How following physical locations as much as possible helped me design my system

Here’s another show and tell thread. Maybe my insights will be of use to somebody who thinks in a similar way to me.

I first want to note how much doing the Johnny Decimal process has helped me clarify and focus.
With a limited number of ‘slots’ for things, I got clear what I want to do with my time in the long term. Vision, strategy, that kind of thing, become easier to decide on when you’re actually deciding what is worth space in my mental and physical system? It helped me to clarify what I want to spend my time on in the next decade, professionally.

Next, I want to note how much less space you need than you think. It’s really true. I started out with four systems: one for the household, one for the tiny house we built, one for my wife and one for me (the latter two for personal and business stuff, each). I’ve ended up with one system for all of this and it’s only half full.

How can that be? Well, I noticed a pattern to each round of reduction.

It seemed each time my ‘model’ was coming closer to the actual physical ordering of real things. For me this metaphor works really well. Areas literally correspond to places. Let me go through them:

00-09 Office. Asking ourselves: what do you do at the office, and it becomes clear what goes here. Basically admin and system (checklists, standard operating procedures, the index, directories).

10-19 Home. Everything in daily life fits here. Managing the household, keeping track of stuff (big things like vehicles or the portable swimming pool are in a category here), tracking energy usage …

actually, I think it’s instructive to list all the categories in this area. It’s helpful to know that we live in a tiny house of 25m² …

├── 10_Reserved                 #meta & management
├── 11_House                    #as in 'building': tracking remaining projects (house isn't nearly finished)
├── 12_Living-Space             #everything in 'daily' life; living room decorations?
├── 13_Attic                    #a large loft which we access daily
├── 14_Pantry-Supplies-Usage    #food supplies and all other consumables like electricity ... needs a better name.
├── 15_Garden                   #gardening
├── 16_Knutselkast              #Dutch word translates 'hobby/creative closet'.
├── 17_Small-Things             #any items that need to be tracked
├── 18_Big-Things               #e.g. vehicle maintenance logs
└── 19_Aanbouw-Buitenkast       #The outbuildings, outside kitchen where we store certain things.

In making the distinction between ‘home’ and ‘office’ (the office is actually in the ‘aanbouw’ (dutch for ‘add-on building’), I like to imagine our household as an manufacturing company and ask myself: what would you send to ‘the office’ to be processed, versus doing on the shop floor? This question is what lead to tracking electricity usage in 10-19 Home, but storing the utility company contracts and invoices in 00-09 Office. It makes sense to me.

20-29 is unused.

30-39 Shop. It contains both personal tools and supplies and stuff for my business. So does 10-19 ‘Office’. My wife and I have one category each for files which should be kept separate for legal/privacy reasons (client records for example).

40-49 Studio. Physically this is also located in the add-on, but I’m planning on sitting on one side of the desk for admin and on the other side for my creative work, to help keep the contexts separate in my head. Currently this is only for my business work, but there are more than enough categories left for my wife and my daughter if they want to organise their creative endeavours.

Again, I like the way the areas follow the physical separation of my sketching/drafting/writing/coding work from my shop work. This makes it crystal clear to me where to file some drawing or note, whereas when I was using business / private or something like that as the top-level divide, I was constantly running into issues with the lower level organisation.

We’re almost done … 50-79 are unused, leaving:

80-89 Elsewhere: everything not at our home, like vacations and trips, information about particular places, and also organised activities with other homeschooling families.

90-99 Knowledge. For all my notes and references. I think, however, I’m going to change it to ‘Anywhere’ or ‘Everywhere’: information and knowledge know no physical boundaries! At first I thought I needed to break out to 100, but I think it will fit (and there are still four unused areas in the system …).

Here’s another note regarding doing this with family/kids. Early in the discover and design phases, I had the urge to reserve space for each family member because of … well, it makes sense at first. This lead to reserving categories, areas or even whole systems for future use just to ensure everyone would have their own private place.

One place where this didn’t feel right, though, was with knowledge/references/library. I take notes about lots of things; my almost-six-year-old homeschooled daughter is interested in lots of things; do we need a separate ‘school library’ and ‘work library’? But what if she wants to learn to program or work wood when she’s older?

