Getting rid of clutter is an excellent way to reduce stress. Less stuff simply means having less to take care of. But don’t just think about decluttering your home or your wardrobe. Our digital spaces need attention, too. First and foremost, our cluttered file storage. Decluttering and better organizing digital files, though, can be quite a big task. But here is a step by step guide to get this done once and for all.
Declutter and Better Organize Digital Files in 5 Steps
- Get an overview.
- Identify important documents and keep them safe.
- Delete what you no longer need.
- Organize the files you want to keep.
- Establish new habits to stay organized.
Step 1: Get an Overview
As with any decluttering project, you first need an overview. But where to start when there are hundreds or thousands of digital documents stored somewhere on our computers? The best way, so I can tell, is to find files that have something in common. And then handle them in batches. Here’s how to sort and search through your cluttered file storage:
- Sort your folders and documents by date. Check the most recent for a better understanding of what’s currently important to you. Then check the oldest files. Do they still offer any value? Can you remember why you saved them in the first place?
- Sort your files by size. Take a closer look at large files as they’re eating up storage space. Deleting large files you no longer need can save real money. Especially when you’re about to upgrade your paid cloud storage plan.
- Sort your files by type, such as .pdf, .jpg, .docx. Grouping them by type gives you a better idea of what belongs together.
- Search for specific files by name or keyword. This works best when your files are named properly.
- Look for empty folders and delete them. Delete the empty ones and give every ‘New Folder’ a (temporary) name that reflects its content.
Check all files saved in the documents folder, the download folder, and on your desktop!
Once you have a better overview of your digital files and current filing system, it’s time to declutter thoroughly and organize better.
Step 2: Identify Important Documents and Keep Them Safe
I know it can be tempting to select all and press the delete button. However, there may be files buried under all the digital clutter you need to keep – particularly tax and business-related ones. Try to find all relevant documents in your current filing system using the sorting and searching options above.
Files to Keep
- Legal documents, such as contracts
- Tax-related documents, like invoices and receipts
- All other files for which retention periods apply
- Anything you’re currently working on or need to deal with soon
- Valuable information that can’t be found anywhere else
You’ll probably have to refer to these files later. Thus, they need a proper name. Committing to a naming convention (naming files and folders in a predefined way) makes searching digital files a lot easier and quicker. A file or folder name should include type, purpose, and date. Here are some examples:
If you type in the date in this manner yyyy-mm-dd, matching files are automatically sorted chronologically:
Step 3: Delete What You No Longer Need
Done? Then let’s get started.
I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of files you no longer need. They had their time but no longer offer any value. Start by deleting files that fall into the following categories:
Files to Delete
- Multiple versions of the same document (keep, if any, only the most recent or final version)
- Files that served their purpose (e.g., the material you’ve used to prepare a piece of writing or notes from now obsolete projects)
How to Deal With Digital Photos
Yes, I know. It can be challenging to decide which baby photos you want to keep, or which snapshots from your trip to Paris. However, we can make this decision easier for us. Simply ask yourself which of these photos you’d put in a physical photo album – and keep those.
Photos to Delete
- Photos that are of poor quality (e.g., too blurry, too dark)
- Multiple images that have been taken to get the perfect shot (e.g., for Instagram)
Make it a habit to delete poor quality or duplicate photos before or during uploading them to your image storage. Doing this right away is much faster than finding and deleting them later.
What If There Are Still Too Many Files Left?
If you have years of saved files, just thinking about checking them all can be overwhelming. I can relate. I had a hard time cleaning up my cluttered files too. That’s why I decided to do it in chunks. For this reason, I sorted everything by date and moved files older than three months into a temporary folder. That way, you can still retrieve information if you need it, but the clutter no longer keeps you from being productive. After decluttering the newer files, I first went on and reorganized my folders and improved my filing habits (see below). Once I felt comfortable with the changes, I spent a few minutes a day decluttering and organizing the temporarily archived files.
Step 4: Organize the Files You Want to Keep
I keep my folder structure lean and use my computer’s search function if a folder contains many files. I always name my digital documents in a specific way (see above). Thus, I can easily search and sort them.
