Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.


Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Free up computer disk space

My main computer is a MacBook Air. I love it dearly. The thin little thing has traveled with me, and I wrote my books on it. It’s a super little machine. It’s got 128 GB of internal flash storage, which sounds like a lot, yet I get that “your startup disk is almost full” warning all the time. The fact that I photograph my kids all the time doesn’t help. I also love music, movies, and trying new software. Those are all space-hogging activities. What can I do?

If you’re in the same boat — irrespective if you’re on a Mac or PC — this post is for you. I’ve collected several tips for freeing up disk space on your computer. Put them into practice and reclaim a little bit of that precious storage space.

To the cloud!

First and foremost, take advantage of cloud storage. Flickr offers users one terabyte of storage for free. That’s huge. I use Everpix, which syncs photos taken with my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone automatically. Those shots aren’t stored on my Mac at all, saving me huge amounts of space.

Music is another opportunity to save space. For example, many people buy an external disk and move their music (like iTunes) library to it. That way your computer’s internal storage is free of your huge music library. Apple’s iCloud also lets you store music on their own servers which you can stream on demand, if you own a Mac.

Other stream-only services like Rdio, Spotify and Pandora let customers stream music to their devices for a monthly fee. I’ve been using Rdio for years and love it. I can listen to all the music I want without any of it living on my hard drive.

What about documents? Dropbox is great, but it stores local copies of all your flies. Actually, not all. In the app’s preferences, select “Selective Sync.” This lets you determine which of your Dropbox folders are copied to your computer.

Cleaning house

While researching this article, I came across this post from MacRumors. It lists several great options for freeing up disk space, including:

  1. Empty the trash. You’d be surprised how often I see digital trash cans that are bulging with files. The act of simply moving a file into the trash doesn’t get rid of it. Empty that virtual trash can. Individual applications (like iPhoto on my Mac and my email program) may also have separate Trash cans and Spam folders that should be emptied, too.
  2. Delete software and files you don’t use. I’m the guy who downloads software just to see what it does. That means I accumulate a lot of apps I don’t use. Trash them. AppZapper for the Mac is good at removing an app and all its related files, if you’re on a Mac. If you know of a similar PC product, please share that in the comments.

    It is also good to go through the files you have saved and trash all those you no longer need. The grocery list you made eight months ago can probably go, even if it’s not taking up a lot of room. All those little files are only cluttering up your computer’s hard drive.

  3. Empty your browser caches. Most web browsers will cache sites to improve their performance. These cache files can grow over time. You’ll find an option to clear your cache in your browser’s preferences.

It’s also a good idea to run software that’s designed to find and eliminate unnecessary files. I rely on Clean My Mac. It’s great at finding things like hidden iPhoto duplicates, language files that I don’t use, and a lot more. I’ve reclaimed several gigabytes of space thanks to Clean My Mac. Again, if you rely on a PC product, please share that in the comments. And, if you’re on a PC, don’t forget to defragment your drive after you delete programs to help it run more efficiently.

Add physical storage

You might have an option to add more physical storage to your computer. For example, the cool StorEDGE from PNY is a little flash storage module that fits inside an SDXC slot (provided that it has one, my Air does not) and adds either 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.

There you have a few strategies for reclaiming a little precious disk space. Try them out and de-clutter your computer.

Ten awesome Dropbox tricks

Dropbox is a service that offers online storage of your stuff. It’s tremendously convenient and used by lots of people world wide. Dropbox is a quick-and-dirty sharing and backup tool that many workers (including yours truly) couldn’t work without.

What many people don’t realize is that Dropbox is capable of a lot more than drag-and-drop storage of your files. There are numerous cool things you can do with it, but the following are 10 useful tricks I’ve discovered to help keep me organized and reduce my digital clutter.

Save space with selective sync

My personal computer is a MacBook Air with just 128 GB of storage. I know that sounds like a lot, but with a bulging music collection and photo collection, it gets full pretty quickly. Fortunately, my work computer can hold much more. I can hand pick which files get synchronized to Dropbox and then to my MacBook Air, and which get ignored.

To do this, open the Dropbox preferences on your computer. Select the advanced tab and then click Selective Sync. From there, tell Dropbox which folders to sync to that computer. Those you choose to ignore are still available at, they’re just not automatically synched. You still have access to them.

