Archive for the ‘Organization’ Category

Simple system for color-coding your files

I have a dead-simple color-coding system for my digital files. It’s based somewhat on Jamie Phelps’ system, “Dynamic Digital Organization” except I don’t bother using Smart Folders or even Jamie’s Eureka for Mac app, nice as it is. (Personally, I don’t find Finder replacements to be all that necessary, but you may differ.)

When I read Jamie’s post 4 years ago, I didn’t see much application for me. Now, however, I’m a full-time freelancer, so I have to play project manager and business developer as well as designer and web developer, so it helps to have some sort of system in place to track the status of my projects. When I worked for someone else, if it was on my desk, I had to work on it. If it wasn’t on my desk, I didn’t worry about it. Now, I have to think about all of it.

With physical files, it’s easy to physically place project folders into a stack reserved for projects that are currently in play, or a stack of projects you’re waiting to hear back on. Everything gets a project number, even things I only write a quote for.

Plus, there are several different kinds of “@waiting-on.”

Since I pretty much keep everything with me at all times as I live out of my messenger bag, I can’t easily sort the folders that way. So while every project has a digital and physical counterpart, I can manage everything’s status digitally.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Red: It’s finished, I’ve billed it, and I’m waiting for final payment.
  • Orange: The project is at the client and I’m waiting for feedback.
  • Yellow: I haven’t verified that I’ve got the project yet. It’s tentatively a project.
  • Green: This is an active project that I need to work on, today if possible.
  • Blue: A personal project involving one of my own brands or something more personal than that.
  • Purple: currently not used.
  • Gray: Projects that I made a quote for but didn’t get.

Once things are paid for, or it’s been confirmed that I didn’t win the project, the folders move from the Projects folder to the Archive folder, where they remain until I decide it’s time to clean house and back it up onto a DVD or external drive.

How do you manage your digital projects?

Simplify your reading

My friend Patrick Rhone posted a neat article the other day on Minimal Mac about simplifying his RSS system. He reduced his RSS feeds to just two folders, Important and Unimportant, and will gradually delete the unimportant ones as he sees fit. If he isn’t interested in reading it anymore, he won’t read it anymore.

It sounds stupidly obvious, but it’s amazing how much unneccesary stuff we let into our lives because we think we have to. (Is it time to ditch that sitcom you no longer enjoy but only watch out of habit?)

I made a similar move, putting everything in two folders: “Important,” and “It Can Wait.” Either I need to read these posts, or I can wait and read them. Or I can just mark them all as read and not worry about it. I believe that if something is worth knowing, it will come to my attention at some point. I might not be the first to know, but that’s OK with me.

As I was doing this, I eliminated about a dozen feeds that are infrequently updated or just no longer have much value to me. The end result is a less stressful visit to my feed reader. No more slogging through feeds I don’t really want to read.

(And if you’ve deleted this feed from your feed reader, I can’t blame you. My feelings aren’t that easily hurt and I don’t post here much. I’d rather post something of good quality than churn out something of poor quality on a daily basis.)

The Importance of Clear Definitions

The act of definition is where everything begins — how you define things determines everything else. Everything that follows an initial definition is dependent upon that first definition. Take philosophy, for example: the fundamental question (and subsequent definition) of “What is good?” is the foundation of philosophy. Furthermore, your answer or definition of that very question establishes a framework for your own philosophy, and gives great insight into your own psychology (what makes you tick).

Clear definitions are important no matter what your discipline is. Whether you’re a physicist, a financier, or a construction worker — it is imperative to have clearly defined standards that ensure that everyone is on the same page. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a thousand people or just outlining something for yourself. When things are well-defined, goals and actions are clear to everyone involved.

I think everyone agrees that clear definitions are important in communicating with other people. But what about communicating with yourself? Elsewhere, I’ve talked about how important it is to write down your goals, to plan things out. Defining your goals, tasks, dreams, and standards keeps you on track. It gives you a road map. It’s useful for people like me who are easily distracted by the path of least resistance.

