Don't organize: Search.
This is my own collection of best practices that I have developed and adapted from the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology. For background on GTD, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done
The thing I have found most important about using GTD is to be flexible. I have created my own implementation of GTD, and I'm not afraid to bend the rules when necessary. I also try not to get bogged down in process, because GTD should make things easier, not more difficult.
I used to carry a pen and paper to all of my meetings. I would take notes, and then file those papers in a folder for the relevant project. But I had a hard time locating those notes months or years later when I needed them. This, and working at Google, taught me that if data is not searchable, it's not very useful.
Now, I always attend meetings with my laptop. I have instant access to all of my information that way. I take meeting notes directly into an e-mail which I send to myself. Its searchable, permanent, universally accessible (anywhere, any device), and minimizes clutter. Hard copy documents get scanned and attached to e-mail with relevant (searchable) subject lines.
All of the documents that I used to have in my hardcopy reference files are now in soft copy, in a handful of folders on Google Drive (folders organized by project). They're searchable, and I don't have to spend extensive time categorizing them by topic.
My workflow is in a web browser (Chrome) where I have Gmail and Google Calendar open at all times.
1. My inbox should generally be empty.
2. No e-mail should go to or remain in my inbox unless I need to take action on it.
Incoming e-mail is either:
1. Automatically filtered
2. Read and archived immediately
3. Deleted (spam, announcements, etc.)
4. Acted upon (responded to or forwarded to someone who can address the issue)
I aggressively use and train Gmail's Priority Inbox to filter important email from unimportant email. If an e-mail needs more attention than I can give it at that time, I create a calendar entry or a task list entry to act on it later.
I only use the defaulte-mail labels: Inbox, Starred (for follow-up), Drafts, Sent, Read/All. I do not have individual labels/folders for projects. The sorting took too much time, and I can put my fingers on whatever e-mail I need using search queries.
Read the unimportant email as infrequently as possible. Choose “select all”, scan through the subject lines, and uncheck anything that looks interesting, then press delete (or archive) to remove the non-interesting messages.
Put Data Where It Is Best Accessed
My computer (a MacBook Pro 13") has no data on it. Only a web browser. I don't have to worry about back-ups. This also makes using a chromebook or tablet much easier, although I'm most comfortable using a laptop.
Move everything to the cloud (use Google Docs, online photo storage like Picasa, SmugMug, or Flickr, etc.).
Minimize junk: Do a clean-out and donate all the clutter to charity (there are a number of really good websites on minimalism that discuss this).
Go paperless: All paper records should be scanned and shredded.
My task management methodology has varied over time, as described below.
Email - I'm in email constantly, so it makes sense for email to be my primary tool.Calendar - For recurring events, meetings, and when I need to block off time to work on a project.
Each task item starts with a "(1)", "(2)", or "(3)" to indicate priority. Urgent tasks are preceded by an asterisk: "(*1)" to promote the priority I add a "w" before the number if I am waiting on someone else to take action ["(w1)", "(w2)", or "(w3)"] to demote the priority. I add an "r" after the number ["(1r)" or "(w2r)", etc.] if it is a recurring task, to remind me to reset the task for the next iteration.
I use a labeling system for task tracking in Gmail. I set up filters to auto-sort into the task labels:
- Now - email@example.com - Items that need immediate action - this is the primary task list
- Later - firstname.lastname@example.org - Items that are being deferred to the near future - Review weekly
- Wait - email@example.com - Items that I am waiting for someone else to take action on. Check daily
- 1-1 - firstname.lastname@example.org - Items for discussion in 1-1 with manager
Set up filters to Skip inbox, archive, set label. Do not mark as read. Show label only if unread, except for Next Action, which should always display.
Add aliases using the above email addresses to contact list. Name the contact "+now Now" for example.
On mobile, make sure Next Actions label is syncing (phone; tablet syncs all labels). Create a Gmail widget to the +now contact to send a quick Now note to yourself.
Consider day-specific labels (Mon, Tues, Weds, etc.) to assign tasks to specific days
Larger projects will each have their own tag label in addition to the above system.