I’m a minimalist for sure. I hate piles of crap. Bills on the table and receipts in a cabinet. Manuals on shelves and taxes in the closet. Hundreds of emails. Passwords scribbled down on post-it notes.
The problem is, what do you do with all that stuff? A file cabinet and a shredder are good starting places. So is deciding what you actually need/want to keep, instead of keeping everything “just in case”. There will never be a situation where you have to prove that donut is yours.
As for the stuff you do want to keep, we have so many convenient tools available to us now besides ye olde’ desk drawer (or cabinet, dining room table, or top of the TV). Cabinets and drawers aren’t indexable, searchable, taggable, shareable, or backup-able (it’s a word)…
A couple years ago, I started looking for a program to help me get organized. Specifically, something with:
- A solid visual editor that could accept html straight from a webpage and images dropped in, not the normal editor window requiring learning wiki markup (sometimes with a weak and buggy WYSIWYG editor).
- Drag ‘n drop files to attach them, and be able to just as easily access them.
- Change history tracking.
I wanted a wiki with document management capabilities built in. Something my wife could access and navigate if she needed to find something, and maybe even use too (unlikely.. she’s not quite as nerdy as I am :) ) There are many different wiki brands out there, each with their own features. Prepare to be overwhelmed.
I had a few more requirements:
- I didn’t mind paying, but needed something affordable.
- I didn’t want storage limits (some online options provide you with several GB or more, but if you’re storing large documents (receipts, user manuals, images) and a lot of them, you don’t want to have to worry about hitting a ceiling).
- I wanted it to be secure, so storing my stuff (taxes, passwords, etc) in a free cloud service or accessing via plain http was absolutely out.
In the end, I chose Confluence from Atlassian.
- They have an awesome deal for individuals or small shops that want to use it – a yearly subscription only costs $10. If you intend to use it for a larger group, you’ll pay at least $1200. For personal use though, this is perfect.
- The minimum system reqs for up to 5 users are pretty low (2GHz+ CPU, 512MB RAM), but the first machine I had it on (2GB RAM, 2.6GHz CPU, single-core) was dog slooooow. It took about 15 minutes to fire up the Apache server used to host Confluence, and then the process occasionally nose-dived. Since moving it to a decent machine (8GB RAM, 3.6GHz, quad-core) it fires up unnoticed along with the rest of the computer and has been extremely reliable. This is the same machine my wife and I both use throughout the day, and I even do development work on it.
At some point, I’ll post the exact details of how I installed it. Assuming your machine is decent (or you have a spare machine on your network), the installation process is fairly straight-forward.
Setting Up Spaces
Confluence calls the highest-level category for organizing your data “spaces”. Keep in mind through all of this that Confluence is intended as a team collaboration tool. Groups and individuals can be granted or denied access to spaces, which might represent departments in a company, or current projects, or whatever.
In my case, they’re just a high-level way to separate concerns. “Application Development” has configuration notes for development tools I use, while “Home Documentation” has information about our insurance and notes about projects I’ve tackled, and “Legal Documents” holds copies of our taxes and vital records.
When you create a new space, the only content is a page of the same name as your space. I generally use this page as a jumping off point for the rest of the space.
For instance, here’s the “Legal Documentation” home page, which I’ve customized. I like to place a small blurb at the top (using the Info and Note macros), to remind myself what my original intention was for a particular area/space.
The pages listed under each header (Vital Records, etc) are actually tagged. There’s a “Content by Label” macro that lists out all pages with a particular tag (or “label” as they call it). All of the “Tax Year xxxx” pages, for instance, are tagged “taxes”. (Think of a macro as a black box… there may be a few options on each one, but you can generally just drop it onto your page and let it do its thing.)
And here’s my Application Development “space”, with notes about conferences, books, software, etc. There’s a “Labels list” control you can use to display all labels (tags) in a space, which you can see at the bottom.
Creating a new page is an easy task, which was a must for me (if you have to fight the tool, you won’t use it). From anywhere within Confluence, just click the “Create” button at the top, choose an available space, and then a template (there’s a “blank” one if you just want a blank page to jot down a few quick notes).
I created a “Business Directory” space that allows me to keep track of businesses I’ve dealt with (which also allows me to write personal notes about my experience and link to other pages that may be related to work they’ve done for me), and my own template called “Directory Entry” that provides a few areas for me to write information about a business (contact info, URLs, BBB link, etc).
Here’s another space, and a template I created called “Product”:
It allows me to quickly enter some details about some product I’ve used, add an accompanying image, attach documentation like receipts, warranties and user manuals, etc.
When I purchased a new mower earlier this summer, it took about 10 minutes to create a page for it, cut&paste info from the seller’s website, take a few quick personal notes, drop a few images in and attach the user manual. (Almost all manufacturers now make user manuals for their products available on their websites. It’s rare that I can’t find one online.)
The “Search” Feature
The “search” feature, and the fact that all of my documents are fully indexed (including file contents) is priceless (to me, anyway).
Here’s a quick search for the word “mower”, which (in a few seconds) presents a matching list of pages and documents. Try to find what you need in the back of the desk drawer that quick… or worse yet, the floor of the closet.
A (Constant) WIP!
The whole process is a work in progress, in a constant state of evolution. I created a few spaces to start, and began adding pages. Scanned a few bills and receipts in, found a few user manuals, made some random notes.
As patterns emerged, I created new spaces and moved related documents into those. The “front” page in each space evolved too, displaying important pages I access frequently. Mostly I just use the “search” feature to find what I need.
The effort has been worth it. It was a little difficult at first, going through old documents, deciding what to keep, scanning them all in, and organizing them in a sane way. But it’s great being able to find what I need almost immediately, all in one place.