How to Experience Curating with FAOCAS: “O” is for Organize

How to Organize

This is the third article about the FAOCAS (read: focus) process of Experience Curating. If you’re new to this series or the concept of Experience Curating, click here for the article introducing curating your existence.


There are roughly infinity things to say about organizing your archived experiences.

Yes, infinity. Really.

The “O” in the Experience Curating FAOCAS process – organize – is worthy of its own book. It can motivate, scare, awe, or spark any kind of emotion.

However, your attention demands that I give you the best wisdom in the shortest time.

Warning: some over-simplification ahead. Act accordingly.

Unlike the previous Experience Curating (EC) posts about filtering and archiving, my organizing challenge is where to start and end.

I say we let history be our guide, right Francis?

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible.” – Francis of Assisi

So let’s do that: start with what’s necessary and end with what’s possible.

1. Categories

The most important organizing principle in EC, or really in any system, is the skillful use of categories.

Categories are the building blocks for everything.

“Is it this… or is it that? Is this thing like this other thing, or is it more like these other things?”

Answering these questions makes Wikipedia, road intersections, the Dewey Decimal System, and other important things possible.

Humans inherently categorize and sub-categorize. But we do it craptasticly when left to our own devices. We simply weren’t trained as kids or adults to categorize properly (minus the Sesame Street segments about “one of these things is not like the other”).

But how deep do you explore the depths of categories?

Well… it depends.

When I created The Digital Launch Playbook, there were twenty-five main categories and forty-eight sub-categories for project launch tasks. My personal version of the playbook has “mini-categories” to further slice-and-dice sub-categories, but that granular level would overwhelm or be overkill for most people.

So the public version focused on what was necessary with streamlined main categories and optional sub-categories. The need was met and I stopped there.

However, I recommend testing the line you’ve drawn between necessary and possible often. You’ll know whether to expand or contract by navigating your category hierarchy a few times and seeing if it works (for you or someone else). Then refine how many categories are in each level and tweak the number of levels as your experiences build.

2. Let’s Get Logical

If categories are organizing’s building blocks, then logic is the glue that holds the blocks together.

Want to validate logically organized experiences? Write an instruction manual for the system (no joke). This can be as quick and informal as a tab in a spreadsheet explaining:

  • The purpose of each experience element (a.k.a. column)
  • Whether the column is required or optional
  • Acceptable information for each column (e.g. name, alpha-numeric, or a pre-defined list)
  • An example of what goes in each column
  • General notes

Curating Instructions

Curious yet? Click here for the full Google doc version of what this actually looks like.

Regardless of your curiosity level, you’re probably not as geeked up as me about creating procedures or documentation.

So the quickest way to ensure your system’s legit is to explain it without pictures to a ten-year-old.

The goal is to verify that your organizing is something other than smoke and mirrors. Because something as important as your best experiences deserves a better approach than one that simply feels right (and might royally suck later).

So if a ten-year-old can understand your system and how you’ve organized it without visual aids, then you’ve got yourself a logical system, partner!

Note: You must find your own ten-year-old.

3. It’s All Relative

Properly organized experiences are like a chat with your best friend.

You know who’s involved, what to say, where and when to meet, how you want to be treated, and why you care about each other. These personal relationship components – who, what, when, where, why, and how – double as experience elements that need to work together.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you’re a prolific writer and I come along (because I freakin’ love your work) to curate your best stuff.

However, I need to know the relationship of your words to many other things for a complete experience. That means I organize my archive with these elements:

  1. Where your words were published (e.g., website or book name).
  2. If anyone recommended or made me aware of a specific piece of work (a.k.a. “the hat tip”).
  3. The title of your work
  4. Whether the words came from you or a secondary source (e.g., a book review).
  5. Whether I’d benefit from reading your work more than once.
  6. My synopsis, takeaways, or context of your words.
  7. The master category since you write about parenting, sports, travel, religion, politics, and unicorn creation.
  8. The sub-category because your unicorn writing covers topics like what to feed a unicorn, whether they live in stables or airport hangers, and if they “neigh,” “purr,” or silently breathe rainbows from their nose.
  9. The publish date (since your best unicorn theories were written between March – May 2013).
  10. The archive date (because your words mean something different on the day they’re published compared to a decade later).
  11. Where to access your words (e.g., a website link or a bookshelf location)
  12. Keyword-rich tags that helps me easily search for items related to “pretty harnesses,” “best horn wax,” and “flying instructions.”

All these individual experience elements relate to and build upon each other. Together, they create a narrative and answer the questions of who, what, when, where, why and how.

4. Label

Here’s a puzzler: what’s the difference between simplicity and minimalism?

I love both and the movement(s) leaders often use “simplicity” and “minimalism” the same way. But every person has a unique definition of what simplicity or minimalism means. In my case, this determines how I categorize and sub-categorize content from my favorite bloggers.

The implication is that my curating systems only have one master category and one sub-category for each experience. This is awesome for sorting and filtering, but not so awesome for hard to classify experiences that may fit into multiple categories.

So when I read Courtney Carver’s “The Difference Between Simplicity and Minimalism,” my head explodes trying to categorize her blog post into the simplicity or minimalism category.

