PMBAProductivity & Effectiveness

Bit Literacy – 3

Bit Literacy -  la Productivité à l'Âge de l'Information et du trop-plein d'Emails 


Note : This week I am testing a new way of publishing: I will post this article in 4 sections, published throughout the week. What do you think? Do you like this better or would you prefer a complete report every time? Let me know through your comments 😉 . The first part is here, and the second there.

  • Chapter 7: Managing Photos

Everyone who was born before 1990 will remember how we handled photos before digital photography: each step in the photo cycle was defined by a single thing – cost. Film was expensive to purchase, and even more expensive to develop. Errors were costly. Often, at the moment of the photo, everyone posed, and you counted to three before taking the photo hoping that everything would turn out all right. It was only in special circumstances, like a wedding, that you took more than one photo of something. Once the photos were developed you kept them forever, even not very good ones.

Polaroids allowed us to use instant photos at a higher cost,  and poorer quality, and it was impossible to make copies.

Digital photography has completely changed that by offering photos instantly, of higher quality, and at a lower cost. Currently, taking one or 10 photos of the same subject costs the same price – zero – at least as long as you don’t print them. But ironically, this new era brings with it a new problem, common to all other digital information; you must manage the abundance of it. It’s not unusual for digital photo owners to have several thousand photos on their hard drive.

How do we recover from this? Information technology companies offer us tools that allow us to add notes to our photos  or to assign "tags" to them – descriptive keywords – so that we can find them easily. These tools are not complete, locking the user into a proprietary system and are not as efficient a real Bit Literacy method that can be applied to photos. Here is one, in three simple steps:

1 – Maximize the bits

The "film" for a digital camera is free, so make the most of it. Take several photos of the same subject, or at one, two or several second intervals. Try to vary the angles. Don’t hesitate to take one more photo "just in case."

2 – Filter

With several photos of the same subject you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Filtering means deleting all the photos that you don’t want to keep, including good photos that are almost the same as photos that you are going to keep. Certain users have difficulty doing that, especially when Aunt Marge smiles every time she looks at them on the computer screen. Try. It gets easier with practice. The "delete" button will become your best friend.

3 – Store in two levels 

Even photos that have been carefully filtered are of no use if users can’t find them. Without an appropriate storage method, they will fall into the same lack of order as the previous photos or get lost somewhere on the computer.

Here is a simple method for Bit Literacy:

Sort the photos in folders [year] -> [month-event]

That way sorting begins with the year. For example, if you started taking digital photos in 2004, then you will have folders named 2004, 2005, 2006, etc. up to the present year.

Within these folders you would create 12 sub-folders named for the months – using either numbers or letters.  To find things more easily, you could also add a short description to the folder if you had done something special at that time, for example [2006] -> 12-Trip to Sweden].

This system has several advantages; it’s simple, easy to maintain, and allows you to file all your photos year by year, once and for all, and find the photos you are looking for in no time – and all without using a single software application.

Note: I have been using a similar system for years – without describing events – to manage my more than 5,000 digital photos and I completely agree with the author on this point; there is no simpler or more efficient system.

Additionally, you can use a photo management software application which supports two level storage, like Google Picasa, but don’t get dependent on it. 

Important note: Backup your photos regularly using an external device such as a hard disk or a thumb drive. And backing up means that your data should be stored on at least two different devices – the internal hard drive on your computer and a thumb drive, for example 😉 .


  • Chapter 8 : Creating Bits

If you have something to say, do it in a concise manner. Every time you send an email, take a photo or create a web page, you are adding a droplet to an ocean that is already deep.

Digital information today is powerful and in abundance. The resource that is scarce is the time available to people receiving your messages. Becoming Bit Literate implies that you respect this scarce resource.

That means:

    • When you write an email, be concise and to the point.
    • When you show photos, only show the best ones, never show copies of similar photos or bad photos.
    • When you create a web site, ensure that the goal for your site is clear on your home page at first glance.

No matter what, the second question to ask yourself is "Is it really necessary?" Apply Occam’s Rule to everything you create.

Two ideas are useful for this: important things first, and structure.

– Important Things First 

Always communicate the objective of the message as quickly as possible. When an email arrives in your inbox, the first thing that the user sees is the header (the subject line or the purpose of the email). Write relevant and concise titles if you want your correspondents to read them.

The most important idea or the purpose of the message is called the hook. So applying this method requires talking about the hook as quickly as possible, then end the message as quickly as you can afterwards. But what is between the hook and the end of the message? The support, which includes any necessary information to explain or support the hook.

– Structure

Therefore a Bit Literacy compatible email should use the following structure:

  1. Subject, which includes the hook
  2. Greetings
  3. Hook (repeated)
  4. Support
  5. End

Of course, some emails don’t need greetings or support, but this general structure can be applied to most emails.

But emails are not enough, all digital messages, whatever they are – web sites, Powerpoint presentations, Word documents – should adopt a Bit Literacy compatible structure by following these steps:

  1. Context: document title, author’s name, date, introduction (optional)
  2. Hook
  3. Support
  4. Appendix (optional): a collection of resources for those who wish to go further

Some additional advice:

State the obvious. Avoid ambiguities; the reader should be able to understand the message without asking for clarification.

Avoid relative dates. Tomorrow or today loose all meaning really quickly.

Remember that bits are everywhere and forever. Never write an email that you wouldn’t want to send to the whole planet.

Never send emails while you are mad. Rather than write an email while you are feeling angry, let it wait for at least a day before clicking irrevocably on the Send button.

– Emails are a poor mechanism for conveying emotions and subtle signals. That’s why we invented 🙂 and 😉 . Avoid using this means for sending this type of message and use the phone instead, or even better, do it in person.

  • Chapter 9: File Format

It’s very easy to forget how important file format is, and truthfully, it’s not necessary to be an expert in the field, but Bit Literacy practitioners should understand the basics.

Every Windows file uses 3 letters after its name to indicate its file format (but it is hidden by default in Windows). Thus a Word document has the suffix .doc (or .docx for the latest 2007 version), a picture can have different suffixes like .jpg, .bmp, .png, etc., PDF files have the suffix .pdf. In general, most applications have their own file format and can also work with other formats whether they are universal, like JPG and XML or proprietary like .doc.

The extension tells Windows which program to use to open the file. So if you rename your file rapport.doc to rapport.pdf, then Acrobat Reader will try to open a Word file, and obviously…

Extensions are meaningless on Macs unless they are networked with PCs. 

Note: I won’t expand on this subject, others have talked about it sufficiently well on the web, for example, see this excellent Wikipedia article.

To be continued… 😉

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