So Squared Away

How to Organize Your Electronic Data


By Marlene Devine

As the world moves towards paperless solutions, trees are saved, our carbon footprint is reduced, landfills are spared...all good news. The bad news? There's a whole new way to be disorganized: Lost emails as in-boxes overflow, random computer folders where it's impossible to find what you were just working on, digital pictures never to be seen again. It is possible be "e-organized" by applying some of the same rules you use for paper clutter. Some of the most common types of files that most people deal with are email, website bookmarks/favorites, files, and pictures.

Email - The easiest way to keep your email under control is to treat it just like paper mail should be treated: keep the "pile" small. Get rid of junk mail immediately by deleting on sight. You know the kind I'm referring to. Practically every website requires you to sign up to read or access anything on their site and then you're automatically on the mailing list. In some cases, that's exactly what you want. In other cases, not so much. Before you delete those unwanted advertisements and newsletters you must do one very important step. All the way at the bottom of the message there is an "unsubscribe" option. Click that before you delete the message to avoid receiving the messages in the first place. You'll be amazed at how this cuts down on the junk mail.

Most email programs provide the ability to create folders to sort messages. USE THEM. In setting up your folders you need to consider how you look for things. Do you look for messages by topic? By person? By date? For work, I separate by project, but my personal email I sort by topic: "Account Updates" for all of the monthly statements I receive, "Online Ordering" for all receipts and messages about online shopping, "School" for all notices from my children's school...you get the idea. Pick distinct topics that work for you. As soon as you read a message, file it. Just like paper, you have to stay on top of it.

Websites - Keeping folders for all website bookmarks or favorites is the key way to stay organized while surfing the web. Using the same principles, create and label folders to sort your bookmarks/favorites. Use very specific titles. If you make the folder label too general, "Home" for example, you'll find yourself with an unmanageable list that can't be searched easily. Don't worry about having too many folders. You can always delete it when you're done. For instance, if you're shopping for a new water heater and researching factors such as performance, prices, and reviews, create a folder named "water heater shopping" and delete it once you've made your purchase.

Don't know how to set up bookmarks or folders on your browser? Go to the Help section of your favorite browser and search "organizing bookmarks".

Another easy way to organize websites is to use programs specifically created for organizing your bookmarks, such as Diigo and Delicious. Sites like Pinterest provide a visual way to bookmark sites as well.

Files - Documents and spreadsheets should always be filed in folders, using the same naming convention you've used for your email and bookmarks. A little trick I use on my computer to make folders group together at the top of the list is to put a symbol in front of the title, e.g., "_Project file 1", "_Project file 2", then all of the folders with that symbol get grouped together. It's important to keep naming conventions consistent so you can easily access the files again.

A simple way to keep the number of "junk" files down on your computer is to keep a subfolder for old or superseded versions. As you update the file or have revisions, put the old ones in this subfolder. Not only will it help with version control and ensure you have the correct version, but when the project or file is complete, you can delete the entire subfolder, clearing up space and "clutter".

Pictures - As you download your digital pictures to your computer, using a standard naming convention for folders will make it easy to access the pictures when you need them. For instance, name each folder with the year first, then the month, then an occasion, such as "2011 02 Florida trip". Using numbers for the months instead of the name of the month keeps things in order, since alphabetizing month names isn't ideal here.

This one will sound extreme: Delete some pictures. You'll be amazed at how you can pare down the volume of digital photos if you just keep the ones that are actually worth keeping. If the picture is blurry, crooked, or unidentifiable, delete it. If you have five versions of the same photo with no major differences, go ahead and delete a few of them. The digital world makes it possible to take unlimited pictures, but just because a picture was taken doesn't mean it needs to be kept forever. It will make your life easier. Fewer photos means less time uploading/downloading and searching for the right photo, less space taken up on your computer, and less "clutter."

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