A Minimalist Approach to Organization
I have spent a lot of time experimenting with organizational systems. Ironically, I have probably put more time into re-doing my organization over the years than I have put into actual organizing! Eventually, I settled on one method that minimizes the use of folders. I cannot promise that it will be at all useful for anyone else, but it has served me well for the last ten years or so. Basically, there are two guidelines I follow.
(1) I Put Everything in One Place
When I have everything in one place, browsing through my materials is a lot easier, and a single search can tell me what I have. If I cannot find it there, it means that it does not exist.
Physically, this means designating a bookshelf or some other place in my home for papers. All of the papers go in manila envelopes or clear folders and get put there (since going paperless, I have reduced the space needed from several bookcases to just a few inches on one bookshelf).
Digitally, I replicate this by putting all of my files into one folder (see exceptions below). Of course, I have physical and digital backups of critical data stored somewhere else, but these do not get regularly accessed. In my opinion, having everything in a single location is one of the keys to successful organization, especially if you are going paperless.
(2) I Name Files with Dates (YYMMDD) and Keywords
I have one rule of thumb for organization: name everything with YYMMDD and keywords. Today's note for my research journal is named "120424 journal tuesday." That's it.
It is a good idea to make a "style" note with any naming conventions you want to maintain over time. Initially, it might be difficult to remember, but after a few days, you probably will not need to refer to it anymore. These are the main keywords I use:
- "listening" -- Classes, lectures, conferences, etc. I have attended. A typical one will have something like "120219 listening history 840" in the title.
- "reading" -- My notes on materials I have read (120424 reading mayo christopher 2012). It also includes translations of sources I have made.
- "speaking" -- presentations, lectures, etc. (120424 speaking workshop ipad).
- "writing" -- original work by me: papers, dissertation, etc. (120424 writing fellowship funding application).
- "clipping" -- Material taken from a larger source: web pages I clip from a site (120424 clipping east asian department guidelines), forum posts, blogs, or scanned pages from a book.
- "correspondence" -- Emails, chats with customer service, letters, etc. (120424 correspondence email john smith).
- "journal" -- My daily research journal (120424 journal tuesday).
- "record" -- receipts, important papers, etc. (120424 record small world coffee).
No rules would be complete without exceptions! Below are some conventions I use for optimizing my approach to organization.
- Published Sources. Published sources follow a different naming scheme. PDFs of books, journal articles, and so forth have an "author name + publication date" format. For example, a PDF of an article I wrote earlier this year is called "mayo christopher 2012." I'll complete another article later this year, and that will be named "mayo christopher 2012b." Scanned materials, completed projects, and everything else goes into a single folder on my computer called "ARCHIVE." With few exceptions, I have no sub-folders.
- Current Projects. Current projects go into a new folder at the beginning of every month. For this month, it is "120501". If there is a project I am carrying over from last month, like the files in my "disseration" folder, then I copy it (the "dissertation" sub-folder in my "120401" folder) into the one for the new month ("120501"). The old folder gets dumped into "ARCHIVE", and I save regular backups of "ARCHIVE" onto external hard drives that I store in separate physical locations. Obviously, this generates a tremendous amount of redundancy, because I now have copies of my dissertation stretching back for years. That is a good thing when you are dealing with bits and bytes! I think of it as a manual Time Machine (backup system for Apple's Macintosh computers).
Folder Hierarchies Are OK
There's nothing wrong with weaponized GTD, 43 folders, or any of the other systems people devise to stay organized. In fact, my approach to naming is entirely compatible with a complex system of nested folders, and I can certainly see why someone might want to do that, especially if they are collaborating with others who may not derive much benefit from dating that is only relevant for the person who made the file or folder in the first place.
Why have I given up on traditional filing methods? I have found the main barrier to organization for me is the psychological toll it takes to categorize and file everything (class handouts, fliers, pamphlets, bills, receipts, junk mail, etc.), and I prefer to expend this energy in my research instead.
The Theory Behind My Approach
Organization for me starts with refusing to organize. I got this from organizational guru Noguchi Yukio's filing system. In his "Chō" seiri hō「超」整理法 system (published in several books) he recommends sticking every piece of paper you get into a large envelope with a title and date on the outside. You place this on the left side of a shelf that you have cleared off for your files. Do this every day and you will have hundreds of envelopes lined up on the shelf in order by date. In the days before I went paperless, I had several shelves packed with these. I was originally inspired to do this by a fellow translator in Japan, William Lise, who posted about how he stays organized. He has since removed the page from his site, but you can find it on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
It probably sounds like a nightmare to classification junkies, but the key to using this system is Noguchi's theory that we naturally remember things temporally, and not by artificial classification schemes. In other words, we will be more likely to remember "when" we classified something than "how" we did it. I've found this to be true for me.
Setting up the system is pretty straightforward, but using it is a little counter-intuitive. Every time you pull out a folder and access it, instead of putting it back in chronological order, you place it on the left. This addresses two problems: hoarding and quick access. Over time, stuff you never access naturally migrates to the right, and you can start throwing it away. In addition, papers you frequently access migrate to the left and can be quickly found. There are various modifications for important papers and so forth, but you get the idea.
Taking Noguchi's Method Digital
Noguchi's system is easily adapted for the digital environment, because many applications, and all operating systems, tell us when something was created or updated. I have used this system successfully with some of the incredible applications that we now have available for keeping organized: OneNote and bLADEWiki in Windows, VoodooPad in OSX/iOS, and Evernote everywhere.