I mention this so you make sure your organizing is as granular as possible… and no more. An archive with 10,000 master categories is irrelevant – but on the flip side – an archive with two master categories like “This” or “That,” doesn’t help much.

Your solution might be allowing multiple master categories if an experience seems to inhabit more than one. Just know that you’ll have to EC troubleshoot regardless of what you do.

5. Troubleshoot

There’s no Experience Curating cavalry to save you from trouble.

Since you can’t find a housekeeper to declutter or dust your archive, your best bet is to avoid the need for troubleshooting by remembering the following:

  1. Don’t rely on folders (physical or digital). We have better methods now than the folder within a folder approach.
  2. Color-coded organizing is a dark art. Color-blindness, transformation problems, and blinding people with your vibrant color schemes adds up to a bad idea. Save the color-coding for medicine, traffic lights, or electrical wiring. [tweet this]
  3. Use “Required,” “Optional,” and “Not Applicable (N/A).” For example, the experience creator is normally more important than the time it took to consume the experience. So the “who” is a required experience element, the “how long” is optional, and the “hat tip” is not applicable (N/A) because you stumbled upon the experience without help.
  4. Everything doesn’t fit into pre-defined values. This is where options like “General,” “Other,” and “Unavailable” become useful.

Final Organizing Thoughts

As critical as organizing, categories, taxonomy, and all that fun stuff is, Experience Curating is ineffective at best and useless at worst unless you keep going.

There’s still much to say about the other FAOCAS steps and “C” is up next: context.

For the comments: which organizing principle is your nemesis? Are there any organizing tips for curating that you rock at and would add to these steps?

Photo Credit: Amanda Krueger

9 Responses to How to Experience Curating with FAOCAS: “O” is for Organize

  1. Shanna says:

    It think the part about explaining it to a ten year old is the most important part. I have often found stuff in my files and wondered “why did I think this was important?”

    This leads to wasted time and second-guessing. Do not recommend.

  2. Denise says:

    No folders or color-coding – yes! I agree. With a few exceptions, those systems rarely work for me either. My organizing nemesis is probably complicated or out-of-sight systems. What works best is labels that use the fewest and most simple words possible and ease of visible access. It can’t be a secret folder/icon where I have to click 10 things to get to it.

    • You just foreshadowed one of the best practices of the second “A” of FAOCAS, Denise: Access. Every convoluted way to access your system is a disincentive to actually use it. I’ve had the secret folder/icon thing too where I just give up trying to find it. Why bother, right?

      Now… simple and literal labels on the other hand…

      I can’t tell you how many experiences I’ve seen and systems I’ve navigated have had terrible labels. Denoting that a cabinet contains “Stuff” doesn’t help me much. Labeling it “Emergency Supplies (Grab When House is Burning)” is what I’m talking about. If you have any other organizing “no-no”s up your sleeve that I missed, let ’em rip!

  3. Erin says:

    Label! Ack! I fall down the rabbit hole of labeling whenever I have to tag/categorize/otherwise apply a label to…well, pretty much anything. I like things to be super neat, which means I split hairs that have already been split. And then I can’t remember which of the 87,000 tags I use in a particular situation. Twitter lists, Evernote tags, Gmail labels…you name it, I go overboard and get frustrated.

    • I empathize with your predicament as a big tagger and labeler myself. We know we need more than two (“this” or “that”) and that we need to keep the simplicity level below infinity. But where’s the sweet spot? That’s the toughy since it’s different for each person. However, the greater your ability to use lists with drop-downs or to do a search for a specific label/tag that you think you already have, the better off you’ll be. Evernote is robust like that. Twitter lists and Gmail labels? Not so much. So the level of organizational simplicity needs to adjust for the limits of the system. That, or you need to use more spreadsheets.

  4. Ethan says:

    I love this. I’ve always wondered if my categories were the “right” categories. I’m happy to report, that I have NEVER fallen victim to the trap of color coding things.

    One of the most disorganized places in my digital domain used to be my Evernote account. I used to use just one big notebook with lots of tags. The problem was that if I didn’t tag things (which I frequently didn’t), it was a jumbled mess. Now I have lots of different notebooks (categories), with specific tags that I use within them. However, now I go through and tag things every few weeks and it’s not difficult because everything is already at least in the proper category.

    • Pretty groovy, Ethan! I’m always interested to know how people use Evernote, especially in a quasi or full-on curating way. It doesn’t abide by a number of Experience Curating best practices (which they can be forgiven for since they don’t know what they are… yet), but then again, no system abides by them all. Sounds like a great set up you have going on over there, man.

  5. I’ve been pretty happy with my organization as of late, but I’m not conscientious enough about keeping up with the hat tip. I miss out on a lot of opportunities to highlight friends and network further by not giving a simple thanks or h/t in my online posting.

    I’m going to really work at that over the next few weeks to get into the habit of it.

    • Don’t be too hard on yourself for missing hat tip chances, Michael. I only recently added a “Hat Tip” column to my main online content curating spreadsheet and kicked myself for not doing it a long time ago. But as our awareness and savvy grows, our ability to (somewhat) effortlessly apply all the concepts of FAOCAS increases. So your commitment to start doing the “HT” more is all you can do right now, and that’s pretty awesome.

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