Access previous versions of files

Dropbox offers one huge benefit that many people overlook. It saves versions of your files for up to 30 days. That means, for example, if you make changes to a Word document you’ve got in Dropbox and then decided you wish you hadn’t, you can restore a version that existed before you made all of those regrettable edits.

Go to and find the file. Right-click on it and select Previous Versions from the resulting menu. A list appears; select the one you want. Easy.

Backup your smartphone photos automatically

This is a very nice feature that was introduced within the last year or so. Dropbox for iPhone and Android can automatically move a copy of every photo you shoot to a folder on the service. Check your mobile app’s preferences for the setting to enable this. It offers real peace of mind.

Mark files as favorites for offline access

I do this one quite a bit, especially when traveling. As you know, Dropbox stores your stuff on its servers. However, if you mark a file as a favorite, a copy will be downloaded to your mobile device, allowing you to view it even when you don’t have Internet access.

To mark an item as a favorite, simply navigate to it on your tablet or smartphone and tap the star icon.

Recover deleted files

“Ack! I didn’t mean to delete that!” No worries. If you delete a file, versions from the last 30 days remain. To get something back, go to and navigate to the folder where it used to be. Find the Show Deleted Files icon and click it. Then select it from the list.

Back up your blog, two ways

I use Dropbox to back up every post I publish to my blog. There are at least two ways to do this. I use a service called IFTTT, or If This Then That. You can use IFTTT to build actions or recipes to accomplish tasks for you. I have one that watches for any new post I publish to my blog. When it finds one, it copies the text to a file in my Dropbox account. If worse came to worst, I’d still have all of my posts.

If you don’t want to fiddle around with IFTTT (and you own a WordPress blog), check out this great plugin for one-click backups.

Print a PDF right to Dropbox

Here’s a great tip that’s reserved for you Mac users. You probably know that you can turn nearly any file into a PDF by choosing Save to PDF when printing something. What you may not know is that you can direct that PDF to save right to Dropbox.

When you click Save to PDF, you’ll see Edit Menu as the very last option. Click it, and then click the “+” in the resulting window. A new list appears. Navigate to your Dropbox (or any folder therein) and then click OK. Now, that folder will appear in the Save to PDF menu every time. Simply click it, and a PDF will be automatically shuffled off to Dropbox.

Back up your Instagram photos

Here’s another IFTTT trick. I’ve created a recipe to monitor my Instagram account for new photos. Whenever it finds one, it moves a copy to a folder on my Dropbox account. The photograph is backed up and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.

Publish a website (pancake) is a free service that lets you publish a blog or website right from your Dropbox account. It’s quite simple to set up and you can find all the details on how to do it on the Pancake site.

Digitize user manuals for less clutter, easy retrieval

User manuals are a necessary evil. When you bring home that new TV, blender, or printer, you set it up, try it out, and tuck its user manual away somewhere. Chances are you’ll never look at it again. But, you might, and that’s why you can’t throw it away. So, it gets tossed into a junk drawer or set on a shelf in the basement or crammed into the closet with all the other manuals you’ve stashed in there, just in case. These things are the definition of clutter. They sit around and do nothing for years and years. Wouldn’t it be great to store them completely out of sight yet have them instantly available, whenever you need them? Digitizing them is the answer. With a little bit of time and some free software — plus one very cool trick — you can achieve User Manual Nirvana. In this article, I’ll show you how to:

  1. Get manuals into your computer.
  2. Use the nearly ubiquitous Evernote to make your manuals accessible from your digital devices.
  3. Ensure that every manual is ready as soon as you need it with NO searching required (the cool trick).
  4. Reduce frustration and repair time around the house.

Get manuals

The first step, of course, is to find digital versions of your paper manuals and get them into your computer. There are several ways to do this, and I’ll cover three.

Go To The Source

You best bet is to look online, and your first stop should be the manufacturer’s website. For example, here’s a link to the manual for HP’s Officejet 6500 Wireless All-in-One Printer. If you can’t find the manual you’re after by visiting the manufacturer’s site, you’re not out of luck.

Check Third-Party Websites offers a large selection of user and service manuals, mostly for large appliances. The manuals on this site aren’t free, and will charge you about $8.99 per manual. The site’s search feature works well, and lets you narrow your inquiry by brand. Another option is It stores thousands of product manuals and a huge, searchable list of brands and products. What’s really nice is that is supported by an active community of users who will respond to your requests. requires a free membership. There are other manual sites available, but I’ve had the best luck with these two.