To come up with meaningful folder names, think in categories and priorities. If you look at your life, which major topics pop up? Do you use your computer (and other devices) only for business or also for personal purposes? As an example, I changed my filing system entirely after I quit my job to be self-employed. My current filing system has to reflect my life as a blogger and freelancer working from home. Keeping a close eye on my income and staying organized and productive are my top priorities.
Your needs can, of course, be very different. The way you organize yourself has to be cohesive with the priorities in your life. Thus, if your life has significantly changed recently, review how you organize yourself.
This is how I’ve organized my file storage:
Some More Thoughts on My Filing System
- The order of my folders reflects my ‘money’ priority because managing income streams is critical for a freelancer.
- I find it more intuitive to differentiate between business and private documents on sublevel.
- I tried to stay as slim as possible. Only the category ’Projects’ stretches over three levels. To obtain this, I carefully name all my files. Moreover, I never use a (sub-) folder name twice.
Step 5: Establish New Habits to Stay Organized
Suppose you’ve read Marie Kondo’s decluttering bestseller. In that case, you probably know that tidying up thoroughly and daily tidying are two different things. There’s the major tiding event you hopefully have to do only once. And there’s the daily effort you have to invest to keep your home tidy. This also applies to digital spaces. Just like in the physical world, you have to put back what you’ve used. Plus, you have to find a place for new things and discard what has served its purpose. You can either do it right away or allocate some time for it daily.
4 Good Habits to Stay Organized
- Name files and folders thoughtfully, right when saving them.
- Save everything you do in a ‘Work in Progress’ folder. At the end of each day, move final versions to the corresponding folder(s) and delete all temporarily saved files and preliminary document versions.
- Always empty your download folder.*
- Never save anything to your desktop. Enjoy a clean desk (digital and physical!) that doesn’t distract you.
*From my experience, saving to a ‘Work in progress’ folder makes it a lot easier to keep my file storage clutter-free. Because I delete what I don’t really need either right away or at the end of my workday.
Since I’ve established these four habits, I never again had to do a big, tiresome decluttering session.
Is Decluttering and Organizing Digital Files Worth the Effort?
Decluttering and better organizing digital files can be a huge project, and keeping everything tidy needs discipline. However, digital clutter can pile up quickly and will eventually distract us. Other than a cluttered office space, we can choose to ignore it for a little while. But it’s there. So don’t underestimate the impact of digital clutter on your productivity!
The good thing is, once we’ve made it a habit to tidy up our digital spaces daily, it’s only a matter of minutes to keep them clutter-free and well organized.
More Ways to Declutter, Simplify and De-Stress Life
Lately, I shared my 6 most effective ways to de-stress life. In this post, I also looked at ‘digital simplifiers’ and their impact on our stress levels.
Getting rid of clutter is an excellent way to reduce stress. Less stuff simply means having less to take care of. Here’s a collection of posts that can help:
- The KonMari Method: All You Need to Know + Printable Guide
- Wardrobe Decluttering a la Marie Kondo: Pros and Cons
- How to Declutter and Reduce Paperwork to a Minimum
Once you’ve tackled your computer files, look at these areas here, too:
- How to Declutter Your Inbox and Reduce Email Stress
- How to Declutter and Enrich Your Social Media Life
And if not only digital clutter is a problem for you, but a general tech-addiction, I can genuinely recommend a digital detox:
Getting rid of clutter is an excellent way to reduce stress. My latest post on how to live a decluttered life gives you a broader overview of the topic. This comprehensive guide explains 5 reasons why it’s worth it to declutter and shows 5 different ways to do so (KonMari plus 4 other decluttering methods). The article also dives deeper into decluttering specific areas like your personal belongings, home, and workplace. And I added tips on how to deal with mental clutter and which new habits can help maintain a decluttered life over the long run.
If you like the ‘less, but luxe’ idea, follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more tips and inspirations. And don’t forget to join my email list to receive weekly updates plus content that’s exclusively available to my readers.
Do you find it easy to keep digital clutter at bay? What does your filing system look like? Which habits and routines help you stay organized? Let us know in the comments below!