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Vertical vs horizontal organizers

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Posted by kjxymzy
Apr 18, 2018 at 09:12 PM


John Perry writes on vertical vs horizontal organizers:


Vertical organizers can stack/hide things and have no problem with retrieval. They are masters of the filing cabinet:

> The main mark of a vertical organizer is the ability to make use of filing cabinets. These people use filing cabinets to store materials in that they intend to use just an hour or a day or a week later. When they need that stuff again, they reach into the filing cabinet, pull out the folder and resume working on it.


> Yesterday I was working on a letter to the Palo Alto Medical Clinic explaining why my bill is screwed up and I don’t owe them as much money as they think I do. It’s pretty complicated stuff, and I didn’t finish by the time I had to leave. A vertical organizer would have scooped this stuff up, and put it in a file to retrieve later. Had I done this, there would be a bare spot on my desk. These bare spots are the mark of vertical organizers. They are a dead give away.

> Now of course that is not what I did at all. I left the letter on the desk, with the materials spread out. Actually, it is not exactly on the desk, because some other ongoing projects were already be spread there; the letter and supporting documents are on top of half-graded papers, half-written lectures, half-read brochures and the like.

Perry then defines the ‘horizontal organizer’ as someone who needs everything out in the open. Anything out of sight is completely out of mind never to be thought of again:

> The fact is, I am a horizontal organizer. I like all the things I am working on spread out on a surface in front of me, where they can beckon me to continue working on them. When I put something in a file, I never see it again. The problem isn’t that I can’t find it (although that has happened), but that I don’t look. I am constitutionally incapable of opening a filing cabinet and fishing out a half-finished project to resume working on it.

Perry notes how the world favors vertical organizers and leaves vertical organizers at a disadvantage. He suggests a giant lazy susan as the filing cabinet equivalent for horizontal organizers:
> And that is the problem for horizontal organizers, too. The whole world is set up to help keep vertically organized people on top of things, through the use of filing cabinets. All horizontally organized people have are desks, the tops of filing cabinets, nearby chairs and the floor. If some thought were put into a good document storage and retrieval system for horizontally organized people, we could be as organized and neat as anyone else.
> Here is my idea. Instead of a desk, I would like to have a very large lazy susan in my office. A lazy susan is a thing like one has at the large tables at Chinese restaurants.


> I think something about fifteen feet in diameter would be about right for my office. My whole life would be spread out on this lazy susan. It could have little pie shaped areas that are labeled with letters of the alphabet. When I had gotten as far as I could with the letter to the Medical Clinic I would have just turned the lazy susan around to the right quadrant and placed the materials there. (I suppose the right letter would be “M” for “Medical”. Maybe “C” for “Clinic”. Or maybe “L” for “letter” or “U” for “Unfinished” or “S” for “Something I’m upset about”. I’m sure that if I had a lazy susan I would get the knack of making this sort of decision.)

> With my projects laid out on my lazy susan, they would each have a claim on my attention that they could never have if they were filed away. And yet they would be neatly organized, just as organized as if I were a vertical organizer.

Do you consider yourself a horizontal or vertical organizer?

And to make this more relevant to the forum, what software out there meets the needs of a horizontal organizer that needs everything out in the open?


Posted by avernet
Apr 18, 2018 at 10:27 PM


Interesting read, and thank you for sharing.

Describing people as “horizontal organizers” sounds like an oxymoron to me; instead, “disorganized” feels more accurate. I see people as having:

- more or less tolerance with uncertainty;
- more or less of a liking for thinking about systems.

How would you rate yourself? If you have a low tolerance for uncertainty and like to think about systems, my guess is that you’ll be drawn to methodologies like GTD and to tools like those discussed in this forum. In essence, you’ll be what John Perry describes as a “vertical organizer”.

Consequently, I don’t think that it is tools that are better built for “vertical organizer”, but rather “horizontal organizers” that are less drawn to tools.



Posted by Dellu
Apr 19, 2018 at 01:11 AM


John Perry must be top-down thinker, like I am.

Being able to glimpse through all my notes (see the big picture and their possible relations) while still working on one of them is the main reason why I like Scapple over other mind-mapping applications.

The horizontal organization gives a lot of sense.  It doesn’t hide information; there is nothing hidden or buried inside a cabinet that could potentially bugs   your mind.  You don’t miss the big picture when focusing on the microscopic. That is the kind of organization I would also like to have. I call myself “top down” thinker because my brain doesn’t function well unless I have the big picture first.


Posted by Hugh
Apr 19, 2018 at 01:25 PM


Any space for a “diagonal” organiser, using the best of both styles at different times? Or better still, a “dialoguing” organiser, where each style of organisation is used to “interrogate” the topic at different times in order to discover new insights and to compare and contrast them?

It seems to me that it could be an error to be too rigid about these matters.


Posted by Franz Grieser
Apr 19, 2018 at 02:06 PM


What a strange distinction. When working on a large project - say a book - it’s not “either/or”, you can only succeed when combining a vertical and a horizontal approach (or top-down and bottom-up to use Dellu’s wording).

A horizontal approach may suffice when you write a book that has only 119 pages as does the German translation of Perry’s book (a funny and thought-provoking read). In this case, you might be able to stay on top of things when spreading out all the pages (as Perry suggests). But try to do that for a book of 300 pages…

I’d say that’s one of the reasons why most of the tools we discuss here allow you to look at the big picture and to zoom in on details. Any 2-pane outliner gives you both a horizontal+vertical view and a detail view. The same is true of word processors such as Word, OpenOffice Writer, Textmaker (with the navigation pane opened) or Scrivener.


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