Scan It Yourself

If the manual is not too long, scan it. Many are only long because they contain several languages. You can scan the two, three or four pages that are in your language and disregard the rest. If you don’t have a scanner, don’t worry! There’s a great iPhone app called Piikki that’s useful in this situation. It’s meant for taking photos of receipts, but really you can use it with any piece of paper. Piikki is very good at identifying the edges of paper and grabbing a readable, useful image. From there, send it to your computer.

Of course, you can also take a photo with Evernote and get it right in your database that way. More on Evernote later in this post.

A quick note before I move on to the next section. Don’t overlook “homemade” manuals and similar supplements. A few years ago, I had to replace the belt on our clothes dryer that turns the drum. While I had the machine apart, I sketched how it came apart, where the parts belong, and how it all fits back together. Today, I’ve got a scan of that drawing for future reference (and yes, I got it back together again).

Now that you’ve got your digital user manuals, store them in a fantastic, nearly ubiquitous digital database called Evernote.

Evernote can be your digital database

We’ve written about Evernote before and for good reason. It’s a dead-simple way to store just about anything that’s digital, from manuals to ideas, from music to packing lists. Best of all, it’s nearly ubiquitous. There’s a version for just about any device you own, as well as the web. I treat Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. Evernote stores information in what it calls “notes.” Similar notes can be grouped into a “notebook.” In our case, one note will be one user manual, and all of those notes will be gathered into a single notebook called, you guessed it, “Manuals.” Here’s how to set things up.

Create a Notebook

First, create a notebook. Fortunately, the process couldn’t be simpler. On the left-hand side of your browser window, right-click (that’s Control-click for you Mac users) on the grey area where it says “Notebooks” and select “New Notebook.” Name it “Manuals” and you’re all set.

Create a Note

The exact steps required to create a note depend on the device you’re using (iPhone vs. Mac vs. Android device, etc.). I’ll review how to do it in a web browser, as that’s the same for everyone, and leave you to suss out the (similar) process on your computer/tablet/smartphone of choice.

  1. Navigate to and log in.
  2. Tap “+ New Note”.
  3. The note creation screen appears. Enter a name for you note (like “DVD Player Manual”).
  4. Click “Show details” and enter “manuals” as the tag. This is important as you’ll see.
  5. Click the attachment icon (it resembles a paperclip), navigate to your manual and attach it to the note.
  6. Select “Manuals” from the Notebooks drop-down menu to put it in the proper notebook.
  7. Click “Done”.

That’s it. Repeat the process with all of your manuals. Once you’ve done this on one device, those notes will be available on every other device that you have that runs Evernote. Adding them can be boring, but now for the fun stuff.

Find manuals when you need them

I promised to teach you a cool trick. This isn’t it, though it’s still pretty nifty. You can search for a term in Evernote and then save that search so you don’t have to type it over and over again. Plus, Evernote is smart enough to update the results for you.

In the Evernote app for the desktop, enter “manuals” in the search field and hit Return. Look at the results to make sure they’re accurate, then click on the File menu, and then choose File and then Save Search. Give it a nice name (I suggest “Manuals”) and you’re all done. From now on, all you need to do is click the search field and “Manuals” will appear there for you. Just give it a click.

Here’s another cool bit: saved searches sync across devices. That means, once you’ve created the saved search on your computer, it will be available on your smartphone as well.

OK, here’s the super-cool trick I’ve been promising you.

Access manuals from the appliances themselves

While doing research for this article, I came across this brilliant idea from author Jamie Todd Rubin. His idea is to use QR codes, Evernote, and sticky paper to create almost immediate, no-search access to your digital user manuals.

QR Codes are those funky, square-shaped boxes of scanner code you might have seen, similar to the one at right. A QR Code reader (like this free one for the iPhone), can read the information it contains and perform a resulting action, most often opening a web page.

You can make your own QR Codes for free with a tool like this one at KAYAW QR Code by providing the link you’d like it to point to. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then make a QR Code with that URL, using the free QR Code generator linked above. Once that’s done, print the page, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your printer, blender, DVD player, what have you.

