Time for virtual spring cleaning
- By Beth Archibald Tang
- May 10, 2001
This commentary is about personal information management, which means more
than just clearing out the cache and dumping files from the recycle bin.
It's time to organize your knowledge resources, including newsletters, books,
magazines, Web sites and e-mail.
It's time to do a little virtual spring cleaning.
You may be able to make more efficient use of your time by bookmarking a
few good sites and portals that compile pertinent information than trying
to track it all down for yourself. A couple of good examples are HiCitizen and Personal Logic.
A very good "logic" tool is really an alternative navigational resource such as the VA HyperFAQ that Basil White
developed for the Department of Veterans Affairs Web site and featured in
this space April 26. It enables you to answer a series of yes/no questions
to arrive at a handful of Web addresses that will guide you to the information
The VA HyperFAQ is worth reviewing for many reasons, including its inherent
accessibility in terms of Section 508 Web site rules, ease of use (and development), and its ready
applicability to other government sites.
Clear Out the Inbox
A lot of good resources probably exist in your bookmarks folder and your
inbox their initial purpose long forgotten.
In managing your personal information, specialization is the first consideration.
Having too many interests contributes to the mounting pile of must-reads
that are never read. I've seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa and it's the overflowing
pile of paper on my desk. It was the "I'll deal with it later" heap that
I'd get to when I had some free time.
As an exercise, I wanted to see how far back my own pile went and what was
included. It went back to January, and it contained well over a dozen trade
weekly magazines and journals, not including printouts, books to review
The electronic inbox is even worse.
This stockpiling doesn't serve any purpose. Here are a few tips to reduce
the current pile in your inbox (both real and virtual):
- For weeklies, anything older than three weeks old is out.
- For monthlies, keep the issues from this month and last month.
- Newsletters should be scanned; keep only the last three issues.
- For Web sites, bookmark the "what's new" section and/or subscribe to the
- If you are involved in too many discussion groups, subscribe to the digest
(most digests are delivered once a day with a summary of headings).
Even though you may reduce the paper pile or number of e-mail messages you
have stored, information hoarding is still a hurdle to overcome. If information
sits with you, like in the pile I described, then no one benefits.
Think about who else in the organization is working in similar content area
and share the wealth of information.
One of the hurdles of knowledge management is holding on to information
in the mistaken belief that it leads to job security. By becoming a fountain
of knowledge, or even just a babbling brook of informational tidbits, being
seen as a reliable resource who's on top of current trends is important
for personal and organizational improvement.
But stovepiping prevents dissemination of important information, and that
can't be good. It's not just withholding the latest issue of a journal
it's really the creation of the artificial burden of taking on too much.
Why bother stockpiling a journal when you haven't used the information in
ages? You may know what your colleagues don't know, but it's a two-way street.
They might know about the one resource that turns the corner for you, that
program that solves all your problems could be in the head of a colleague
two doors down.
So, I recommend letting go and picking your areas of interest based on what's
current and critical. Specialize and let the information flow.
Specialization relieves the burden of accumulating too much stuff and fosters
a spirit of teamwork. To be a generalist really just isn't possible. How
many of those newsletters do you really need to subscribe to? How many of
those magazine subscriptions can you let lapse? Has it been a couple of
years since you worked on the project that prompted signing up for that
Here are some tips to help you decide what to let go and what to do with
- If you have more than six issues of a weekly that are of no interest,
let the subscription lapse. Tell a colleague or trash the older ones responsibly
(recycle when possible).
- If you have more than three issues of a monthly that you don't want to
read, let the subscription lapse. If you know of a colleague who could benefit,
send in the refer-a-friend card. Donate the rest of the issues to your colleague
or organization's library.
- Newsletters can easily be passed on even if you want to maintain the subscription.
For hard-copy newsletters, highlight the blurbs of interest with a sticky
note and pass it on.
- In your Web browser, create folders that are meaningful to you and sort
your bookmarks into those folders. Put the ones you use most in your browser's
shortcut bar so they're always at your fingertips.
- If e-newsletters and digests come to your mailbox, filter them, and then
make the time every morning to skim through the newsletter folder. Unsubscribe
to the ones you consistently don't read. The ones you really want to keep
can periodically be exported to a database, and that opens a whole new world
Pass it on
Now that you're organized, pass on the information. Tell a story. Refer
a friend. Read a good article? Don't photocopy it, don't print it out
e-mail it. Use the "e-mail a friend" feature that many online journals have
and let a colleague know about a good article you've read. If that's not
available, cut and paste the link into the e-mail. In either case, put in
a sentence or two about why the link is relevant. Make it specific, more
than FYI, but highlight the important finding in paragraph two that affects
the current project.
Tang is a Web designer in the Information Technology Group at Caliber Associates,
Fairfax, Va. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.