Tags vs. folders

Tagging is one of the most important productivity hacks that modern communication technology has to offer.

And yet, it takes some time to grasp the vast opportunities of this habit. Tagging is also one of the most important points I talk about in my trainings. It took me a while to make the switch myself and I don’t know how many hours I wasted by doing it late and by doing it not right in the beginning.

So with this piece I hope to help people make the switch from a folder-hierarchy focused approach to tagging digital information.

As a first step I want to explain the difference between tagging and storing files in seperate folders. And this difference is very simple:

So the smart thing to do is file everything in one or a small number of folders and assign a number of distinctive tags to it. Sounds simple? It is. But the ramnifications are enormous! Just look at the illustration on top of this post.

The one document can only go into one file folder (or you save multiple copies in different folders which complicates version management). But the document has 4 different labels (tags) attached: Client X, year 2014, Quotation, Project A. So if you are looking for the document in your file folder structure you will have to click through a hierarchy of folders (probably something like Clients > Client X> 2014> Communication > Quotations> Project A and only then you have reached the actual folder where the document is filed. This is the reason why filing had developed into a science of its own in the 20th century and new employees had to spend hours learning the filing structure of their employer before being able to work efficiently. Now, all of this is still ok as long as you are familiar with the context of the particular file. The situation is totally different if you are looking for a file that has not been touched for three years or if you want to re-use sections from a number of quotations for a new document. In this case you are likely to work your way through a lot of folders before being able to retrieve all the information you need.

Now imagine you are using tags instead of a folder hirarchy. You would just input the terms Client X, Quotation and Project A and the software would lead you right to the file you were searching for. Replace Project A with 2014 and you get a list of all the quotations for that particular client in 2014.

Potential pitfalls

Pretty neat, isn’t it? There are a number of potential pitfalls, though.

1) One of the most important issues is that your tags need a structure as well. If you just tag every note as you feel like when you are at it you might end up with a number of related tags like lead, prospect, opportunity or response, answer, reply, etc. In such a situation you will waste a lot of time thinking about which one you used for a particular file.

2) To be really effective, when searching for tagged files, the software needs to able to include more than one tag at every search. Think about our example above: if you are only able to search for one tag, you would end up with either all quotations, all files from 2014 or all files related to client X, etc. as search results

3) There seems to be a psychological barrier to using tags as well. Studies show that many people prefer putting a file in a single folder because a) it is faster than attaching multiple labels and b) it gives them a feeling of this item being put out of the way. The last point is most obvious in the obsession with a “zero inbox”, i.e. the pursuit of placing all processed mail in a specific folder outside the general inbox in order to get a feeling of accomplishment. Whoever is interested in this cognitive aspect of filing vs tagging might find some valuable insights in this article.

4) Not every software that you use and creates files will support tagging. At least the implimentation of tagging is very different in different operating systems and software. Also naming is not consistent. What is called tag in one application might be called category or label in another one.

Tagging in different operating systems and applications

See the following links for tips on tagging in some of the most popular operating systems and desktop applications:

Tagging of files in Windows 7 or higher.

Tagging files in Yosemite.

One of the most important everyday application where we handle a lot of different items are email clients. If you are an Outlook user, you will have to use categories and you can find some insights on how to put them to use here.

It seems like native tagging is not possible in the Apple email app but there is a 3rd party plugin called MailTag.

Here is how to use tags in Thunderbird.

Fortunately, many of the most popular SaaS applications (like Gmail, basecamp, evernote, insight.ly, etc.) support some sort of tagging by now. Use your favourite search engine to find tutorials on how to use tags in the SaaS application of your choosing.

I myself am an avid user of Evernote and this is where I was converted into a “tagger”. The obvious advantage is that you can put almost every file into Evernote and tag it in a universal environment where it can be found easily via a powerful filtering and search function. And you can share these files (or to be precise: the notes that represent or contain the files) with other Evernote users.

It goes without saying that using the same set of tags for files and emails will save a lot of your brainspace and time. Many people have shared their tagging setup online (just as other people did with their file folder setup) and it is not easy to give any specific recommendation. But I found that most people who really dig into it end up with something that resembles the Getting things Done system. A powerful example on how to implement GTD in a digital environment is “The Secret Weapon” that aims at feeding all your files, emails and notes into Evernote where they can be tagged and processed consitently.

Converting to a tagging approach instead of placing every file into one specific folder has saved me a lot of time. I hope that this blog post inspired you to do the same. Or have you already made your switch? Or maybe even tried it and moved back to file folders for some reason? Let me know and share with others to discuss the pros and cons of the two approaches!

Happy tagging!

Thomas