When you try to organize the documents on your desk or in your filing cabinet. Or your huge backlog of emails.
- Look at each in turn and act on it.
- Process it, file it, or bin it.
It's that simple ....
But of course, this algorithm often doesn't work. Because new documents can bring the existing filing system into disrepute. A new document either has nowhere to go, could fit equally well into more than one category, or otherwise makes it clear that the existing categories should be revised. You are then faced with a dilemma : fix the filing system (add a new category, move stuff around) or file the document in a temporary, miscellaneous or an inappropriate slot, pending reassessment after the system is fixed.
Where revising the filing system is hard - sometimes, near impossible when you're talking paper documents and shelves, drawers and manilla envelopes - you'll end up filing temporarily. It's these temporary files (often piles on the desk) which form the majority of the clutter in your life. Even revising a virtual filing system can be hard when the software is inflexible and hierarchical (mailbox, filing systems). Moving stuff around is time consuming.
Wiki can help, of course. The fact that wiki allows documents to be multiply classified using CategoryCategory and allowing the user to add new indexes as and when required, makes organizing pages in wiki about as good as it currently gets. But wiki has some problems : I can't reclassify a number of documents at once. I can easily forget or miss a document I need to move.
And it doesn't stop the fundamental problem that however easy it is to revise your filing system, you still need to decide how to balance the time / frequency of filing and revising. There are probably algorithms which solve the problem of optimising formally but they must be inductive and assume that the future resembles the past. There can be no right answer for all systems, and no guarantee that the solution that worked yesterday will remain the right solution for tomorrow.
Discussion of hanging files : http://discuss.fogcreek.com/joelonsoftware/default.asp?cmd=show&ixPost=172432