Despite the fact that so much of life is now lived digitally, the springtime urge to tidy things up and get our affairs in order often stops at our computers. Perhaps it's because a cluttered desktop doesn't have the physical presence of a cluttered closet or messy garage, which makes it easier to ignore. But it can have just as much drag on your life.
"When we have so much [on our computers]and it's so cluttered, not only is it difficult to find things, but it's so difficult that it limits us from being able to get the work done that we need to get done," says Patrick Rhone, a Minnesota-based technology consultant who writes the blog Minimal Mac, about customizing computers so that they only do what you need and no more.
Decluttering your computer will help you simplify your life.
Here's how to do it.
THE THREE-MINUTE SOLUTION
Organizing your computer will take three minutes, Mr. Rhone says. Take everything on your computer and put it all in a file called "My stuff." Everything else follows from that. "The goal is to get things to a state where you can set yourself up to organize as you go," Mr. Rhone says. "When you need to work with something, take it out, work with it, but then put it away where it belongs."
So many of us never spring clean our computers because the costs – in terms of time, effort, attention – seem too high. But by lumping files into a single folder and then placing them in their proper place as you use them, those long-term costs are suddenly cut, Mr. Rhone says.
Taking the first step is the hardest part of any project like this, says Linda Chu, a professional organizer in Vancouver. Conquering the challenge is a matter of "consistency over time," she says. Don't feel you have to finish the job in one sitting. That's just setting up an unnecessary burden. Instead, resolve to spend a small chunk of time – it could be three minutes or an hour – organizing your files every time you turn on the computer. It's probably going to take no more than a week to get your digital life in order.
Choose whatever filing system makes sense for you, whether alphabetical, chronological or arranged in some other way. "It depends on you and your own brain," says Ms. Chu.
Just make sure to keep your file names short and clear. Any file named "TBQ" will only make you scratch your head down the road.
"Going through and cleaning up photos, getting rid of duplicates, making sure everything is named properly goes a long way to making sure you can find what you want really quickly," says Ben Kaye, a Windows Live product manager at Microsoft.
As well, keep your folders to a minimum by nesting them. For example, you might keep all your folders with tax-return information for different years inside a larger folder marked "Tax returns."
Just be sure to that your filing system is as simple and streamlined as possible.
"People spend so much time with elaborate, perfect systems. They colour code, they get labels to do green files for this and yellow files for this. They create these complicated systems only to have one file in the folder," Ms. Chu says.
Just as you get rid of old clothes when you clean out your closet, be ready to send documents and programs you no longer use to the junk heap. "People should be pretty ruthless," Mr. Rhone says. "Your computer is a tool, and you want a tool that is purpose-built for you – no more, no less."
First, uninstall programs you don't use. "You don't have to have Excel on your computer if you never use it," Mr. Rhone says. "Reinstall it when you need it and uninstall it when you don't." Follow that by getting rid of documents you will never need again. Then delete duplicate photos or pictures you don't want as well as music you no longer listen to, which will open up room on your hard drive.
Keep only the things you use regularly or may need in the future, such as your invoices if you run a business, and get rid of the digital equivalents of that old shirt you haven't worn in years and doesn't fit any more.
BACK IT UP
There's no point in putting in the work to organize your computer when there's a chance you could wind up losing all of those files, documents and programs. Get an external hard drive. Back up anything that would be hard or impossible to replace. And back up your files regularly.