Organising in 3D

Oct 27, 2008 09:06 · 834 words · 4 minute read

This has been kicking around at the back of my subconscious for a while, partly born of frustration with organisation systems like GTD. It’s not that there’s fundamental flaws with them, so much as there are fundamental limitations to how organised I can be. That’s partly why I don’t have a lot of time for 43 Folder-style blogs - the constant striving towards GTD nirvana strikes me as too reminiscent of Catholic attitudes to sin. By any objective standard I seem to be reasonably well-organised, as far as it’s possible to be self-aware of this - but comparison with the true devotees of the One True Way To Organisation just leave me feeling depressed at how slovenly my pile of “stuff to look at” has become.

Then I came across isochrones - geographical maps with a temporal overlay - so they can answer questions such as “how long will it take me to get to point A from point B?” The best examples I’ve seen were produced by MySociety, and were “heatmaps” of travelling time via public transport which you could also overlay housing costs. These enabled you to ask multi-variable questions like “where can I afford to live within an hour of work?”

I started wondering whether there are implied isochrones around daily activities. If you look at someone’s desk - or pretty much any space, for that matter - the more important something is, the closer it’s kept. My iPhone is generally never more than an arm’s length away, because it’s my primary means of communication and access to my email, calendar, contacts, to-do list and the kind of photographs that would in earlier times be kept in a wallet. I might not be able to lay my hands on a pen unless I’m at my desk, because I tend not to physically write anything when I’m not sat down.

And when it comes to work, the same patterns apply. Working materials are directly in front of us, and the more useful the article the more likely that it’ll be within easy reach. That also applies to the tchozkes that we surround ourselves with, too - photos of the kids are usually pinned up in clear view. [I can’t find the reference at the moment, but when the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions embarked on a pointy-haired programme of “efficiency improvements” by enforcing at HR-driven-disciplinary-point a “clear desk policy”, the thing that really upset people wasn’t the fact that they were being told to keep their pencils in a drawer. Instead, it was the insistence on tidying away the kind of personal items that soften the right angles of work environments - the photos, the monitor pets, the post-it notes with shopping list-type scribbles. Oh, and being told where the right place to keep a banana was.]

Unimportant stuff gets pushed away. If you suddenly need to find something that you’ve not used or thought about in weeks, the chances are it’s going to be under something. In fact, if it’s in clear view, the chances are you’re going to overlook it, because we’re almost conditioned to expect finding something lost to be more complicated than it turns out to be. Reference materials are filed, if you’re lucky and organised. But either way, immediate personal space is populated by the important and relevant.

All of which is a (very) roundabout way of wondering if we could take this one stage further, and use proximity as a metaphor for urgency in an organisational tool. What if you could use physical - or virtual - distance as a means of organisation? Imagine a system where tasks existed in a (probably pseudo) three-dimensional, and gradually encroached as the urgency became greater. The larger something loomed, the more important it is - and reprioritisation would be done by “pushing” items away, back into the future as it were.

I suppose that categorisation could probably be overlaid, as well - imagine work tasks raining down from above, while personal stuff sneaked in from left field. Switching context from one to the other could be as simple as moving your head to the side, to bring a new context into view. And if physical location could be tied into this somehow, you’d have a situation where the context of tasks could be directly related to where you were at that moment - so work tasks would only rain down in work, and the list of things you were supposed to pick up from the shops would only appear when some kind of near-field trigger alerted the system to the fact that you were entering the mall.

Would it work? I’m not sure - three-dimensional interfaces haven’t exactly been a roaring success outside of the games industry. And interacting with the physical environment would be dependent on the sensor infrastructure being in place, which seems unlikely any time soon - at least not until Jacqui Smith turns the UK into Minority Report. It would be fun trying, though.