Looking backwards

When I first started using Things to organize my daily tasks, I sat down and took the time to carefully craft a list of tags that I wanted to use. I knew what what kinds of tasks I’d be tagging, so I was able with some creativity to come up with a list that was succinct yet exhaustive. Having worked with that list of tags for a few months, I’ve only added one or two tags.

This tells me my system was a good one. Aside from not needing to expand the tag cloud, most tasks I only need to assign 1-2 tags per task, and and tasks inherit one more based on which project I stick them into. My tag filter bar is clean, and small enough to be useful even in lists with lots of tasks. When I posted the list in the Things wiki I got some very positive feedback. But having used the list religiously for a couple months, I have realized something: about 80% of my tags are completely useless.

This is because, up until now, I haven’t brought myself to noticed the obvious:

Tags are only useful if you need to find something.

Of course, it’s hard to tell when you’re first starting to tag whether you’ll actually use those tags down the road to find items easier. That’s actually one of the benefits of tagging: whether or not you use them, they’re easy to add.

The tricky bit is striking a long-term balance: if you tag willy-nilly with the assumption that it’s better to have lots of tags that you might search for someday than to have a few that you’ll definitely search for, you’re very likely to stop tagging sooner rather than later. Tagging may takes very little time but it adds up, and feeling obligated to attach a bunch of tags that you know you’ll never use is a quick route to tagging disillusionment (oh, the horror!).

So what’s to be done? Something really simple: look backwards.

You won’t be able to do this until you’ve been using a tagging tool for a while and you certainly don’t need to do it often, but every once in a while when it comes time to tag something, take a quick break and consider the tags you were planning to use. Have you ever searched for them? Have you even searched for tags similar to them?

When I planned out my grand Things tagging system, I included a subset of tags that described the type of task. I’m a web designer most of the day, so these were tags like “markup”, “styling”, “coding”, “research”, etc. Although I’ve faithfully used these tags with every task I’ve entered, I have never once filtered my list of tasks for any of them.

If I hadn’t taken a moment to look backwards, I might never have noticed this and would have kept wasting my time tagging tasks with tags that aren’t actually relevant to the task’s completion.

Of course, this example isn’t useful in all situations. Particularly in public and collaborative tagging systems, using tags that you’ve never searched for and might never search for can help others. Sometimes it’s a good idea to tag descriptively without worrying about the utility of your tags. But especially if you find yourself using a piece of tagging software that you originally loved less and less often, take a look backwards and ponder whether some of your tagging habits are just cruft that’s weighing you down. When you begin to tag things out of habit and not because the tags are useful, it’s the beginning of the end.

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