Uncluttering your digital junk drawers

The proliferation of inexpensive cloud services offer near-ubiquitous access to your files as well as something rather insidious: an out-of-sight, digital junk drawer. That drawer in your kitchen with the pens, receipts, batteries, fortune cookies from the 90’s, and who knows what else, is in your face every day. Its presence is a constant prompt to clean, sort, and organize. You tend to it because you see it.

Your Evernote account, however is hidden, just like your Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive, or iCloud account. Digital files like documents, photos, music, and electronic receipts add up slowly but surely, and soon enough you’ve got a mountain of forgotten stuff just hanging out, taking up storage space.

Typically you’ll know it’s time to organize a digital junk drawer by observing how much time you spend searching for what you need. Instead of finding it right away, you scroll and scroll or use the search function, which may or may not be especially helpful. Suddenly that convenient storage solution is wasting time because it takes too long to find things and wasting money, as the cost of storage increases once you exceed your storage threshold.

The good news is it’s easy to clean out a digital junk drawer, as well as ensure it doesn’t get to a sorry state again. Here’s what we recommend.

Use the delete key

It’s time to get to know the delete key. Do not fear it. Instead, embrace its power and banish unwanted files to the Land of Wind and Ghosts.

I recently started to poke around my Dropbox folders. I found many documents I had not touched in months or years — parts of old projects long abandoned, screenshots I had no need for, old software I no longer wanted, unfinished articles that would never get written, etc. There was so much such stuff just sitting there, acting as clutter, hindering searches, and taking up precious space.

I took the time to go through each document, identify it, and if I no longer needed it, I deleted it. It felt great.

It is possible you’ll find documents that have been stored for a long time that you still need. That’s the difference between “reference” and “junk.” For example, the schedule for my local theatre is reference. It holds information that doesn’t require action, but might be useful in the future. User manuals and some receipts fall into this category, too.

Junk, on the other hand, has no value. That screenshot I took simply to post as a joke on Twitter? I don’t need that anymore so into the trash it goes.

A quick way to identify seldom-touched files is to sort a folder’s contents by “Date last opened” or “Date added.” Doing so gives you a clear picture of which files you use and which are collecting digital dust.

Be ruthless. Find a file, ask what it is, and act accordingly. When that’s done, it’s time to prevent it from happening again.

What’s in a name? Structure.

Many years ago, I came across a fantastic article from PC Magazine that tackled this topic beautifully. It’s about intelligent and purposeful naming. It suggests that file names meet the following criteria:

  • unique
  • indicative of what the file contains
  • in line with how you (or your business) thinks about information
  • “scannable”  (with the human eye) according to how you (or your employees) find information
  • naturally ordered alphabetically (or numerically)
  • consistent

I’ll let you read the whole article — you really should — but I’ll point out a couple of ideas here. First, the second item on the list, “indicative of what the file contains.” Photos are the biggest culprit here. Your camera or smartphone will give images names like “img5468.jpg.” That means nothing when your scanning through a list of files (more on that in a minute). Instead, use something like “201710WineTour.jpg.” That way you know exactly what it is from the title, and sorting is so much easier.

I touched on “scannable” above, but it’s worth repeating. Instead of scrolling while muttering to yourself, “Hold on, it’s in here somewhere,” you can see exactly what you want in an instant.

Also, consistency is key. It may take more time to rename files prior to storing them but it’s worth it when you consider the time saved on the other end.

This weekend, spend a little time with your digital junk drawers, be they a cloud service or even your computer’s own hard drive. It takes time to get sorted, yes, but it’s completely worth it.

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