Pure Danger Tech


Garbage Collection in Use

26 Jan 2009

Yesterday my wife and I took a stab yet again at getting our files under control. Neither of us like filing or pretend to be any good at it but it’s a sad fact of life today that every important account, service, and item you buy has a trail of paper streaming behind it. And that paper often needs to be stored for tax reasons or for reference or “just in case”. If you want to be an adult, you naturally have to deal with this mess.

For years I’ve been struggling to manage this paper explosion since I hate filing slightly less than my wife does. In some sense, the need to find a proper organizational pattern and put things in their proper place hits some pleasure center in my nerd brain. Well, for the first few minutes at least.

My plan for the last few years has been to sort things by purpose (investment, credit card, house, etc). I had a set of long-term files for this stuff, scattered throughout filing cabinets and filing boxes down in the basement. Over the course of a year or so, the stuff would accumulate in a set of temporary files (loosely organized in the same way) and about once a year, usually around tax time, I’d finally get around to moving stuff from short-term to long-term. This kind of worked.

It also kind of didn’t work. Every time I would go to move short-term to long-term, I’d run out of space in either the folder or the drawer which would cause a cascade of folder moves and splits that caused this task to grow ever more painful. That also made me want to do it less so I would put it off longer, thus making it that much worse, in an ever increasing feedback cycle.

Yesterday, I gave up on this system and moved to a new system. I’m now going to organize stuff by year and put everything from a year together. I’ve also put stuff in categories within each year but I can be a little more sloppy about it by merging many similar categories (that previously had to be split due to their size over time).

The upside is that when a year is over, I take all the short term files I have from the last year and put them in a box and I’m done. I don’t have to re-merge all that crap back into prior files. The downside is that if I need to find something and I’m not sure what year it was, I need to go through potentially a bunch of different files to find it. All in all, I think I still optimized for normal usage though as I used to spend hours or days doing this merging junk but I rarely need to go back and find something older than a year (and even then it’s just a matter of checking 3-4 folders instead of one).

It struck me that I’ve basically moved from a mark-sweep-compact garbage collector to a generational garbage collector. And I seem to be getting a lot of the same benefits. It’s a lot easier to prune dead files now too – I just throw the oldest box away instead of going through every file looking for old stuff. Finally I’ve found a practical use for my data structure and algorithms knowledge. :)

One other idea we both had was that it would be a huge time-saver if there was a federal mandate that every form or statement printed anywhere in the US should have the date printed in the upper right corner!