February 8

The Disadvantages of Using Folders for Personal Knowledge Management

Most people organize information with folders or hierarchies. Even in most note-taking apps, people use a folder-like structure. After you accumulate a critical mass of knowledge inside a note-taking app like Mem, the disadvantages of folders for personal knowledge management become clear.

A world without folders will be the default five years from now. People just don’t know it yet- Dennis Xu, Co-Founder at Mem.

Learn How to Create a Self Organizing Knowledge Management System

On Wednesday Feb 9 at 6pm MST, I’m co-hosting a live Q&A with Dennis Xu, the co-founder of Mem. You’ll learn what makes Mem so different than other note taking tools and how to build a personal knowledge management system that organizes itself. Click here to learn more and sign up.

The Root Cause of Inefficient Knowledge Work

Photographer: Scott Graham | Source: Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I spoke to the head of marketing at Mem because I was writing an article on the benefits of using Mem for knowledge workers and creatives. When I asked him about other note taking apps, he said, “we don’t see them as our competitors. Our biggest competitor and enemy is folders.”

Digital distractions, unscheduled conversations and interruptions, and what Cal Newport calls the hyperactive hivemind workflow are symptoms of how we organize information.

Almost every productivity hack, app, or tool alleviates symptoms of information overload and inefficient knowledge work. But none of them address the root cause.

Productivity Hacks That Are Band Aids on Bullet Wounds

When you analyze some popular productivity hacks and apps, you see that they alleviate the symptoms of inefficient knowledge work but don’t address the root cause. Therefore they don’t make you productive.

The Pomodoro Method

The idea behind the Pomodoro method is that you allocate time blocks to do your work, take a break between blocks and continue working.

For example, a few weeks ago, I published a video on how to import your contacts into Mem. My workflow for publishing videos to my youtube channel has 5-steps:

  1. Record with Canva
  2. Save file to a dropbox folder
  3. Edit and revise in Descript
  4. Create a thumbnail in Canva
  5. Write a description for the video in Jarvis

Layer a few technical difficulties on top of that, and the 20-minute task turned into a three-hour ordeal. The Pomodoro method is a band-aid on a bullet wound despite its popularity.

Distraction Blockers

Digital distraction blockers prevent you from checking email 100 times a day and visiting distracting websites. But they don’t address the issue of retrieving the information you need to complete a task. God forbid that information is in your inbox, and the distraction blocker paradoxically increases the time it takes to complete a task.


When you organize information in folders, you create hierarchies. Because that’s how people have done things for so long, it makes logical sense. But your brain is a network, not a hierarchy.

In the brain, none of our thoughts or ideas exist in isolation. Our thoughts are organized as a network of contexts and topics.

For example, a memory from your life, like high school, has dozens of other memories you associate with it because of associative networks in the brain.

  • Friends
  • Teachers
  • Classes
  • Extracurricular activities

And all of those memories are connected. You can recall and retrieve them with no friction. If you ditch folders, you’ll be able to the same for the information you need to do your most important work.

A World Without Folders

Photographer: Brett Jordan | Source: Unsplash

According to Scott Belsky, Creativity X Organization = Impact.

Information Overload is Making us Stupid, Unproductive, and Poor because of how we organize information.

The solution is to create a world without folders. When you stop using folders for personal knowledge management, you can

  • Design workflows that minimize context shifts and unscheduled communication.
  • Organize information the way you think
  • Have a seamless method for capture and retrieval, making it easy to capture, connect, and create using all the information inside your system.

Your notes evolve from a personal knowledge management system into a knowledge generation system.

Hierarchies vs. Networks

Photographer: Tezos | Source: Unsplash

Before you can understand the disadvantages of using folders for personal knowledge management, you must understand the difference between networks and hierarchies.

In his article on tagging for personal knowledge management, Tiago Forte distinguishes between hierarchies and networks.

A hierarchy is a system of nested groups. A standard organizational chart is a hierarchy, with employees grouped into business units and departments reporting to a centralized authority. Other kinds of hierarchies include government bureaucracies, biological taxonomies, and a system of menus in a software program. Hierarchies are inherently “top-down,” in that they are designed to enable centralized control from a single, privileged position.

