Productivity Hack: The Sedimentary Filing System

Thursday, March 31, 2011
By dreeves

My sediments exactly!

A lot of people are at one extreme or the other when it comes to organizing papers on their desk. Either it’s an unmitigated disaster or it’s a model of anal retention [1] that they seem to spend far too much energy on. For years I’ve been achieving a reasonable middle ground by sticking to three categories:

  1. Things to save for ever and ever
  2. Stuff to throw away right now
  3. Everything else

Mostly I don’t even bother to distinguish between 2 and 3 — if I even have to think about it, it’s 3. [2] The most important thing about category 3 is that if you wait long enough it becomes irrelevant. Why spend definite time now making things only possibly more convenient for your future self? [3]

So here’s the hack: Anything that isn’t obviously garbage or obviously needs to be kept forever, I toss into a big box. Now I’ve got a reverse-chronological stack of papers inside a box (instead of strewn all over my desk in varying useless attempts at order). If I ever need to find that receipt for my bulk purchase of Little Debbie snacks, it’s in there and not too tough to find. When it fills up, which tends to take years, I throw out the bottom half. Ta-done!


Thanks to Bethany Soule and Dave Morris who helped write this and who also swear by this hack.


[1] Sour grapes alert.

[2] David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, suggests a related principle, namely, to pick one of two rules of thumb and stick to it:

  1. When in doubt, throw it out
  2. When in doubt, keep it

The idea being to save yourself the agony of deliberation that drives you to just let things accumulate on your desk.

[3] We computer scientists call this the principle of delayed commitment [4]: commitment is bad, all else equal. Why do today what only might need to be done tomorrow?

That sounds, prima facie, at odds with the Beeminder philosophy. But in fact I don’t dispute that it’s downright terrible to have to self-commit like in a Beeminder contract. No rational person would ever volunteer to forfeit a painful sum of money for failing to go to the gym often enough. Rationally, you should go to the gym but retain the flexibility to change your mind. But then, for a rational person it wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. So you could say Beeminder is about fighting irrationality with irrationality.

What makes a Beeminder commitment worth it is reaching the end of your yellow brick road, which you otherwise wouldn’t. [5] So, yes, don’t make needless commitments, but do make commitments that are a net win. See our article on akrasia for the philosophy and psychology of commitment devices to make yourself do what you want to do.

[4] The only references for the Principle of Delayed Commitment I can find are buried in academic papers. Someone should make a wikipedia page! Ok, fine, here’s a stub, though I won’t be surprised if the editors delete it, claiming, wrongly, that it should be part of the article on Lazy Evaluation.

[5] Notice that yellow brick road in the sidebar of this page. You would not be reading this if today weren’t an “emergency blog post day”.

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  • Daniel Reeves

    This is a test comment on a post that’s just a secret preview. I’m going to delete it upon confirming that it works. Lorem ipsum!

  • Lauriekreeves

    I use the sedimentary system for everyday receipts. I think it’s Danny that I got the idea from. But I don’t use it for important documents or tax-related that I know I’ll need in April, etc. But for everyday purchases it’s great. Occasionally I need to dig out a receipt for, say, a return and it’s easy to do. I know I bought the item last week and that means I don’t have to go very far down in the pile to quickly locate it. For this system I use a decorative container about 7″X7″X7″. This keeps the stack chronological. A drawer or something too big would allow my stack of small receipts to shuffle around and the chronlogical order would be lost. Every day, or every couple of days, I throw more receipts on the pile. At the end of the year I pick them up and put them in an envelope with my tax stuff. I never bother to decide which to keep or which to throw out.