Although it’s not as obvious as physical clutter, digital clutter can cause as much frustration and disorganization as its material counterpart, especially as we all move more and more of our business and personal lives into the digital realm.
From paying bills to recording memories to staying in touch with friends and relatives, our digital footprints are growing, evidenced by the increase in sales of e-readers, external hard drives and routers.
So how do you stay organized and maintain access to all of this important information?
It can be a challenge if you don’t already have a plan in place, but there are simple steps you can take to gain control over your digital clutter. (And once you have that control, you can then take steps to eliminate more of your material clutter — such as paperwork — by digitizing it as well!)
Pick a System
The single most important step you can take in organizing your digital clutter is to simply pick a system. Any system. There are so many programs, apps and hardware configurations available that you could spend the rest of your life evaluating them — coming close to a decision over and over again only to discover a new product or service on the market!
Read a few reviews, talk to people you trust and then bite the bullet and pick one.
You might end up choosing the second best system, but chances are it’s still good enough. And once you are organized, it’s a lot easier to upgrade to a new system anyway!
Connect Your Devices
One of the most frustrating aspects of organizing your digital life in this day and age comes from lack of access to important information across various devices. For a long time I would start a project upstairs on my desktop during the day only to end up frustrated in the evening because I couldn’t access it on my laptop downstairs.
These days, I have access to all of my files no matter where I am — from my laptop, desktop, tablet or smart phone — and even when I use other people’s devices.
I’ve shared how I use Dropbox to create my own personal cloud, as well as the unprecedented peace of mind it gives me because I no longer have to worry about losing any of my data, but Dropbox is not the only solution available. You may prefer a wireless hard drive or any one of a number of personal cloud computing services available, but the important thing is to have a system that allows you to access the information you need, no matter where you are.
Backup, Backup, Backup
Which brings me to my third point…
As you move more and more of your personal data and records online, it’s incredibly important that you have a backup system in place. This goes not just for pictures, but for your financial records, medical files and anything else you store on your computer.
The great thing about setting up a cloud or external hard drive is that you are essentially setting up a backup system as well. Just make sure it’s set to sync regularly (mine syncs in real-time, so my data is never more than 5 minutes out of date) so that you’re not relying on memory to get it done on a regular basis!
Digital Organizing 101
While accessibility is an important part of this topic, convenience and organization is just as important. Being able to access your files from anywhere doesn’t do you much good if it still takes you 20 minutes to find the file you’re looking for. Organize your files in a way that makes sense for you and makes it easy to find things quickly when you need them:
- Folders are your friend. Never underestimate the power of folders. By grouping your files into folders and subfolders and sub-subfolders, you can more quickly navigate to the correct location. It’s much easier to browse a smaller list of closely related files for the one you want than it is to browse through hundreds, so I tend to use fairly broad categories for my top-level folders and very detailed ones inside each of those.
- Use clear, descriptive file names. Inside those folders, it’s incredibly important to use descriptive file names that clearly define the contents of the file. Ambiguous names such as 1, 2 and 3 or untitled really do you no good at all (the exception being temporary files that you are using for a very short period of time), and taking an extra second or two to add a descriptive title (including dates, image size, version, etc, if applicable) is well worth the effort.
- A file system is only as good as its owner. Creating a file system and then shoving all of your files into an Untitled folder because you don’t have time to deal with them kind of defeats the purpose, don’t you think? Make a habit of regularly moving files from your Desktop or Download folder to the correct folder. As they say, “A home for everything and everything in its place.”
- Don’t forget to declutter. While digital files certainly take up less space (for the most part), which makes it easier to keep things even when you’re unsure whether you’ll ever need them again, it’s still important to declutter those files from time to time. Extra versions or copies of the same document can often be deleted once it has been finalized, and some files simply become obsolete over time. Even if you’re not comfortable deleting a file altogether, consider using a generic archive folder (mine is called “Old”) to hold the files that you don’t need regular access to so that you don’t trip over them when searching for more important information!
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How do you organize your digital files? Do you have a personal cloud or backup system?