Build a framework

So as an artist, what sort of things should you define? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  • What is art?
    What is my definition of art? What’s my definition of my art?
  • What makes a piece of art good?
    It all boils down to Plato’s original question.
  • When is a piece finished?
    At what point do I generally quit working on a piece and declare it finished?
  • Do I want to sell my art?
  • How much money should I ask for when selling a piece?
    What will cover expenses, time, and profit?
  • What are my materials?
    Will I limit myself to one particular medium or tool or technique, or will I experiment with a variety of materials?
  • What is the scope of my market?
    Should my aim be broader or narrower? More local or national, or international?
  • What are my career goals as an artist?
    What does success look like to me?

Of course, a lot of these are answered along the way, but keep in mind that the clearer these things become, the better you’re able to set goals and meet them. Try to steer clear of jargon, but be as concrete and concise as you can. If you can explain it to a child or someone who doesn’t know anything about art, you’ve done your job. And remember to be flexible in your definitions, as they will surely change over time. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to evaluate these definitions at least once a year as part of a personal annual review, where you get the 30,000-foot perspective of things.

What are your definitions?

So here’s your homework: Set aside some disruption-free time to sit down and define these things. It may take a day or two to think everything through. Define whatever else you feel needs defining. You may have a successful career and life without defining these things, but you’re likely to do things haphazardly and sloppily, wasting time pursuing dead ends. Just remember: creating definition creates clarity and focus, and clarity and focus create tangible results.

Personalizing and Streamlining Your Mac for Better Productivity

You probably have personalized your Macintosh setup to your taste. You have desktop wallpaper featuring your favorite band, your kids, or a picture from your last vacation. Maybe you’ve customized application and folder icons to your liking. Not only can you personalize your Mac to your own individual taste, you can personalize it to help you be more productive. Here are some ways to tweak your Finder, some add-on applications for manipulating files and actions, and ways to organize (and name) your files.

Before I get into this, I have to say that much of this is borrowed from an article I read in Macworld a while back. The online version of the story is here. Also, this covers Mac OS X v. 10.4, as I haven’t really used 10.5 with the exception of the times I’ve played with the new Macs at the Apple Store. The Finder Sidebar is a little different, but the same principles apply.

Set Up Your Finder Sidebar to Work for You

Image: My Finder sidebar, which contains frequently used folders, files, and applications You can change the icons visible in your Finder sidebar for quick access for a variety of items. Drag and drop icons to create aliases (shortcuts) to things you use often, placing them in the sidebar visible in each Finder window. Here’s what I suggest placing there:

  • Commonly Used Applications I keep Entourage, my e-mail program, in the Finder sidebar. This makes it easy to quickly e-mail PDF proofs from the Finder: all I have to do is drag the PDF icon onto the purple Entourage “e” and it instantly creates a new e-mail with that file attached.
  • Frequently Used Servers I keep shortcuts to our Projects server here, too, so I can get to it quickly.
  • Hot Folders Call me self-centered, but I have a folder containing aliases to my own projects on the shared server, since I don’t really care too much to navigate everybody else’s projects when I’m looking for a particular job. You can also use this to have easy access to other folders or even individual documents. It just saves you the trouble of drilling down through a bunch of folders to get to something.

Color-coding Your Files

Image: Color codes that indicate whether or not it's time to archive this folder's contents to disc When you right-click (or Ctrl-click if you’re still using the one-button mouse) on a file or folder in the Finder, you can choose from a number of colors to tag your files with. Create a system where each color means something special to you. I use green on images that I have downloaded to add to my “inspiration” folder. You can also use color-coding to remind yourself when finished project folders are ready to be burned to disc for permanent offline storage. Folders that are over 3.5 GB are labeled with red, so I’ll know to burn them to DVD.

Add Keywords to Your Files For Use with Spotlight

While you’re in the Get Info window, you can tag your files by adding keywords to the Spotlight Comments box. This way, when you run a Spotlight search, you can search for a specific word that you’ve tagged your files with. This will work in conjunction with a “keep everything in one big folder” method.

Take Advantage of Folder Views

Image: Finder's View Buttons Using the buttons at the top of the Finder window will allow you to view a folder’s contents a number of ways: icon view, list view, column view, and with Leopard, the new Quick Look view that lets you preview documents without opening them. Personally, I find list view and column view most useful. The former since it lets me see color-coding at a glance, and the latter since it makes it easier to go up or down in the folder hierarchy. You can read a lot more about it here on Apple’s site.

