. With destination and route decided, a good practice of PIM can help us to reach the destination more quickly, with fewer stops along the way.

  4. See where we are now more clearly. Maybe we?e already at our destination and just don? know it.

In an ideal of PIM, we see everything more clearly?ur destination, routes to reach this designation and their relative merits, and our current location. We travel the route faster and with greater comfort. Let this ideal of PIM guide us?dd to it if you like?s we consider first key activities of PIM and then solutions for PIM. We begin, in Chapter 4, by considering a kind of activity we may think of most often in connection with PIM and failures of PIM: finding, re-finding, and the access and application of information to meet a need.