Ask Unclutterer: Hesitant to get rid of old computers because may need files off old machines

Reader K submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have a few computers that should be donated, but I’m deathly afraid of losing files that either weren’t migrated to the new machine or were created after the new machine was up and running (and therefore, not on the new machine).

Is there some sort of computer utility program that can compare the directories (and nested subdirectories) of one computer against those of another, to highlight differences (files, newer versions) so I can decide whether or not to keep or delete the files?

I could just recopy the files to the newer machine, but I really want to make a conscious decision to bring over files, not just by default.

After the comparison is done and the files are copied over (assuming there are some), I know it’s important to have the hard drive destroyed so we don’t let our personal data into anyone else’s hands. I also know it’s important to recycle the components, not dump them. We will do those steps only after I’m satisfied that there aren’t files (i.e., older photos, important random documents) that need to be saved first.

Oh, by the way, I’m talking about Windows computers, not Macs.

My assumption is that you are using a Windows 7 operating system since it has been the OS-du jour the past couple years. As a result of this assumption, I’d start by trying SyncToy 2.1, which is a free Microsoft program that works with Windows 7. (Free! Free!) It will help you to transfer documents from multiple old machines to your current machine and also compare all the files to identify duplicates. It’s easy to use and all you do is click on boxes to make decisions about your files.

When the comparison is complete, I recommend spending 15 minutes a day weeding through all the documents on your new computer. You no longer need to worry about duplicate files, but there are likely still files you transferred that you don’t need or want. Eventually, you’ll sort through all these old files, and your machine will be uncluttered. At this point, be sure to do a much needed backup of your computer to an external hard drive or online, or, better yet, both.

For new content you create on your new machine, consider using a method that regularly has you deleting unnecessary and temporary content. I like the method Brian Kieffer uses — it’s the one I detail in my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week — which he describes in detail in “Managing computer file clutter.”

Finally, when it’s time to say farewell to your old machines, check out “How to dispose of old electronics” for advice on how to delete data from your hard drives.

Thank you, K, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Secure password managers

Reader Nutro submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Since my father passed away recently, I’ve had to take care of almost all kinds of family accounts (bills, insurance, car titles, house deeds, etc). Not only is this new to me (I’m really young), my mother never learned how to take care of these things since her English is bad. It helps to do most of it online, but I have to keep track of different usernames, account numbers, and passwords. I can remember my own account information easily but what is the best way to keep track of the others? I thought of writing it down, but was worried of someone finding and taking it since I have to access it quite often. Currently, I have some of the information on a private blog, but worried about what will happen if someone hacked either my computer or the blog. Is there a better, safer way to organize private information that needs to be accessed regularly?

My condolences to you on losing your father. You’re also very kind to help out your mother during this time.

As far as username and password storage is concerned, I strongly recommend the program 1Password. It interfaces with all the major browsers on both the Mac and Windows platforms, and it stores unlimited passwords. It is also great at generating passwords that are very difficult to hack. If you have an iPhone or an Android, it also syncs with these smart phones, too. It is a one-time charge of $40, and it is completely worth the price in terms of providing you and your mom safety online. There is a 30 day free trial if you want to give it a spin before purchasing it.

There are other programs that are similar to 1Password, although I do not have experience with them. SplashID, RoboForm, and KeePass are usually the best reviewed of the alternatives.

Secure password manager programs are a safe and excellent way to store usernames and passwords — certainly better than writing them down and much more convenient than trying to keep everything stored in your head. Even if someone hacks your computer, they’re likely not going to get into your secure password manager since you’ll be able to create a very difficult password for the program since it will be the only password you have to memorize.

Thank you, Nutro, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Save disk space by using bestcompress to select the best compression program

As part of my job, I often need to archive and retain copies of very large files for my clients. To help save disk space, I compress these files before they are archived. I could just use the same compression program for every file, but since different compression algorithms excel at dealing with different types of input, I find it’s much better to make use of a particularly useful shell script called bestcompress that I came across several years ago in Wicked Cool Shell Scripts by Dave Taylor. It compares the output sizes of files produced by three different compression programs available on most Unix implementations (including Mac OS X) when applied to the actual file a user needs to compress. After executing the script, the user is left with the smallest resultant compressed file produced by either compress, gzip, or bzip2.

