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Fighting Head Clutter With Tags



Data can be a hard thing to deal with. While we used to have filing cabinets stacked to the ceiling full of documents to deal with, now we also have computers with hundreds of thousands of documents floating around. It can be a pretty daunting task to organize and keep track of them all, let alone recall needed ones at will. Filing structures are important, but they definitely don’t solve all the problems of 21st century productivity.

Head Clutter

Head Clutter
The main problem here comes from what I term “head clutter”. With all the documents that I juggle everyday from every facet of my life, it’s really hard to remember the exact names of every document that i’m working on. It’s also difficult to remember sometimes where I put a document. It’s pretty easy to remember what the document is about or it’s description, but my head sometimes gets cluttered with keywords that are useless unless utilized somehow in each document. Without the keywords being used effectively, I still have to go digging through my file system to find what I’m looking for.

Just as a museum worker or archeologist puts physical tags on a piece to mark specific information about it, attaching descriptive keywords to files (called “tags”) will help you to find them more quickly and easily. Ian Hardy from the BBC News calls tags a “Totally Awesome Gathering System”. I couldn’t agree more.

You see, as the amount of digital data we consume has grown larger and larger, the effectiveness of simple “filing cabinets” (or folder structures) has decreased. It hasn’t become extinct, but staying in control of data becomes much more of a chore when you’re dealing with Terabytes of information instead of Gigabytes. This has increased the need for a tagging system.

A “Totally Awesome Tagging System”

Tagging systems came to the spotlight around 2004 with websites like Delicious and Flickr. Today’s Mavericks operating system uses OpenMeta tagging, a tagging system developed by Ironic Software. Ironic Software developed Leap and Yep, two programs that pull in all of your documents and allow you to quickly tag a lot of files at once. OpenMeta was a significant development to tagging systems because prior to that tags were exclusive to the program they were applied in. They weren’t viewable outside of a program or searchable by Spotlight. It was a good move on Apple’s part to decide to use OpenMeta because it saved a lot of time for a lot of people, as well as company money that would have had to been spent trying to transfer all those tags to the new system.

With OpenMeta came the freedom to quickly access tagged information. This is especially powerful in Spotlight or Alfred. I use this all the time as I work on web development projects because so many different files go into making a website (images, html and other web language files, documentation, etc.), but it’s hard to remember their exact names. Remembering a keyword is easy though, so typing a tag into my Alfred bar quickly brings up the needed information.

Searching through dozens of Evernote notebooks is also made a lot simpler when notes are brought together by tags from different notebooks.

Tagging Rules!

One of my favorite things to use tags for are Hazel rules. Hazel can manipulate files based on their tags, which is an effective way to keep my desktop clear and my downloads folder tidy too. When I download a file and can apply tags immediately to it, I apply the tags and the file is immediately sent to the right folder. Similarly, I usually create a document on my desktop and leave it there for a day or two (for quick access), and then let Hazel file it away in the appropriate folder.


Another system i’ve been implementing recently is Sparkbox, a photo management program for all those photos that you need to keep, but aren’t really “family photos” (and don’t want cluttering up your iPhoto). These are usually stock photos or design elements for example. You can apply tags to these images to quickly recall them later or to show similar images from different categories in one place. This is a great system if you use a lot of stock images in presentations or articles and need to find relevant images quickly.

At first glance, tagging can seem pretty unnecessary and too much trouble. I felt the same way until I realized their potential and importance in my system. It may seem trivial to be able to recall a document you made only yesterday, but what about a few years from now when you need that photoshop project of the dinosaur driving a purple volkswagon bus and all of it’s support files? Will you really remember the file name, or will you remember it’s tags?

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