Harry Smith

First Order Retreivability

A simple system from Adam Savage to make you more productive, more organised and more effective at everything

Adam Savage know a thing or two about success. Model Builder & special effects expert at the infamous Industrial Light & Magic. Co-host of Mythbusters. Proprieter of the excellent Tested youtube channel. His ‘man-cave’ is a physical manifestation of his talent. A treasure trove of tools, equipment and personal projects.

One of the keys to Savage’s insane skill and productivity is his organisation. His tool racks are nothing short of beautiful. Each tool relates to its neighbour. No tool is behind another. You can see everything in a glance. He has a name for this principle of organisation. First Order Retreivability.

‘You don’t need to move any tool to access another.'

Look at the work of a master in any field and you’ll find this principle applied. The lines of tongs and hammers of a blacksmith. Or the well organised doctors bag. A master knows their tools like they know ther own body.

To design a system that is first order retreivable it must achieve three core ideals:

Immediate Access

You access each tool without moving another. It is crucial that you can sight every tool in a glance. This allows the master to see all the tools available to him when solving a problem. Immediate tool retreival allows a state of flow, and thus skilled creative work. Time is not spent searching for tools, everything has its place.

Tool Relationships

The master has considered the relationship between tools in depth. This encourages the development of profound insight into your workflows. When you design processes with deliberation they become skillful. The correct tools in the correct order makes work effecient. Effeciency allows more volume while maintaining the same quality - or exceeding it.

High Specificity

The master spares no expense in the production of specific tooling, racks, storage and systems to manage the tools of their trade. They put a great deal of effort and time into this. They are unique to the individual, a fingerprint of their mastery. Much as a logger must first sharpen his axe, a master must first order his tools.

We can restate the principle in more general terms. ‘A system where the exact and correct object is within a single step is first order retrievable’. That is a lot to unpack, let’s consider some examples.


You’ve heard of mis en place. This french cooking term refers to the setup stage before the cooking. Gathering of ingredients and equipment. Slicing and dicing of them and organising into bowls. Preperation of sauces, gravies and dressings. This is a form of first order retreivability. This phase is important because of the time critical nature of cooking . Once the product hits the heat the clock is ticking. If everything isn’t ready, and easy to access, you lose time and things start to burn.


Todo lists and project management get bogged down when you have to go looking for what to do next. A first order retrievable productivity system allows you to see exactly the tasks you should do next, within in your given time restraints and context. For example, in my own system I am able to filter tasks by location, time available and energy. In the mornings I’m looking for long tasks with a high energy requirement. But after dinner I want to knock off some easy wins. I don’t have to go hunting, a single step is all it takes to retreive the right information.

Note Taking

The only way to prevent your notes from being an information graveyard is to make sure you can access them in a single step. Your must index your notes in such a way that you immediately know where to put a note, and where to retreive it from. If there is any cognitive delay you will stop using the system to its full effect.


There is a famous Steve Jobs design story about the software to burn data to CD on mac. This process sounds simple, but has a monstrous amount of detail. The engineers responsible knew Jobs liked simplicity. So they endevoured to make their software as simple as possible. As soon as they presented it they knew they had made a mistake. The design was excellent, but it still had too many options.

Jobs drew the new design on a whiteboard. He drew a rectangle and said “Here’s the new application. It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says BURN. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make." And that is what they made.

When you consider the design of anything keep in mind first order retreivability. In an ideal world, whatever action the user is trying to take should be a single step. Removing as many steps as possible is a forcing function for good, well considered design. The only way to do it is with a deep understanding of the problem, and empathy for the user.


Atomic Habits is an outrageous succes and needs no introduction. It uses first order retreivability to make and break habits. If you want to stop watching TV, and you put the TV in the cupboard, you no longer can access the TV in a single step. In fact it will take many steps to access: you need to get it out, put it in a room, plug it in. Every step increases the resistence to you doing it. The reverse is also true. Put your workout gear right in front of you when you wake up, and you remove a crucial step. Every step you remove reduces your resistance and increases the chance of success.


Take a look at the space that you work in with this principle in mind. Are you operating from the command center of your own little dominion? Or is it a thicket of papers and detritus that you call ‘organised chaos’? You can not underestimate the effectiveness of effeciency in workplace performance. Wasting less time between tasks will make you look superhuman. When everything is first order retreivable you can see everything that you need to do and the resources that you need to do them. When you need to avert a crisis, the tools to do so are at your fingertips.


A first order retrievable home is a tidy home. Why? Because it takes no more than a single step to put anything back where it belongs. By definition, everything has a paticular place that it goes. There are no cupboards shoved full of pots and pans. No wardrobes you have to jam shut. If you don’t have to go digging for the hoover everytime you need it, you’ll hoover more. When you embrace this concept you’ll find that ‘tidying as you go’ becomes unconcious. To do anything else would be madness.

Getting Started

It takes an hour or so to start applying this principle to your life. Take a space or area in your workspace or home. This could be your desk or it could be a single drawer. Something that you use often and access a lot. You could even start with the cutlery drawer.

Get everything out and lay it out on a big flat surface. Spend some time asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I need this?
  2. How often do I use this?
  3. What things do I use this in conjunction with?

Based on your answers you can begin to arrange and group the items that you have. You’ll need to store them again in such a manner that you can retreive everything in a single step. Use as many small tubs, racks, and dividers as you need.

Give it a few weeks. As you use the new organised system, you will adapt it as flaws arise. What do you notice? Is it more joyful? Do you use these items more often? It can be, if you’re like me, pretty fun.

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