The script is available on the book’s website, along with a detailed explanation of exactly how it works and how to use it.

Use a browser extension to limit the number of open windows and tabs

Browser tabs and windows have a nasty habit of multiplying. It’s easy to find yourself with a half-dozen browser windows open, each one having several tabs active. As you might expect, this has a serious effect on general system performance and stability.

To mitigate this particular problem, I use a Firefox add-on called Window and Tab Limiter. It allows you to set a limit on the number of windows and tabs Firefox will keep open. Depending on the mode that is selected in the add-on’s preference window, one of the following three things will happen when the user exceeds their own specified maximum number of open widows and tabs:

  • Suggestion Mode: The user is presented with a list of active windows and tabs. They can then either select one or more windows or tabs to close, or simply ignore the warning and continue working.
  • Force Mode: The user is presented with a list of active windows and tabs. They must close at least one window from the list to remain under the limit so they can continue working.
  • Silent Mode: Windows are closed automatically without any user interaction.

Although the Silent Mode option may sound dangerously automatic, I find it works quite well, provided the window and tab limit is not set too low. (I keep mine set at 7.)

If you use Chrome, you might want to try No More Tabs. It has fewer options, but it provides the same basic functionality.

Ask Unclutterer: Should my family have more than one computer?

Reader Angela submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I work from home with one laptop (a MacBook), which is all I need — until my two children (10 and 15) come home! Then, it’s a fight over who needs the computer. I am usually finished with work, but I may want to surf and check my email. The kids claim to have homework, but I seriously doubt their teachers are assigning videos from YouTube! Anyway, my question for you and the Unclutterer readers is, “How many computers do you think are normal for a family of three?” I am trying to buy less and save more, but I really want another Mac!

To answer your stated question about how many computers are normal for a family of three, the answer is one computer. The Kaiser Family Foundation (using data from the US Department of Commerce) reports that although 90 percent of children in 2009 have access to a computer at home, only 36 percent of children ages 8-18 have their own computers in their bedrooms. So, most children are using a shared family computer in their homes.

However, these facts are meaningless if you are interested in getting a second computer. Evaluate your situation, save the $1,500 for a new Mac, and then buy one if you decide it is what is best for you and your family. Remember, if an object has utility for you and your family, it’s not clutter.

Before buying a second computer, though, I’d like to recommend an experiment for you to conduct. Tell your children that you realize you all can’t use the computer at the same time when you’re at home and you’ve decided to alleviate this problem. Then, the next day after school, drive them to the public library. Synchronize your watches and tell your children they have 45 minutes to jump on the computers and complete their digital-necessary homework. After a week of spending 45 minutes each evening at the library, you’ll have a good idea as to if your children are using the computers for school work (or socializing) and if you really could benefit from a second home computer.

My guess is that your kids will either complain and whine and tell you that you’re a horrible mom, or they’ll actually appreciate their daily time at the library and enjoy having time on the computers to do their homework without having to share a machine. After years of teaching high school, I can say with absolute certainty that your children are not going to have a vague response — you will know if they need a second computer for school work.

Thank you, Angela, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Assorted links for August 19, 2010

Interesting articles on the subject of simple living:

Evernote Essentials: The definitive guide to using Evernote

Brett Kelly, a champion of simple living and a member of the LifeRemix network, has authored a terrific 80-page guide to using Evernote (one of my all-time favorite digital data applications). Evernote Essentials is a “comprehensive setup guide and a sizable collection of tips, tricks and best practices to help the Evernote newbie get up to speed quickly and show the seasoned Evernote veteran a thing or two about how to become Evernote ninjas.”