Use a Launcher

Third-party application launchers do exactly what the name implies: launch programs via keyboard shortcuts. Perhaps the most popular one for the Mac is Quicksilver, which does a lot more than just open files and run programs. (I use it in conjunction with a MoodBlast AppleScript to update Twitter and Facebook.) Lifehacker recently ran a feature that polled readers for their fave app launcher. The jury seems to be out on using Spotlight as a launcher, though.

Some Things to Remember

One thing to keep in mind is to remember to name your files well so that you know what they are, even without special tags or color codes. This really should be a no-brainer, yet it happens all the time. You don’t want to end up with five different files named “Business Card.” Give it a name like “JohnSmith_bc” or something else descriptive that you’ll be able to identify immediately when you’ve got the flu and you’re loopy from cough syrup. You may be the only person who will ever look at your files, but you need to make it clear enough to other people what they are, in case you are unable to work with them at a future point. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of writing your tasks as if you are delegating them to someone you actually know.

My E-mail Management Strategy

Obviously, there are all kinds of methods people employ to stay on top of their e-mail. I’ve tried using context-based folders and a sort of three-folder system, but that didn’t work for me. Here’s what I’ve wound up doing.

Inbox Zero

As a practictioner of GTD I stick pretty closely to the “inbox zero” concept, keeping my inbox as close to empty as possible. Somehow, it’s easier to do at work, since the messages I get there are more immediately actionable than the ones I get in my personal e-mail. And once you see your inbox get to zero and stay there, you wonder how you ever managed otherwise. After getting used to a clean inbox, I honestly cringe when I see other people’s e-mail inboxes full of months (if not years) of messages. It fills me with a combination of anxiety and pity when I see an inbox with more than a dozen messages.

On rare occasions, I’ll mark messages as unread so I can go back to them later if I can’t deal with them now, but I usually don’t go longer than a day or two before acting on them. I know, this practice of putting things back in the inbox is not strict GTD, but it works for me.

One Huge Honkin’ Folder

Image: My Folders in Entourage at Work I tend to take the “searcher” approach, dumping everything into one huge folder named “Processed.” This folder contains everything I’ve dealt with. Once I read an actionable e-mail in Entourage at work, I act on it, categorize it according to the client the e-mail is associated with (even our own company), and put it in the “Processed” folder in case I need to find it again later. This way, my inbox contains only new messages. And when I need to refer to something from last week or last month or even last year, I’ll enter the client’s name into the search box, and poof! all messages related to that client appear. It sure beats drilling down through various folders, especially when a message can apply to multiple categories. (For example, I might have an e-mail containing FTP information, which would go in the “Info” category since it’s general info, but it may also apply to a specific client, which would go under a category that has that client’s name.)

The Google Made Me Do It

Image: The Gmail Labels I Use for Tagging Messages This one-folder system didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it wasn’t until I began using Google’s Gmail a few years ago that I discovered how liberating the one-folder concept could be. Since Gmail doesn’t use folders, it encourages you to label everything and then archive it when you’re done. I transferred this technique to my Entourage e-mail setup at work, assigning Categories to incoming messages before putting them into the “*Processed” folder in the way I stated above. Once I read and tag messages on Gmail, they get Archived. This helps me keep my inbox fairly empty, nice and tidy.


One of the things I love about computers is being able to automate stuff, making them do little routine tasks so I don’t have to. In whatever e-mail program/service I’m using, I apply rules and filters to a number of subjects and addresses:

  • Mail from the contact form on my website gets tagged according to the category selected by the user. If, for example the user selects “Purchasing Artwork” for the category of the message they want to send me, the incoming message is assigned a specific tag in Gmail, which expedites my response. This filter is based on strings in the subject lines.
  • Mail from my wife gets tagged with its own tag, filtered by her e-mail address.
  • Industry newsletters get sorted and tagged based on their domain.

That’s pretty much it! The only really tedious part about it is creating the categories at the beginning, and it took a while to form the habit of assigning categories when I send and receive new messages. But I think it has paid off in the end by letting my messages be easily searched and found. Plus, my inbox always tells me what’s important, because the messages in it aren’t competing with 15,000 other messages. It’s not for everybody, but it’s my system, and I like it.