Managing Computer File Clutter

Computer ClutterFrequent readers of this site know about all the most clutter-prone areas of the home. Closets, flat surfaces, and spare bedrooms are magnets for clutter, but there’s another area that doesn’t get quite as much attention — your computer. Additional digital storage space is clutter-enablingly cheap these days, and it’s easy to thoughtlessly drag ‘n drop your way to a mess of disorganization. Nobody will ever know about it except you, but it can be costly in terms of productivity, and sanity.

If this sounds like you, I’ve got a few tips that will help. I use a Mac, but these tips will work for you on any modern operating system.

Digital Bankruptcy

If things are really out of control, start over. Take all those random files strewn about your desktop and My Documents folder, and put them all in a folder called Archive. It’s a good way to get a fresh start without losing any data. The files are still there if you need them, but they’re out of the way.

“Delete”: The Ultimate Productivity Tool

The internet revolutionized the way that data moves in the world, and made an incredible amount of information available just a mouse click away. Resist the temptation to archive all of it on your computer. If you found out that a friend was saving every newspaper they bought for the last 25 years, you’d be very worried. Just because the bits on your laptop aren’t going to squeeze you out of your living room, doesn’t mean they can’t sap your productivity. Delete anything that you don’t have a good reason for keeping, and cannot find somewhere else if you need it again.

If you find that you download a lot of articles and reference materials that you need to keep, there are some really great personal database programs that will help you keep those organized (more on that in a couple weeks).

If you’re maintaining your own personal archive of LOLcats, well I finx we can’t halp U, kthxbai.

Folders That Mirror Your Life

There are files that you cannot delete. I typically save files that I create, pay software that isn’t readily available for download, and information sent to me by clients. In addition to work, I have a number of hobbies that generate large amounts of digital data. I’m into photography and songwriting, and those image and audio files take up a lot of space. It’s important to me that I be able to find what I’m looking for when I need it.

Because I have one computer for work and personal use, I actually divide my Documents directory into WORK and PERSONAL.

WORK contains a file for each client, and each client folder contains a RESOURCES, INCUBATOR and PROJECTS folder. INCUBATOR is for ideas that don’t fit into a particular project. Each folder under PROJECTS is descriptively named and contains RESOURCES, WORKING FILES, and FINAL.

HOME is structured similarly, but rather than a folder for each client, it contains a folder for each interest. But each interest is similarly divided into INCUBATOR and PROJECTS, and so forth. There are a few exceptions, such as finances, that don’t really follow my project-centric model, but for the most part it works for me.

Of course, no organization system is going to be a perfect fit for everyone. All that matters is that you find a folder structure that fits well with your life.

Use Descriptive File Names

If you follow only one of my suggestions, follow this one. The days of eight character file name limits are a distant memory, but I see computers these days filled with nested UNTITLED diretories full of vaguely named NEW DOCUMENTs. If you need a file badly enough to save it, give it a name you’ll remember later. Some people find it useful to include the date, their name (if the file is intended for someone else), or other “meta” data in addition to a descriptive file name. Include whatever will help you identify the file when you need it again.

Temporary Folders

Most of the files that I see cluttering up people’s computers are files that should have been temporary in nature. Let’s say that a coworker sends you a Word document that you need to make some changes to, then send back. You’re only going to use the file for a short time, and you have good reasons to keep it until your coworker has accepted the changes, but after that it should be deleted. Your computer’s operating system has a way of dealing with these types of files, and so should you.

I keep a file in my user directory called TEMPORARY that contains folders named for each week. For example 20080303 contains files for the week that I didn’t immediately file away or delete. At the end of the week I go through the folder and file, delete, or leave each of the files in the folder. If I don’t delete or move everything, I have to repeat the process on that same folder next week. If I do clear everything, I can delete the folder. If I have more than 4 weeks or so of folders in my TEMPORARY folder, I need to reconsider why I’m temporarily keeping it for so long.

Think of this process of churning much like hanging your clothes with the hangers facing out, and putting clothes back with the hangers facing in. It’s a reality check on what you really need to keep.


Shortcuts, or Aliases, are one of the most useful, yet underused, organizational tools for an uncluttered computer. they’re like magic portals that allow your files to break free from the constraints of spacetime and exist in multiple places simultaneously. Ok, not quite. But they’re tremendously useful. Suppose I have a project that requires the use of a certain variation of a client’s logo. Of course, I have a copy of all the client’s logo treatments in the client’s RESOURCES directory. I could copy the logo from the client RESOURCES directory to the project RESOURCES directory, but then if a change is made, I have to remember to update two files. Instead, I create a shortcut for the logo file and place that shortcut in the projects RESOURCES directory instead. The same file is now effectively in two places at once.

I hope you find these tips useful in your mission to make your digital life as uncluttered as the rest of your life. As always, if you have tips of your own, please post a comment!

51 Comments for “Managing Computer File Clutter”

  1. posted by Janet B on

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