Tracking Numbers 
(In Personal Information Management)

For a good understanding of the Tracking Number concept I recommend to watch  the Tracking Number episode published on YouTube. Below you can also read the transcript of this episode. 

Transcript Tracking Numbers

[Start transcript]


Welcome to the first episode of the productivity tips series.  Today I would like to tell you about tracking numbers in Personal Information Management. I have been using these marvels for many years, and they helped me a lot in my efforts to stay organized.  

Numbers are often used to track things and document and even people.  For instance: parcels have tracking numbers, invoices are often linked to order numbers and people have social security numbers. However, in a knowledge-workers environment the use of identifying numbers is not very common.  I use tracking numbers in an international R&D environment in communications with co-workers, internal customers and external partners.

In this episode I want to demonstrate the use of these tracking numbers. 

Example workflow

During the course of a project, like for instance writing a report for a customer, a lot of related documents are generated.  At the start you have correspondence with the customer about: the scope of the project, the quotation, the contracts, and the invoicing.  Before you can start writing you need to gather information by for instance: brainstorming, collecting literature, and discussion with specialists. When the draft report is finished you can have a review and approval cycle, generating again more documents. It is not always easy to retrieve all documents related to a project.  Especially if you have many project running in parallel.

Example 'info explosion'

Example: Related information generated during  a project

 I will demonstrate the use of document tracking numbers using the following short workflow: Write a draft report Email the report to reviewers to ask for their comments. Organize a meeting to discuss the comments. After the review cycle collect comments from: emails, Telephone notes, Meeting notes and hardcopies.  And finally, update the report.

Adding tracking numbers

The principle of using a tracking number in Personal Information Management is simple: add a unique number to all related documents. In this case we start by adding a number to the draft report. 

There are several ways of generating unique numbers. You can make them by just typing in a couple of random digits.  In another Episode I will show how a number can be generated and pasted by using a great program called auto hotkey.  But for now, I derive the number manually by putting together the year the month the day and the time. 

Now it starts getting more interesting.  When you send the report to the reviewers, you want to trace all returned comments and discussions. Therefore add the tracking number to the body of the email. My experience is that recipients do not notice this number, because it is meaningless for them, and nearly all will reply to the email, leaving in, the original body of the email, containing the tracking number. 

When you send out something you want response on, it is always good to set a reminder for yourself.   There are several ways of setting reminders and I use outlook-tasks for this.    To create a task, simply drag the email from the Sent Items folder to the tasks folder. An Outlook task will be automatically generated, with the title and contents of the email, of course, the tracking number.  An outlook-task is not only useful as a reminder for this unfinished work, but you can also use it to store notes related to this project, like actions you have taken and  notes made during  telephone calls.

Retrieving documents

After sowing tracking numbers, the time comes to harvest.  In this example the outlook task would remind me to start working on the report again.  When I set myself behind the desk, I quickly want to find: the report, the comments, the meeting minutes and the notes I made. 

To find back documents using a tracking number you need a Desktop Search Application.  The advantage of a desktop search application is that search results are returned in a few seconds no matter how many files you have stored on your computer.  If you have Windows 7 or Windows Vista, you won't even need any extra software because the functionality is already built in.  If you use Windows XP you can download free Desktop search applications like: “Microsoft Windows Search”, or “Google Desktop”.  Mac Users can try “Spotlight”. 

Finding related documents

Left: Tracking number in email
Right: Related documents found with Windows Desktop Search.

In this example I entered the tracking number in Windows Desktop Search. If you have correctly, configured your search application, it does not matter where you store the files, because, it can search in: Microsoft Outlook, on your hard drive, and on the local area network. 

Here are the draft report, and the email I sent with request for comments, and the invitation for a review meeting.  Here are the comments I received and the meeting minutes.   I also notice that Peter had sent me comments on the meeting minutes.  

When emails came in during the review cycle, I only briefly scanned them to see if they perhaps contain questions that need to be answered. If the emails only contained comments, I would directly move them to my archive folder, knowing that when the time comes to work on the report, I can find the comments back easily. Moving emails I am not working on, helps me keeping my inbox uncluttered. 

Here is the task that reminded me to re-start working on the report, and also contained some notes.  As you can see I have everything together to start updating the report. 

Finding back 'interesting stuff'

In this example I used a tracking number to retrieve a set of related documents; you can also use a number to find back a single file. You probably also receive a lot of documents you do not need at this moment, but you would like to store because they could be useful in the future. Like .e.g. articles, pricelists, information from a suppliers, or as in this example a guideline.  You may be tempted to make a print of the document and put it in a hardcopy folder with a title like “interesting stuff” but you have probably already experienced that these kind of folders rapidly grow in size and moreover, in a couple of months the items are already obsolete. 

So how can you use tracking numbers for storing and retrieving interesting documents for possible future use? First add a tracking number to the subject line of the email. If you are also a fan of: David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ time management system, you may already have a number of lists with, for instance, action items, and waiting for items. In this example I have a excel list with references to interesting documents.  I add a short description of the file and the tracking number, and remove the email from my inbox folder.  And again, it does not matter if I store the email in a Microsoft outlook environment or on a network drive. I also do not have to bother to put it in, for instance, a well defined reference article folder, because, if I look in my interesting document list and find the tracking number I can find the article  back wherever it is stored,  using the desktop search application. To find the back the document, just copy the number and paste it in desktop search.   

Findind a reference document

Right: List with reference documents.
: Referenced documents found with Windows Desktop Search

 I hope you enjoyed this Episode about tracking numbers and look forward seeing you again with one of my other episodes on productivity tips .   
[End Transcript]