Now, whenever you need the manual for that device, all you need to do is scan it with a free QR reader app and presto! Evernote launches and opens that exact manual for you. No searching, no typing. Ingenious. If you don’t want to use the Note URL from the Evernote app, open the target note in a browser and copy its URL. That will work, too.

There you have it: digitize your user manuals to greatly reduce clutter, keep them close at hand on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and use QR code stickers on your devices to let THEM retrieve your manuals for you. Have fun.

Organize all your cloud services with Jolidrive

As Internet access becomes ubiquitous and bandwidth drops in price, so-called “cloud” services (which store your information on a server that’s accessed via the Internet) are growing in popularity. Many are very useful and help you perform tasks like sharing photos and video, storing files, and keeping up with family and friends. Most cloud services are inexpensive, some are free, and many offer great convenience.

The trouble starts when you subscribe to more than a few. I found myself checking Instagram for photos, Facebook for updates from friends, Dropbox for shared files, Path for updates from family, and Pocket and Instapaper for articles to read. Fortunately, I found Jolidrive, which lets me keep all of those services (and many more) in one, tidy, organized layout.

Jolidrive is free to use. You can create an account by signing in with your Facebook credentials or email address. Once you’ve done that and clicked the link in your confirmation email, you’re all set.

There are several “services” you can have Jolidrive connect to, including:

  1. Exfm
  2. Vimeo
  3. SoundCloud
  4. YouTube
  5. Box
  6. CloudApp
  7. Google Plus
  8. Instapaper
  9. Picasa
  10. SkyDrive
  11. SugarSync
  12. Tumblr
  13. Ubuntu One
  14. Dropbox
  15. Facebook
  16. Flickr
  17. Google Drive (formerly Google Documents)
  18. Instagram
  19. Pocket

As you add each service, you’ll be asked for your login credentials. Once the connection is made, it appears in the sidebar of Jolidrive’s beautifully designed web interface. Tap any one to explore.

For example, I can click the Instagram icon to get a beautiful grid of the latest photos in my feed. I can also browse my own photos and those I’ve liked, as well as the most popular photos across all of Instagram. Finally, I can see who I’m following, as well as who’s following me. All from the one web page. In fact, jolidrive has become my favorite way to browse Instagram.

It works much the same with Facebook. I can see my news feed and my own timeline, my list of friends, photo albums, and videos. Again, there’s no need to visit another site. It’s very convenient and tidy.

I’ve also got Pocket in my account, it lets me browse and read saved articles in a layout that is just as pretty as the Pocket iPad app.

But Jolidrive is not just pictures and articles. I can browse and interact with almost any file I’ve got stored on Dropbox, Box, or SkyDrive. The fact that I don’t have to navigate away to all those different sites or apps is a real time-saver. On top of that, it looks great.

If you’re like me and you subscribe to a large number of cloud services, consider jolidrive. It keeps everything organized into a single, great-looking website. I have and I’m glad I did.

Ask Unclutterer: Implementing GTD paperlessly

Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:

1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.

Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?

I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.

That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.

If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.

I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.

People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)

As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.

In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).

Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.

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.

Your email inbox is not a filing cabinet

“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”

I was recently asked to forward an email I had received to someone else. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the message that I wanted, so I spent a few minutes searching and scrolling. Fortunately, I only had a couple dozen messages in my inbox. I’ve seen people scroll through thousands of messages in a desperate hunt for that one phone number, street address or appointment confirmation. It’s agonizing. Why do we do that to ourselves?

An interesting thing about email is that, for many, it’s both a delivery system and a storage facility. When we “check email,” we often open our email software, browse the many messages contained therein, and then quit the application without removing any of the messages.

Consider the paper mail that reaches your mailbox: you don’t open the box, sort through the envelopes and then close it back up again, leaving everything inside. Nor do you return from the grocery store and leave brimming bags on the kitchen counter. Yet, email is often ignored in this way, to our detriment.

I recommend using a simple four-step process to get your electronic mailbox as close to empty as you can, every day. The steps are:

  1. Decide what each message is.
  2. Decide what must be done.
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message (or archive it in a separate folder, if that is what your employer directs).

It’s an adaptation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for processing email, which is a highly formalized system of productivity improvement. You can read David’s book (and I recommend that you do), but you needn’t follow his instructions in full to reap huge benefits. Here’s a simplified adaptation that I use for managing email.

