Stop using keywords (or tags) like an archivist. Think like a writer

September 8, 2022 | minutes read

As part of your digital organization journey, you’re likely using a combination of two strategies to organize your digital database:

  1. Using folders/directories for imposing structure and creating well-defined categories
  2. Leveraging keywords to overcome the constraints of either-or categories.

While choosing keywords may seem simple at first, it’s a skill that develops overtime and improves with deliberate practice. Ineffective keyword selection creates challenging situations, where you are either unable to retrieve documents based off of the original keywords you chose, or where you spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the document.

We’ve all been there, and it’s not fun.

Below is a quote that Laura Look from BitSmith Software wants to save for future use. In sharing it, she exemplifies how finicky choosing the right keywords can be challenging:

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

William Ross Wallace

If the above quote were tucked away in your digital database without any keywords assigned (or the wrong keywords), then you would be in a bind. Searching for the tags mother or children or parenting  would fail to return this quote in the search results.

So what can you do to be more effective when choosing keywords?

Best practices

When tagging a file with a keyword, don’t jump the gun and choose the first keywords that pop into your head. Pause. Wait a moment … reflect … and then:

  1. Think about your future self
  2. Scan your existing keywords
  3. Keep your list of indexes sparse

1. Think about your future self

Think about the context in which you will need this article again

Ask yourself this: why are you even investing time and energy into your personal information management? What’s the point? Are you someone who enjoys collecting — an archiver? Or are you looking to do something with the material — a writer? For most of us, the value of digital organization is that it enables us to unleash our creativity. As Daniel Wessel puts it, the whole point of organizing your creativity is to “Keep the focus on the product, what you create, not the organization for the product.”

So, as a creative, how do you avoid turning into an archivist? Or if you are already an archivist, how do you break out of that role? Sonke Ahdrins suggests that you change your mode of thinking. Instead of wondering where you are going to store the document, think about how you will retrieve it.

Before saving a document and tagging it with any keywords, ask yourself:

In which circumstance will I want to stumble upon this [document], even if I forget it

Sonke Ahrins

Reflect on the topics (e.g. glucose levels as it relates to diabetes, cold exposure and hormone excretion) for which you might want to use later. When assigning keywords, always always always have an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in — never never never save a document in isolation.

2. Review your existing index of keywords

As mentioned in the previous section, saving and tagging a document is not an isolated activity. You must always consider the context: context is key. To that end, acquaint yourself with your existing keywords; most software applications provide some sort of view that lists all your keywords as well as the number of items tagged with each keyword. This review serves as a reminder for the topics that spark your interest. Routinely reviewing your keyword index is a habit that  pays dividends in the future back when you want to search for something specific.

If you don’t periodically review all your keywords, then you may end up creating duplicate keywords that have the same semantic meaning and polluting your keyword database, undermining one of the fundamental benefits of keywords: enabling you to quickly jump to a topic of interest.

3. Keep your list of keywords sparse

“keep your index easy to manage by concentrating on the context when an article will actually be needed”

You need to be stingy with the keywords you select. Be stingy. Choose them sparsely. It’s one of those things where less is better. Think of it like a digital diet. By keepign your index easy to manage, you concentrate on the context when an article is needed.


Not rushing when choosing keywords improves your digital organization fitness. Before saving and tagging documents, scan your existing bodies of work, and see where this document might fit in the larger scheme. Review your existing keywords. Work with your system. And most importantly:

Practice, practice, practice.


  1. Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking, 2022.
  2. Look, Laura. “Using Personal Knowbase to Organize Quotations | Personal Knowbase Blog,” November 27, 2018.
  3. Look, Laura. “Tips for Selecting Keywords in Personal Knowbase | Personal Knowbase Blog,” February 2, 2018.
  4. Wessel, Daniel. Organizing Creativity, 2012.

I’m Matt Chung. I’m a software engineer, seasoned technology leader, and father currently based in Seattle and London. I love to share what I know. I write about topic developing scalable & fail-safe software running in the AWS cloud, digital organization as a mechanism for unlocking your creativity, and maximizing our full potentials with personal development habits.

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