On Being Organized

Reading an article discussing some google mail features that recently ‘passed’, I was reminded of several organizational tricks that I’ve been using over the years. This little bit of nostalgia is specific to e-mail but probably applies more generally.

Basically the one feature that caught my eye in the article is that google mail (gmail) automatically color codes messages using a specific color to identify the content of the email (i.e., gray is for bills). The advantage of this, especially if you get a lot of email (like I used to when working at BioWare, 100+ emails in a day was not uncommon) was that at a glance you could have an idea of what you had in your inbox.

This automated coloring is cool but is just a logical step from systems of organization that have existed for many years. Basically Outlook has the ability to group mail by categories (you flag the email as it comes in into a group — this used to be purely textual but my current version of Outlook uses colors which may or may not need labels).

Folders are bad.

For years I ignored this category system and instead relied heavily on using folders to separate my email. But once I realized how useful categories/colors could be, I started to use folders less often. At BioWare what I was doing was assigning mail to one of three categories — Do Immediately, Do Soon, Look at Eventually. I also had other, minor categories such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect and so on to label what project the email was about — the neat thing, and the advantage over folders, is that you can assign more than one category to an email, so I could have email assigned as Do Soon|Dragon Age. Outlook allows you different ways to sort the look, including a folder like approach, so I might, in my mail box see:

Dragon Age
Do Immediately
Do Soon

What’s useful is that a particular email might be in one, two, or more of these pseudo-category-folders. On the discipline side of things — and you really need to have some discipline to be an effective game developer — I tried to ensure that the ‘do immediately’ category was cleared daily. Wasn’t always possible, but it was a goal to strive towards. The automated color coding that Google is using is a nice enhancement, basically a step towards a common vocabulary of categories that might be able to automatically improve communication without the individual communicators having to put as much effort into organizing things for themselves.

Anyways, my point was — color coding cool.

Disclaimer. I don’t entirely hate folders. In all fairness, they do have some usages and I wouldn’t completely ditch them. Basically color-coding/categories only works wells if you have a limited number of categories. So I still have a folder in my inbox for each short story I’ve written and then inside of that folder I have all the email acceptances/rejections for that story. I could use a category system but as I have had over fifty stories in circulation that would be an awful lot of categories, making that list cumbersome. So, in this case I accept folders.