I like to think of myself as a hardcore Evernote user, and even I learned a great deal from the guide. I like the conversational tone, the detailed screenshots, and the real-world examples illustrating all the ways Evernote can work for you. Here’s a chapter breakdown of what the guide offers:

  • Evernote Anatomy — Explanation of the basic structure of the service.
  • Installation and Configuration — How to setup and personalize your Evernote account.
  • A Quick Tour of the Main Evernote Window — Navigating your way through the Evernote interface.
  • Adding Stuff to Evernote — Instructions for the myriad ways you can save notes, clips, etc.
  • Evernote Organization 101 — Learn to expertly tag data so that you can quickly retrieve it.
  • Evernote Search: Seek and Ye Shall Find — In my opinion, the best chapter in the document. Kelly gives some amazing tips for retrieving data in this section.
  • Evernote on the Go — Instructions for using Evernote on your smart phone.
  • Evernote, Email and You — Advanced techniques for using Evernote with your email service.
  • Evernote and Satellites in Space — You can save data from satellites and other amazing GPS tricks, and Kelly shows you how.
  • Tagging for Superhumans — Nested tags, sorting, and maintenance tips for the advanced user.
  • Evernote for Bloggers — How to create blog posts directly from Evernote.
  • Evernote for Programmers — Using Evernote as a coding encyclopedia.
  • Evernote for Foodies — Yummy tips for managing recipes, restaurant reviews, equipment information and other topic-specific data saved in Evernote.
  • Evernote for Covert Double Agents — A humorous chapter detailing how to use Evernote to successfully compile information someone or a specific topic.
  • Evernote as an Address Book — How to use Evernote as a personal information manager.
  • Evernote as a Simple Photo Sharing Service — Detailed visuals and explanations for how to create an online photo album you can share with others.
  • Evernote as a Task Manager — One of my favorite uses for Evernote, instructions for creating a GTD-style to-do program.
  • Evernote as a Filing Cabinet — Learn to save scanned documents directly to Evernote.
  • For Longtime Users: Regaining Control of Your Evernote Database — Advice for managing your notes when you have large numbers of data in your account.

If you are a current Evernote user, or are looking for a way to better store your digital data, I recommend checking out Evernote Essentials. The guide is $25 and comes with the guarantee that if you “don’t feel like it delivers the real deal, then contact [the author] within 30 days for a full refund, no questions asked.” Best of all, you can save the guide directly to your Evernote account.

Just to let you know, we don’t receive any kickbacks or revenue from Evernote Essentials or Evernote — I’m really just a huge fan of both. Learning advanced techniques for using Evernote can greatly improve the way you organize the information in your life.

Assorted links for June 30, 2010

Articles we’ve been reading this week:

  • In the comments to “Programs for reading online content off-line” a number of readers highly recommended Read It Later to the list of Evernote, Instapaper, and ToRead off-line viewers.
  • J.D. Roth of GetRichSlowly.org has a thought-provoking piece on “The Rewards of Frugality and Thrift (or, Why We Scrimp and Save)” that I really enjoyed. It gets to the heart of what I believe is uncluttered spending.
  • The London Times (a site you have to register to read) has an article in today’s issue about the Butter by Nadia dress. The dress is one piece of fabric that can be styled to wear 15 different ways. At the very least, I’m extremely curious!
  • DIYlife has an inspiring post on “10 Uses for Leftover House Paint.”
  • When money got tight, writer Kevin Mims found that uncluttering his home and selling the items at an antiques co-op made for good money. Check out his story “Out With The Old, In With The New Beginnings” on NPR.
  • Reader Megan tipped us off to an article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses how to prevent feeling overwhelmed and overloaded by your work. Like so many things in life, you need to “always keep in mind what it is that you want to do, to build, to create in the world, whether that’s through a course, an article, or a new administrative structure.” The article is written for college professors and administrators, but is easily adaptable to any profession.
  • Lifehacker linked to a terrific post on Stepcase Lifehack discussing “How To Stay Organized When Life Throws You a Curveball.” It’s uncomfortable to read about what to do during a crisis, but very important if you’re in the situation.

