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‘Home > Insurance’ or ‘Insurance > Home’?

31st January 2021 | #faq

I had the following question via email from Alan in London, Ontario, Canada (reprinted here with permission).

One of the struggles that I have is whether - in your experience - things are better organized a) by the type of thing that it is, or b) by the subject of what it contains.

As a practical example, I study Slavic languages and accumulate and need to access large quantities of reference materials. Let’s say I have several textbooks in PDF format on some aspect of the Russian verbal system. Am I better off with a category such as:

20-29 Russian > 23 Textbooks and dictionaries > 23.02 Grammar textbooks


20-29 Russian > 25 Verbal system > 25.01 Verbal aspect

I like the system because it is so determinate, but there is always some nagging orthogonal dimension to almost every thing that I store. It seems that tagging can address the orthogonality - but it begs the question - tag by subject, tag by entity type?

This is my dilemma and I can see that the “epistemic hesitation” when trying to find a thing might take away some of the utility that I’d like to gain from the system.

Alan’s beautifully put email is a specific example of a very common question. That question most often comes in a more prosaic form, something like:

“Do I put my house insurance in a category ‘insurance’ within my ‘house’ area, or in a ‘house’ category within my ‘insurance’ area?”
10-19 House
11 Mortgage
12 Maintenance
13 Insurance// like this?


10-19 Insurance
11 Health
12 Car
13 House// or this?

And my answer to Alan:

The answer, alas, is ‘it depends’.

As of this moment I don't have a better answer than: just pick one, stick to the pattern, and trust your brain to figure it out. That’s why this is your system and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do it. I’ll give people the underlying structure, but ultimately it’s your brain that has to come up with the content.

As a back-stop you could always leave yourself a note in the ‘wrong’ folder, or set up an alias/link, but honestly I don’t think this is necessary. Pick one, use it three times, and your brain will look after the rest.

Sorry that isn’t more satisfying! But that’s the realistic truth of this system: there’s often no perfect solution. Don’t let that get in the way of implementing some solution, though. More organised is always better than less organised.