Then I thought about how it was for me growing up. My parent’s books, for pleasure and work, were always there on shelves in various rooms, and I started to notice and then read them as I grew and became interested. So why make separations that aren’t there in real life? Also, I thought how this approach gave me a sense of being trusted and taken seriously by my parents and I want to do the same for my daughter. Thus I ended up merging all ‘library’ and ‘note’ type of things into one area. If I really need to keep my daughter from seeing certain stuff, there are mechanisms for that (like file permissions or selective syncing).

It’s just like real life in a house with a family: there is (hopefully) a private space for everyone, and we have space for that; but most of the house is shared space, and shared things.

Anyways, that’s enough for now. Main takeaway: I’m taking the definition of a category at as a place where you do a particular type of work rather literally, and it really makes things clear for me.

In another post, I’ll look at my 00-09 office/system area in a bit more depth. As I alluded to on the thread why am I saving this thing, my approach for documents and intangibles seemingly contradicts what I’ve been emphasizing here.


How do you resolve spatial conflicts? Like laptops, cameras, cars, bicycles? I’ve created an area called “portable” in my system but it doesn’t seem very elegant as a solution.

Hi @clappingcactus, thanks for the good question! A few thoughts:

I find there’s usually a primary place something feels ‘right’ in. If I give it some time, it usually becomes clear (overnight, often). There are many parameters for each thing. What I usually do is load all those parameters into my brain, then let it sit for a while – and I usually end up with a clear ‘image’ of how things should settle out.

That can definitely involve some metaphor, imagination, or making up a story to back up a somewhat arbitrary choice. As long as the story feels coherent to you, it will work. It’s like memory palaces and other mnemonic techniques – they are highly ideosyncratic and wildly fantastic, but that’s the point – they’re just a technique to help you remember something. In this case – an association between a number and a real-world thing or group of things.

I gave the example of imagining my life as a large business. In that case, I use the laptop in the living room and on the road, but the IT department at HQ manages it, so it goes there. That’s what I went with – ‘computers’ is in ‘Office’ where I detail my hardware, software, and network layout. Note you don’t have to stick with one metaphor for everything.

There is some ambiguity, or spatial conflict as you call it, between areas. The examples you gave are all ones that could go in several areas. bikes and cars could go in the shop, for example – like with like – or in ‘Home > Big Thigs’ as I ended up with. At some point, it’s a matter of just choosing. But I’ve found that I can often feel (literally) which one makes more sense for me.

I think what really helped was imaginging ‘where is everything when it’s at rest?’ then my camera is on a shelf in the home, and the bike are parked by the back door. My tools are all in the shop, both business and private. But my computers are more ‘managed’ in my case – integrated into a network – so they go under Office even if my laptop might be in the house during the night.

So to end with – maybe this approach fits a certain type of thinker (strongly visual?) and not everybody?

I don’t put places in my area/category schema or in my ID’s. But in the index, I note (with a tag in Obsidian) for each ID where I have items pertaining to that ID (which might be in multiple “places” (including multiple virtual as well as physical)

@PhillyChuck good point; I think tags/descriptions for locations like you describe is better than putting it in the ‘title’. My purpose here was to illustrate how I went about designing the system, i.e. the 14 Build your system phase. Deciding how to group all those post-its can be overwhelming and this approach made that become surprisingly easy for me. YMMV …

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Interested. Anything you can share? Lucy and I talk about living in a shipping container…

Yes! Lucy found the same when we did the workshop. I think this is a fascinating idea. Align the computer and the real world. Why would they be different?

I think we’re used to these ridiculous folder names that we’ve trained ourselves to use because the systems at work complain if you use more than 200 characters. So the computer has forced us to be less expressive! Which is terrible.

We need to bring the humanity back in to our organisation; stop letting the computer dictate how we do things. Because that’s not how the brain works, and it’s getting in the way.

Anything you can share? Just curious. :upside_down_face:

Lucy went with ‘The Library’ for this. See above re: making it physical.

Sure thing. Watch this space for some links soon. Same goes for:

ah yes. This was out for me since originally I had ‘library’ for the physical stuff under my Home area. But I renamed that to Bookshelf (since that’s all it is in our little house :laughing:) so Library is free again … however, in my case this section is more my own notes about external sources. I’m keeping the actual books and articles etc. in a reference manager (Zotero atm) which just gets an ID.