Numbered folders: the easiest way to keep track of works-in-progress

June 4th, 2008 by james

Even if you’re not familiar with the daily life of an academic, chances are you will have heard the expression “Publish or perish”. In my (limited) experience, it’s not as bad as it sounds since people who end up in academia tend to have lots of ideas and like to share them with other people. In this case, writing a paper may be a bit time-consuming but it’s really just an extension of the brainstorming you do all the time. However the problem comes when trying to keep track of your various ideas. It’s very rare that one project finishes neatly before the next begins and so a person needs a way of keeping tabs on multiple projects at once.

The approach I’ve been using is borrowed from an engineering firm I used to work for.It simply involves creating a folder on your computer called “projects” (“papers”, “ideas” etc) and adding each new project in a numbered and labeled subfolder, e.g. “1 – PV and consumer behaviour”, “2 – PV industry analysis” and so on. I tend to start folders with just one file in them, a plain-text file containing a quick abstract with the paper idea and a list of relevant references if applicable. However as the paper progresses, you can then add subfolders for data, analysis scripts, drafts and so on.

The system works well but I’ve tried to improve it by adding a database to keep track of meta-information (such as the status of each paper, the target journal, deadlines) and to generate summary reports. This feature demonstrates the advantage of numbering the folders since the unique id can be used to track the paper in the database and other applications; the text label is just there to provide a quick reminder of the topic. At the moment I’ve got 28 papers in my database, ranging from new concepts and abandoned ideas to submitted and finished publications:

Concept 12
Abandoned 5
Drafting 2
Submitted 1
In press 1
Published 7

As a side-note, the abandoned category is more useful than it looks. Keeping track of old ideas means that you can still access your thoughts and incorporate them into later works without committing time to a full-blown paper now. (Also, if someone publishes a revolutionary paper on the subject in the meantime, you can always pull out the database and say you thought of it first…)

Of course, everyone has their preferred method of accessing information and the ‘numbered folders’ technique may not be for you. In fact although I do find this method useful, it’s not perfect and I’d be interested to hear any suggestions you might have for improvements.

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13 Responses to “Numbered folders: the easiest way to keep track of works-in-progress”

  1. Mr. GunnNo Gravatar Says:

    Love me some mnftiu.

  2. RebeccaNo Gravatar Says:

    I’m a bit fuzzy – how does the unique number enhance the project? Why isn’t a unique (long) name sufficient?

  3. jamesNo Gravatar Says:

    A unique long name might be effective for setting up the file folders but I’ve found it ungainly for three reasons:

    With numbers, you can quickly sort all the folders in your papers directory by name and have them in chronological order. (Yes, you could sort on the date field too but if you modify an old paper it would then sort that folder as recent which isn’t what you want). I’ve found it also makes it easier to skim read the directory and find what you want.
    More generally, I’ve found it easier to remember and use the numbers when referring to the paper. For example, I use the paper number as short-hand in my notes so instead of writing “Add figures to the paper on urban governance and energy policy”, I can just write “Add figures to P20″. This works well for papers currently on the go, but obviously it’s harder to remember your back catalogue (hence the short title after the number). Referencing by number also works well to distinguish between multiple papers on the same general topic which might have similar (and knowing academics, ambiguous) titles.
    Long unique strings also makes it more difficult to sync with a database (which relies on a unique id for each item to link between tables of attribute data). Of course you could still build a database to keep track of the status as described above and only use the id in the database. But numbering the folders makes this connection explicit and I found it useful for that reason.

    Hope that clarifies things!

  4. jamesNo Gravatar Says:

    (Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks…didn’t realise the comments system would trim out HTML code)

  5. TuradgNo Gravatar Says:

    If the sorting isn’t that important to you, short string identifiers could be a good strategy instead. e.g. “Pythagorean authoring study” becomes “pyauth”

    easier to remember than numbers
    can use notation to relate artifacts throughout your organization system (e.g. tasks, misc notes)

    doesn’t sort
    little longer to write than integers

  6. VictorNo Gravatar Says:

    Numbering folders sounds like a good idea! I’ve used the “unique long name” approach so far and tried to give my email folders the same name, which really makes by mail folder structure messy.

    One additional thought – when sorting folders/documents alphabetically, a few programs seem to place numbers 1, 11, 12…19 before 2. To avoid that, I’ve started adding a date prefix or suffix to all files I’m working on, in the format yyyy-mm-dd. Works well for me!

  7. Links of the Week | Run Kitty Run Says:

    [...] Numbered Folders: the easiest way to keep track of works-in-progress (Academic Productivity) – This is an intriguing idea for anyone who has lots of project ideas. [...]

  8. Megan McCarthyNo Gravatar Says:

    This is a great idea, thanks! I also use numbers system to more easily identify my projects and folders on the computer, but still working on what each folder should contain.

    I also use, and am learning, a great software program – ‘The Journal’, which is often used by writers and students (in fact, for many activities) – it has loose-leaf pages and tabs for each page, including tree structures, so you can add categories of ideas, concepts, drafts, revisions, research, etc, etc. There is a lot you can do with this software and I am only just touching the surface!

    - its at I think (there are also detailed articles there on how writers, students and others’ use the journal).

    I have also heard of databases used by writers to keep track of their manuscripts, and have one on my computer somewhere, although I haven’t yet tried it. But it looks good.

    But, I am most curious to know what database system/software you use, and how setup. This would be invaluable, as I have too many projects on the go. Get frozen!

    I managed to complete a PhD and 2 Degrees before much of this technology was available. But as I spend most of my time on the computer now, any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Kind Regards (and let me know if you are interested in finding out more about the manuscript tracking software and will find it for you)

    Megan (Meg)
    Adelaide, South Australia

  9. Notation Software Music Editor & Music Maker - Personal ComposerNo Gravatar Says:

    The number idea is good. Having a unique identifier is important. BUt you know, you can also sort files by date modified. But why not just keep track of everything in an excel spreadsheet? That seems like the easiest way for me.

  10. Academic Productivity » The right tool for the job Says:

    [...] Following my earlier post on using numbered folders to keep track of your projects, I received a couple emails from readers wondering what software I use to implement the system. As [...]

  11. Adjunct Advice » Blog Archive » Improving Productivity Via Numbered Folders Says:

    [...] folks over at the Academic Productivity blog have a great post about keeping your ideas and writings organized. Like all suggestions, this is worth testing before [...]

  12. Adjunct Advice » Blog Archive » Tracking Your Works In Progress Says:

    [...] Academic Productivity Blog has a great suggestion for keeping orderly track of your works in progress. Read it here. [...]

  13. harryNo Gravatar Says:

    You may want to check out GoalsOnTrack, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

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