There has been a big trend in the last few years with decluttering. Suddenly organization has become trendy, which is something I’m not mad about at all. Shows on Netflix like “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “The Home Edit” have inspired many people to look at all their stuff and find better ways to put it away or display it. With more people at home during the pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about garages, pantries, and closets getting cleared out, organized, and looking better than ever. I’ve never heard so many people excited about spring cleaning.

But what we don’t hear about is digital clutter. All those desktop icons, random files, and “miscellaneous” folders you plan on going through soon but never get around to. Trying to remember where you put a document because it’s not where you think it should be and you can’t remember the exact name to search. That nagging thought in the back of your mind that you really should back up your computer, but you never seem to think about it when you actually have time to do it.

Digital clutter can have the same negative effects as physical clutter, especially when you’re trying to get your work done. It can be distracting, slow down your productivity, and drain you of your energy. The problem is, once you close your laptop or turn off your computer, you don’t see it anymore. It doesn’t take up space the same way as too many clothes in a closet or a bunch of unlabeled bins in the garage, so it’s easier to ignore. But it can take up a lot of time if you can’t easily find the files you need throughout the day. I know I’ve mentioned how I feel about notifications and how just seeing that little red circle can irritate me. I’m the same way with a busy desktop on a computer. When I see someone working and there are folders and files all over, especially when they’re not even in alignment, all I can do is wonder how they function.

Some people will say they actually function better in chaos. That things might be messy, but they know where everything is within the mess. And I’m sure that can be true to some degree, but that’s more of a band aid than a solution. It’s like taking the giant pile of receipts and other documents and sticking them all inside of a drawer rather than filing them where they belong. Sure, then you don’t have to see the clutter, but somewhere inside you still know it’s there. And yes, I say this from experience. I used to do it all the time because, for whatever reason, I really don’t like filing. I don’t have to do it much, it’s not hard, it doesn’t even take very long. I just don’t like it. But, I also can’t handle stacks of papers and other things on my desk while I work. So I have to keep up with it, whether I like it or not. We all have our things.

Put a system in place and follow it.

The best way to digitally declutter is to put a system in place and follow it. Make it part of your workflow so it becomes a habit you don’t even have to think about anymore. The worst thing is to say, “I don’t have time to do that right now,” and put it off and then by the time you get around to it you have so many files it’s going to take you significantly longer to do. Remember my 5-minute rule – if it’s going to take less than 5 minutes, do it now. Naming a file or creating an email folder shouldn’t take more than a few seconds, and you’ll be glad you got it out of the way.

The trick is to figure out a process that works for your brain so it’s easy to follow and maintain. It has to make sense to you or you won’t keep up with it. The easiest and greatest system in the world for one person might be incredibly confusing to someone else. So keep that in mind, whether you’re listening to this, reading a blog about a similar topic, or actively searching online for the “best” solution. Getting ideas can be helpful to get started, but chances are no one else out there is going to do things in the exact way that’s perfect for you. And you don’t want to spend so much time searching that you don’t get anything accomplished. I’ve been there plenty of times and it’s not a good place to be!

That being said, I’ll take you through some of my digital organization systems to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Starting with the most important part of my business, my clients. Without them, I don’t have any work, so that’s why they are priority.

I have a “Clients” folder that lives within my documents and is linked under my favorites so I can access it easily. Within that folder, everything is separated by year. That helps me keep track of specific jobs better. I don’t want one giant folder with everything I’ve ever done because that’s just more clutter! I’ll talk about archiving later, but I generally keep the current year plus the two previous years on my computer because, in my line of work, I do have to refer back to older jobs fairly often so it’s easier to keep those files accessible to be safe.

Within each year, each client has its own folder, which is labeled simply as the name of the company or person. Inside of that, each project gets its own folder, and everything related to it goes in there. Sometime that folder will get organized further, depending on what is needed. Like for a production, I’ll have folders for receipts, releases, permits, internal procedures, and those kinds of things. It all depends on what makes sense for each project.

Label everything file it says exactly what it is.

Each file is named specifically as well. You won’t ever find IMG_3568.jpg or a series of jumbled letters and numbers for the name of a PDF I downloaded on my computer. As soon as I download something, I name it what it is. I have a system for this, too. I’m sure you’re not surprised. It’s usually something along the lines of CLIENT_Date_Description. As an example, a handout I created for a workshop I teach at the Voice Actors Studio is labeled TVAS_091020_BookkeepingBasics. One note here, I give each client a 3- or 4-letter code so I’m not ending up with ridiculously long filenames. Do you know why? Because that looks like more clutter to me.

Basically the idea is that everything says exactly what it is. In theory, anyone could intuitively understand how my system works. Meaning you might not have any idea what I do, but if I give you my laptop and ask you to find a FedEx receipt for a shipment related to job X in 2019, it wouldn’t take you very long because of the way it’s all organized. Consistency is important with everything, and this is no exception. If you structure everything the same way, you don’t even have to think about those little things anymore.

This naming convention also helps if I need to search for a file on my computer. That’s why I include the client or vendor code in the filename, too. In some cases, I’m working with the same file types for a lot of different companies. I’ll use W9s as an example, because I have a lot of those. Say I need to find a W9 for Person A and it’s not where I think it should be, but I know I have it. I can do a search for W9 and find it easily because the person’s name is right there. But if I labeled each one with just W9 because it’s in a folder that says that person’s name already, doing that search would present several files and I’d have to open each one to see if it’s the right one. Not efficient.