Defining Work Time

Before we begin exploring the how, let’s define the when. The good news about email access is also the bad news: it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can send and receive email at various points of the day. For those of us with connected smartphones, email is almost available during every waking moment of our day.

As such, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to check it whenever the opportunity arises. Instead, tame that tendency by defining email time. I like to check email at 8:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM. This has several benefits. First, it familiarizes others with my communication schedule. It also helps me stay focused when I do sit down to work through email. Finally, it alleviates the guilt of not checking during off hours. Define a time to sit down with your computer, smart phone, or tablet and work with your email. All set? Now, let’s begin.

What is it?

When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:

  1. It’s garbage
  2. It’s something I need to do
  3. It’s something I might refer to later

That’s it. Every message you ever receive will fall into these three categories. Now that you’ve identified what each message is, proceed to step two.

Decide what must be done

The first one is simple: garbage. As soon as you see it, delete it. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all trash, so trash it. Immediately.

The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the campout next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Yes, delete it. (Unless, again, your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons. In this case, move it to an archive folder.)

The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. On to step three.

Do what must be done (the appropriate place)

This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.

It can be anything you want. You might choose a paper notebook — I carry one around for jotting a daily task list. There’s lots of software available, from simple to involved, which you can use for this purpose. My choice is Evernote, because it’s simple to use, powerful, cross-platform (Mac, Windows, web browsers and an increasing number of mobile devices are supported) and above all, reliable. Evernote works by creating virtual Notebooks, each of which can contain several notes. Notes and notebooks can be sorted, categorized and organized to your heart’s content, and online sync keeps them up-to-date across all you devices. So, if you create a note on your computer, it will show up on your phone or iPad without you having to do a thing.

Evernote is fantastic for storing reference material, or what I call “cold storage.” Receipts from online purchases, how-to’s, restaurant menus, theatre schedules, the kids’ sporting information, contracts and more. Once you have the pertinent information in a reliable system you trust, you can delete the email message.

As for action items, how you handle these is up to you. Evernote will create an action list, if you decide to use it. You can also create a list in a notebook or task-oriented software like Remember The Milk, Teux Deux or even Omnifocus if you want to go hard-core.

The important thing is trust. You must have faith in the system you choose, whatever it is. That way your brain will stop pestering you and, more importantly, you’ll be able to delete those messages. So, to recap. When an email message arrives, follow these steps:

  1. Decide what it is.
  2. Decide what must be done (trash, define a task or place in cold storage).
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message.

Ask Unclutterer: To check or not check email first thing at work?

Reader James submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’ve read productivity books and articles that claim checking email first thing at work is a bad idea. I have been burned by not checking it because my boss and clients sent me important messages overnight and I didn’t get them until two hours later. What is your take on checking email? Is my overall productivity worth the times I’ve been burned?

I can see the reasoning behind not checking your email right when you get to work — you run the risk of getting caught up in work that might not be extremely important to your job responsibilities at a time when you’re likely at your most focused and productive. It would be better if you could use your best brain power on your most demanding and core work.

That being said, I check my email first thing when I get into work. I don’t really address it, though, I simply scan all the “from” and “subject” lines to search for work-altering messages. If I don’t see any indicators that someone sent me an email that will change my most demanding and core work, I immediately close my mail program and wait until I need a break from my demanding work around 10:00 a.m.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it didn’t affect my immediate work day, I mark the message as “unread” so it can hang out until I process email in a couple hours.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it does affect my immediate work, I’ll process the email the same way I do when I’m really handling email. This means I’ll file it as Archived, add related next actions to my to-do list, and/or schedule any related information on my calendar. If I need to reply to the email, I do it at this time. After giving proper attention to the email, I’ll scan the rest of the inbox to see if there is anything else I must check. If I’m done with my quick search, I’ll quit the program and wait to address the other issues at 10:00 a.m.

I chose my times for checking email based on when I do my mindful and mindless work over the course of the day — scan at 8:00 a.m., full check at 10:00 a.m., full check after lunch around 1:00 p.m., a scan around 3:00 p.m., and then a final end-of-workday check at 5:00 p.m. I do not have my new message indicator light on my email program activated, and I actually completely close out of the program when not in use. If your job allows you to behave in this manner, I strongly recommend it. It significantly helps my productivity to not be tempted to check email constantly.

Thank you, James, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions 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: 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.