One last thing, I accidentally switched the post order today and put up the Unitasker Wednesday post as the first one and this post in the 10:30 a.m. spot. I think this is a sign I need more coffee. Check out our 7:30 a.m. piece if you’re looking for today’s Unitasker.

Programs for reading online content off-line

Regular readers of Unclutterer and also of my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week know I am a huge fan of Evernote and Instapaper. Both programs allow you to save articles and pages you find on the web and access them later without returning to the original site or needing an active internet connection.

If something is part of an ongoing research project (like Unclutterer post ideas), I tend to save what I find to Evernote. If what I want to read later is interesting to me, but not necessarily related to a specific project, I’ll send it to Instapaper. I have both programs on my smart phone and laptop, so I can access all the documents on any device. When I know I’ll be traveling in the near future, I tend to “Read Later” a lot of documents to Instapaper so I’ll have many options to read on my journey.

This week, Lifehacker tipped me off to another program like Evernote and Instapaper, but “ToRead Sends Article Text Straight to Your [E-mail] Inbox.” I don’t like receiving e-mail, so this isn’t a program for me. However, I thought ToRead might appeal to those of you who are averse to using an unfamiliar third-party viewer.

Are you already a ToRead user? What’s your preference for reading online content when you’re without an internet connection? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

Assorted links for June 15, 2010

A number of really cool things have moved across my desk this past week, but none of them are necessarily large enough for a post all their own. Enjoy exploring these uncluttering and organizing tidbits:

Ask Unclutterer: How long should I keep bills that have been digitally scanned?

Reader Volker submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have all my papers (bills, documents etc.) digital, so its no physical clutter. But I’m not sure how long to keep digital files like itemized bills, phone bills, electricity bills, etc.?

The answer to this question, unfortunately, can be found in your responses to a few more questions:

  1. How much space do have available on a hard drive?
  2. How often do you reference your paperwork after you have scanned it?
  3. How distracting do you find digital files?

If you aren’t pressed for space on your hard drive and you aren’t distracted in any way by the digital files, I recommend keeping them. The act of sorting through each one and expending mental energy deciding which documents to save and which ones to delete can clutter up your time. Simply put, they may not be clutter.

However, if you need to free up some room on your hard drive, I’d take the following steps:

  1. Keep all digital copies of bills from the past 13 months. When your new bills arrive, it’s always a good idea to check the new ones against the previous year to see if there are any strange fluctuations.
  2. If the bill was used as a deduction for tax purposes, hold onto it for whatever amount of time your accountant recommends. This time period is usually however long a federal tax agent can go back in time for an audit. Based on the laws in your country, you may actually need these bills in physical form. Again, check with your accountant.
  3. If the bill wasn’t used for a tax deduction, I recommend keeping all annual statements for as long as the account is open.
  4. If you have closed an account, I recommend keeping the statement from the billing institution that says your account was closed in good standing. I actually recommend keeping this in physical form and not in digital form — but if you’ve already scanned it, the digital copy is better than nothing.

Unlike many of our readers, I don’t see digital data as really being clutter. At least for me, it doesn’t distract me from pursuing the life I desire or keep me from focusing on what matters most. I use Google Desktop to easily search my computer for any documents I’m seeking. Honestly, I have files on my computer from 1998 and have no plan to delete them. I also have an onsite backup and an online backup, so if my hard drive fails I won’t lose everything.

Thank you, Volker, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you on your digital data project.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

forScore app brings sheet music to the iPad

Although I’m still somewhat skeptical of the iPad, I can’t help but be very impressed by a small number of new and forthcoming applications being developed for the platform. In fact, the video demo for one soon-to-be-released app is weakening my resolve to wait out the first generation of the device.

forScore is a sheet-music management application that will allow the user to load his or her own PDF files, instead of relying on a proprietary format. The application also supports page specific annotations, which is particularly useful for marking up difficult passages. The developers were also quite clever to include an integrated metronome that can flash the border of the screen at a pre-set tempo.

The idea isn’t new. Electronic sheet-music displays have been around for a several years, but they’ve been even more expensive than an iPad. This seems like a good multitasking alternative, if you’ve already been considering such a device.