I recently read an essay by George Orwell (1903—1950), in which he illustrates the life of a book reviewer in the years immediately following the Second World War. It makes interesting reading, as the opening paragraphs give us a snapshot of how immensely difficult it must have been to maintain any system of organisation in the pre-computer age.
Yet while we no longer have to face many of the administrational problems of those days, their modern-day equivalents, such as email and voice mail, require regular attention to avoid creating an electronic equivalent to Orwell’s organisational nightmare. Here are some of the problems he faced.
“A man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.”
In the cold, dark days before email, the sheer volume of paper on a desk could cause an organisational headache. While storing documents electronically has done away with such hazards as paper avalanches, it is still possible to have a disorganised folder storage system.
Take care in organising your folder system. Give each folder a name that identifies it clearly and without ambiguity. Do not use truncated names or abbreviations when naming folders, as this can cause confusion. Imagine you had individual folders on hundreds of organisations and someone asked you to send them the Automobile Association folder. You do this and soon receive a second mail asking why you have sent the Alcoholics Anonymous folder. Simply calling the folder AA has been shown to be a poor decision.
“He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible there is a cheque for two guineas…”
The modern-day equivalent of this is searching for an important email buried in an inbox that is cluttered with mails that should have been deleted. Maintaining a streamlined inbox is a key factor of good organisation. Keep your inbox well below the level of Orwell’s wastepaper basket by deleting all unimportant mails as soon as you become aware that they needn’t be saved.
“There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered in his address book. He has lost his address book.”
Yet again the reliance on physical items has caused problems because of their tendency to go missing. We have no such worries these days, as we can access our email from any connected computer. There is, however, an e-equivalent of Orwell’s lost address book; the failure to add a contact to your address list at the earliest opportunity.
Trawling your inbox for a stray email so you can retrieve an address is almost as time-wasting as sifting through sheaves of paper. If you receive a mail from someone with whom you will be exchanging mails frequently, add their contact details to your address list immediately.
The quotes from this essay show us how fortunate we are to live in an age where technology allows us to store and receive vast quantities of information electronically. In order to get the best out of this benefit, however, we should take care to organise our information with great care.
Quotes are taken from Confessions of a Book Reviewer, which appeared in Tribune, 3rd May 1946, and NewRepublic 5th August 1946.