I use this exact same method for managing emails as well. I briefly mentioned this in the episode where I talked about how I accidentally deleted all of my inboxes. Fortunately, when that happened, this system is what saved me and made what could’ve been a complete disaster nothing more than a funny story. My inbox is my to-do list, and once something is done, it gets filed into a folder. It’s organized by year, by client, by project, and whatever specifics apply to that job. The only things I delete entirely are things I know for certain I will never need again, like a Zoom invitation or the 23 people responding “Thanks!” to a group email. Everything else gets filed in case I need to reference it again at some point in the future. This has been beyond helpful in many situations.

Digital organization is important beyond my client work as well. This podcast is a perfect example. I have a podcast folder and inside that, each episode has its own folder. Within that is another folder for the various assets, which are the audio & video recordings, images, graphics, my intro, and all that fun stuff. The only files I put into the main folder for each episode are the finished pieces – the MP3 file of the podcast, the video file (if there is one), the image graphic, and the transcript. I also have a master spreadsheet, color-coded of course, to help me keep track of each step of each episode. I have tabs on that sheet for planning, content, topic ideas, potential guests, and more. I like spreadsheets because I can keep everything in one file. Less clutter. It’s a pattern, see?

Decluttering helps you take care of your business.

Decluttering isn’t just about getting a clean desktop or being able to search for files, though. It’s also about record-keeping and taking care of your business. When you’re organized, you don’t waste time looking for things or trying to figure out what happened 3 years ago when a client has a question. You might think you don’t need to know anything that far back, and that might be true most of the time, but I’ve been called some names by my clients. Magical. Superhero. Things like that. I’ve been able to find details that seem impossible solely because of my process.

I’ve mentioned that I was a project manager for the 2016 Presidential Debate in Las Vegas. I worked on that event for 9 months. It involved a lot of people and a lot of details. It was changing constantly. I was in charge of the budget and had to show the numbers in so many different ways – detailed, simplified, a pie chart, categorizing information in multiple ways, and how it evolved from one version to the next. There is no way I could remember all of that stuff years later. But, in 2019, that client was trying to find out a specific piece of information – on what date the debate had decided to eliminate the option of a third party candidate. They had been trying to figure it out internally without much success, so they called me. It only took me a few minutes – I got the hard drive, plugged it in, opened my client folder, and because of how my files were organized, I was able to pinpoint it to a period of 4 days that the decision was made. Not magic. Just organization.

I also have a system for my invoices and payments beyond my actual accounting software. Yes, everything lives in Quickbooks. But what if something happens to Quickbooks? You can never be too cautious with your business. So I keep digital copies of client invoices and payments. If I receive a check, I scan it and add it to the invoice PDF so there’s an easy reference of what it was and how it was paid. I have PDFs of every expense receipt, whether it was emailed, downloaded, or a scanned paper receipt, all labeled by date, vendor & purpose. I rarely need those files, but it’s a matter of having a backup for those “just in case” moments.

Backups & Archives are important.

Speaking of backups. That’s an important part of digital decluttering as well. It’s not just about having important files in multiple places in case a hard drive dies, although that’s pretty important. If you’ve ever had a hard drive quit on you, I’m sure you know how devastating it can be if you can’t recover something. Sometimes they can be repaired, but it can be costly and there’s never a guarantee. So having copies somewhere is good for peace of mind.

Here’s what my backup system entails. My devices are all set to automatically back up. My phone & tablet go to the cloud and my computers use Time Machine so everything is backed up to an external hard drive every hour without me having to do anything. Beyond that, I save important files to separate external hard drives every month. And I use another cloud service for additional storage of certain things. Is it redundant? Yes. Do I care? No. I would rather be overly cautious than not cautious enough.

These extra drives aren’t just for backups, though. They’re also for archiving files I no longer want to keep on my computer at all. Just like you probably function better when you have clean space around you, so do your machines. If you are using most of your storage, they have to work harder and it can slow down everything you do. So it’s helpful to get stuff off of there if you can. Like I said earlier, I usually keep the current year plus the previous 2 years’ files on my computer. Older years have been archived onto external hard drives so I still have everything, but it isn’t slowing down anything I’m doing currently. The biggest files I’m working with are related to this podcast, so each month I archive the episodes that have been published. It’s part of my routine that helps me stay uncluttered.

I got a new iMac earlier this year. The one I had was about 9 years old and not very robust. It had been fine for what I was doing, but it became clear that because I’m working with more video & audio files, I needed an upgrade. Typically, when I get a new computer, I copy everything from one to the other. But I realized I’ve been doing this for so long, there’s a good chance there was plenty of stuff on there I didn’t actually need, and I didn’t want to bring that onto the new one, so I started from scratch. My brother gave me some good advice about only storing documents and small files on the computer’s main hard drive and keeping the larger files on external hard drives. Back in the day, that could get pretty clunky, but hard drives are so tiny and cute now, it’s easy to have some 2TB SSD drives connected for all that stuff. So between the new, more powerful, less cluttered computer, & my upgraded Internet, I’m so much more efficient than I was when I started. A video that used to take me an hour to upload now goes up in minutes. So there’s something to be said about making an investment in new equipment. Sometimes we hold off because we don’t want to spend the money, but we don’t realize how much time it’s costing us. Something to think about.

Stay focused & don’t waste your time figuring out where things are.

Digital decluttering might not be the most exciting topic. I get it. But maybe we can find the same joy in tidying up our machines as we do organizing a pantry. I apply the ideas I’ve talked about here to every document, spreadsheet, photo, and anything else that lives digitally on my machines. It helps me stay focused on what I need to do without wasting time figuring out where things are. I have been told I’m too organized. And I’m okay with that. I love having a place for everything. I love a good color-coded spreadsheet. This is what works for me and keeps my brain happy. Find what works for you and get rid of that digital clutter. You might not be able to show it off in a pretty picture, but you’ll still feel good inside.