By Michelle Ricker June 29, 2021
Summary: Organizing your digital life is just as important as decluttering your physical space, but it can be harder to know where to start. By understanding why it’s important to pare down your files, how to structure your process, and how to stay organized in the long term, you’ll feel light as a bird in no time.
Whether you call it getting organized, purging, the KonMari method, or decluttering, there are few things many of us love more than sorting through what we have and deciding what stays and what goes. And while moving is a great opportunity to do that, you don’t have to be packing up all of your physical belongings to declutter your digital life. It can be done — even if you’ve got every email dating back to when you got your first account! Let us walk you through why it’s so important, where to start, and how to do it.
According to Moore’s Law, the speed and capability of computers will double every two years. That also means the amount of data we generate (and hang on to) grows at an increasing rate. In 2010, the amount of worldwide data was 2 zettabytes. In 2020, it was 64.2 zettabytes. (Wondering what a zettabyte is? It’s 1 trillion gigabytes.)
In other words, the amount of digital “stuff” you have is only going to increase as time goes on. So there’s no time like the present to get on top of it.
“But it’s not taking up any space!” is a common cry when it comes to organizing the information on a computer. And no, your digital files aren’t creating precarious towers that clutter your office corner or your kitchen table. But they are taking up space. Between the brainpower that’s used to sift through unorganized documents and the memory space on your device or storage system, excess digital files do have a real impact.
Not to mention, if you need any of your files but your digital landscape is a mess, you won’t know where to look. Keeping everything makes it much harder to find anything when you need it.
If you’ve avoided this process because it feels unwieldy, the truth is, yes, it takes a while. However, it’s certainly manageable and absolutely worth it.
Ready to get started? Let’s go. But remember, throughout this process, it’s important to stay patient with yourself and regularly chip away at your clutter.
In other words, meet your files where they currently live. Are they spread across three devices? Are some located in a cloud system, some on a device, and some on an external hard drive? If you’re doing a complete reorganization, be sure to gather everything together. If you’re starting with your main device (for example, your laptop), then stick with that and try not to get distracted by other data storage locations (such as your phone). You’ll get to them eventually.
Just like you would never shove a stack of loose papers into a filing cabinet drawer and slam it shut (you wouldn’t, right?), you should avoid having piles of unorganized files in your digital life. We’re big advocates for folders — and subfolders! — that are organized in a way that makes sense for you.
Does sorting your photos by year make the most sense? Or is it easier if you organize them by event type (such as “vacations,” “birthdays,” and “family reunions”)? Whatever works best for you, or some combination of organization types utilizing subfolders (if you travel a lot, you might have a main “vacations” folder and a “2021” subfolder under that to group your travels together with specific trip folders under that). Your filing system should work for you and should make it intuitive to find whatever you need at a moment’s notice.
At this point, you’ve decided exactly what you’re sorting and how you’re filing it. There’s nothing left but to do it! If you’re sorting files like Word and Excel documents, you can see when the document was created and when it was last opened. Simply seeing how long it’s been since you last needed the document could help you determine whether or not it needs to take up space in your new system.
As for photos, consider if you want that snapshot in a printed or digital album. Make sure it’s in the right format if you decide to keep it. If you’re not attached to the photo, or it’s serving no purpose, delete it. The rule of thumb is that you should be deleting around 80% of your photos — especially if this is your first time culling through your files. If you’re not sure, now’s a great time to look into an online backup tool to keep your data safer, but not on your device. (More on that later.)
If you’re sorting through hundreds of gigabytes of files, take breaks! Set a stopping point (whether that’s after an hour of organizing, once you’ve sorted through 100 photos, or at another easily measurable spot), and make a schedule to regularly dive back in. Whatever you choose, just make sure you keep that momentum propelling you forward.
Once you’ve gotten organized, the next step is staying organized. That way, you hopefully never have to go through this long process again.
Part of staying organized is making sure you have a solid backup system. There are two main options for this: an external hard drive or a cloud system. An external hard drive is often cheaper, as you only pay the upfront equipment cost. However, you also have to remember to regularly back up your files, and if your hard drive fails there’s often no good way to retrieve lost files. This is an option for folks who want everything still in their hands and can stay on top of it, but you won’t be able to set it and forget it. Set a reminder instead.
A cloud backup system, on the other hand, does require a monthly fee but automates everything for you. Once you’ve got the files organized, you can create rules for what folders you want synced to the cloud. Worried your files aren’t safe? Cloud storage systems are extremely secure, using advanced encryption to protect your data — and most have your data password protected, too, making it virtually unhackable.* They also store duplicate copies of your files across multiple servers. In other words, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll ever lose your files.
To stay organized, make sure you’re only syncing the files you know you’ll need or want, and the photos you’ve already sorted through. Otherwise, you’ll be duplicating work for yourself.
Even if you opt for a cloud system, consider making some type of schedule for digital maintenance. This could be tacked on to the schedule for tidying your space (for example, if you wash all your linens on Sundays, clean up your files while the washer is running) or to a specific day of the month. Again, the best schedule is the one that works for you that you can remember. Take that time to organize and delete any files, clear out your downloads folder, install software updates, and generally maintain your digital organization.
If you’ve been procrastinating a digital declutter because it seemed overwhelming, we hope this guide helped. Once you’ve done the heavy lifting, you can choose your backup system and create a schedule to maintain all the hard work you’ve done. It’s also a good idea to audit your social media presence, so we created a separate blog post to help with that. If you’re looking for a high-speed internet provider with no data caps and an easy cloud storage option, EarthLink just might be your answer.
*Hardly anything is perfectly unhackable, so be mindful about how and where you store your data and how it can be accessed.
Michelle Ricker is a Copywriter for EarthLink. She recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an M.A. in Communication and has more than 5 years of writing experience. She thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She currently lives and works in Atlanta.
See all posts from Michelle Ricker.