A network, by contrast, has no “correct” orientation, and thus no bottom and no top. Each individual, or “node,” in a network functions autonomously, negotiating its own relationships and coalescing into groups. Examples of networks include a flock of birds, the World Wide Web, and the social ties in a neighborhood. Networks are inherently “bottom-up,” in that the structure emerges organically from small interactions without direction from a central authority.

Donella H. Meadows, author of Thinking in Systems defines a system as follows.

A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.

A Personal network of knowledge is an interdependent system.

  • The elements are your notes, thoughts, ideas, projects, tasks, and any relevant information relevant to your current task or projects.
  • Interconnections are created with tags and bidirectional links
  • The purpose of the system, if you’re a content creator or knowledge worker, is to maximize your output.

When you start organizing information in networks instead of hierarchies, the disadvantage of folders for knowledge management becomes evident.

1. Folders Force you to Multitask and Context Shift

Photographer: Beatriz Pérez Moya | Source: Unsplash

Mid-task context shifting is one of the most significant disadvantages of organizing information in folders.

A mid-task context switch is when you have to stop an otherwise self-contained task and switch your attention to something unrelated before returning to the original object of your attention. The classic example of such switches is the need to continually return to an email inbox or instant messenger channel to keep up with drawn-out conversations about unrelated issues. -Cal Newport, A World Without Email

While writing this article, I had to go to Tiago’s blog to get the quotes I wanted to reference. But about 90% of the information I needed was inside my personal knowledge network.

Mid task Context Switching has several cognitive costs.

  • First, it decreases uninterrupted concentration time. Cal Newport defines writing, computer programming, and other forms of cognitively demanding work that Cal Newport defines as deep work. And deep work requires uninterrupted focus.
  • Second, it’s terrible for productivity. We move a mile in a thousand directions instead of a thousand in one.
  • Third, it increases attention residue. When we shift from a demanding task to responding to emails, text messages, etc., the “residue” from the switch slows down our ability to work on the original task.
  • Finally, it wears us out mentally. When we’re mentally drained, it’s hard to do anything cognitively demanding.

Yet, most knowledge workers and companies organize information in folders.

2. Folders Create Unnecessary Friction

Photographer: Sandeep Singh | Source: Unsplash

When you use folders for personal knowledge management, it creates friction between insight and productivity.

If you have to find information in a folder, you add unnecessary friction to individual workflow when you need to retrieve something to expand your insights. It makes it much harder to have spontaneous insight without immediate action.

Folders also create friction for collaboration. If a client, colleague, or coworker has to sift through folders to find something you’re working on together, you perpetuate the hyperactive hivemind workflow.

Because everything in your network of knowledge is connected to everything else, you don’t have to remember where anything is. It’s a system that organizes itself.

For example, any note I tag with the Unmistakable Creative Podcast is automatically connected to that tag, whether it’s a contact, transcript of a recent episode, or anything related to the podcast.

3. Folders make it challenging to Make Connections Between Your Ideas

Photographer: Markus Winkler | Source: Unsplash

When you store information in folders, every file exists in isolation, making it challenging connect your ideas.

  • Every note, idea, insight, project, and task is a node within a network in a personal network of knowledge.
  • Anything you capture is a building block you can combine with other building blocks to create something new.

If you look below at the screenshot of this note, you’ll see that I wrote this entire article using a series of related notes.

4. Folders Require Ongoing Maintenance and Organization

Photographer: Iwona Castiello d’Antonio | Source: Unsplash

When you use folder for personal knowledge management

  • You have to continually organize and maintain them
  • The burden of having to remember something is waste valuable cognitive bandwidth.
  • You spend more time looking for information than you spend creating new knowledge.

Using folders for personal knowledge management is like maintaining a digital closet. Your digital life starts to look like an episode of the TV show hoarders. And unlike your actual close, the storage space is infinite so you accumulate even more completely useless crap that takes up space on your hard drive.

5. Folders Store Information. Networks Generate Knowledge

Photographer: Glenn Carstens-Peters | Source: Unsplash

Because the content in folders isn’t interconnected, they help you store information, But they don’t help you generate knowledge.

One of the keys to networked thinking, according to #Sonkhe Ahrens, is to think like A writer, not an archivist.

The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference. – Sonkhe Ahrens

A knowledge worker’s job is to create value by producing new knowledge. It’s not manage and move information on from one folder to another.

Living in a world without folders reduces the stress and chaos of managing your digital life. You minimize information overload, increase your productivity, and build a self-organizing personal knowledge generation system.


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