[This post is part of the ongoing series 4 Steps To Getting Yourself Organized In The New Year. ]
It’s a new day and we have 300 emails staring back at us from our inbox, half of which are from yesterday or last week. We find files on our computer by using a search function and crossing our fingers. We have multiple computers and can’t remember which file on which computer is the most current version. It’s official: we need to organize our digital life.
Digital files accumulate quickly and haphazardly if we let them.
Owning Our Email
Our inbox is just that, an inbox. It’s not a storage shed, a catch-all, or a default option for the messages we don’t know what to do with. It’s meant to handle incoming or current email only, and anything beyond that is digital clutter.
First and foremost, set up some filters. Let technology be our friend wherever it can, and have it be a bouncer for our inbox. Start by setting up spam filters, followed by our own filters. The email system we use will determine the options available for what and how we filter and store our email, but we at least have to have something in mind. Our filters can automatically sort incoming email based on who is sending them, and categorizing or filing them accordingly. A few minutes to set up filters saves hours in the long run.
Second, unsubscribe to emails that we no longer want to receive. Perhaps we were really interested in that Jelly of the Month Club a few Christmases ago, but not anymore. Those emails are bloating our inbox, so it’s time to unsubscribe. In that same line of thinking, we should remember every time we sign up for an email newsletter that it will have a direct affect on our inbox. By all means, sign up for things that interest us, but think about it beforehand.
Third, there is no checking email, there is owning email. Checking email leaves us with emails that are weeks and, horribly, months old. Every time we check, we see they’re still there. Owning email means we decide what we are going to do with it from the moment we open it. Respond, delete, or process and file — these are our basic options. Don’t check email, own it. And don’t be afraid to delete. Not everything deserves to be in the National Archives. Just delete it.
And lastly, being kind to our fellow email users can help us, too. Use subject lines that are actually useful; don’t grab an old email with an unrelated subject line simply because we’re too lazy to re-type the email recipients. The subject line is going to help us when messages get replies, particularly in email systems that use threaded conversations.
Files, By Any Other Name
Image files breed on our computer’s hard drive. Spreadsheets seem to be spreading. Word processing documents run wild. The cycle never ends.
Organizational software can be a patch. Perhaps we don’t have the time to go back and individually re-name and organize a decade’s worth of photos of our kids and dog. A quick fix is to get software that finds and adds tags or other useful content to our photos without the agony of individually slogging through our cyclopean collection . Picasa is a good, free option, but there are others available. While such software won’t fix a decade of poor organizing, it will help in the management of all of those image files and gives you the chance to get things in order bit by bit. There is no better time to start organizing like now, however, even if it only involves renaming files. It’s never too late to rename your photo files from something other than the default DSC-99999OMG.
Set your computer up with a folder structure that make sense. Base it on how we generally tend to organize our work and thoughts. Whether by client, by project, by date, by collaboration, or by sharing status, set up a folder structure that works, and use it. Naming a file something useful, as opposed to “File 01″ or “Project For Today”, is going to help, too. Consider what the key search words might be used a year from now when we need that file and it isn’t fresh in our mind. Will our naming system include client, project, and version? Come up with something that allows each file to stand alone in a search, and not be based on the folder it is located in. That is, knowing it’s in “Folder A” might seem to allow you to get away with “Project 01″ as a file name, but if that file should ever be moved from that folder, will we know what it is? Good folder structure and good stand-alone file names will be a godsend when we’re doing a search.
Are We In Sync?
Syncing files across multiple devices is a big deal. We have smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, work computers, home computers…transferring files through USB or flash drives doesn’t cut it. We need to sync, or work in the cloud, particularly for our collaborative projects. Syncing services are easy enough to find, like Dropbox and SugarSync. Syncing is different than backing up (which we definitely should be doing). It’s allowing us to work on our documents, access our files, and in general, be less chained to our computer while still maintaining file integrity.
Working, creating, and storing documents directly in the cloud using Google Docs is another option. This still requires a system of organization, however, because cloud storage can be just as wild as our harddrive if we let it. Categories replace folders, but choosing a good name for files is still crucial.
Two Degrees Of Follow-Through
As with any system of organization, if it’s too complicated and fussy, we won’t do it.
The effort to be organized can’t exceed the benefit of being organized, or we just won’t keep it up. Organizing our digital life is no different. If it takes more than two or three clicks or levels of folders, if it isn’t possible to do within a five-second window, we won’t do it. Systems of organizing email and files that involve multiple folders and sub-folders on sub-folders and several levels of categorization some extra tags thrown in for fun just aren’t going to happen. We can’t remember that complicated of a method, we won’t file things consistently with that much sub-division, and in the end, we’re still unorganized.
Two or three clicks or levels. In five seconds. No more than that.
As with all things having to do with being organized, our plan has to be simple and decisive, and we’ll need to consider the extra tools (software or cloud/syncing options) that it’ll take to get us to digital nirvana.