Last updated in February 2018
In our not-too-distant analog past, bills, correspondence, and photos were physical stuff: snapshots waiting for arrangement into albums, piles of phone bills dating back to 1973 needing a file-cabinet sort, shoeboxes of love letters, etc.
Today we’re bombarded with digital clutter: zillions of vacation pics and a sea of email, from bank statements to must-keep tax documents. It’s enough to eat all your hard drive space, and maybe, your brain.
Here are tips on corralling your digital life. If you’re a technophobe, or just don’t have time, consider hiring a personal organizer to do it for you. In just a few hours, most can clean up your virtual mess and set up systems to keep it tidy. Reasonably priced services charge $75 to $125 per hour. Click here for our advice on organizers.
Take Control of Your Email
A quick way to reduce email? Use the free app Unroll.Me. Sign up, and you’ll see a list of your email subscriptions. The app then asks what you want to do with each. Brace yourself: Our editorial director signed up and found she was on 200 lists—a lot of hype for J.Crew sweaters and such. Go through the list and indicate whether you want to unsubscribe, keep, or send future emails through Door #3, Unroll.Me’s “Rollup” digest that diverts and groups emails into a single daily summary.
Then, stop subscribing to so many lists! When buying online, at checkout be diligent about unticking the boxes offering to keep you informed about the retailers’ often-phony sales and new arrivals.
Even if you want every email newsletter for your fave fly-fishing/shoe-selling/Harry Potter fan-fiction websites, set up a separate email address devoted to promos, which will remove tons of clutter from your primary inbox.
Many email clients (including Gmail and Outlook) let you sort email into categories. With Outlook, for example, you can right-click on messages and sort them into preset categories (Bills, Documents, Family) or ones you create.
Consider setting up rules so most of your email gets presorted. Most email clients let you do this (in Gmail, rules are called “filters”) so that all mail from your pals at Checkbook.org hits your main inbox, while your bank statements get shuttled to “Finance,” and so on.
Set aside a block of time each week to go through your emails to sort or delete them. But unless you’re a psycho (like our executive editor), give up on an inbox-zero objective. (Editor’s note: I’m not a psycho; I’m just super-diligent about my inbox.) Sure, it might seem cleansing to return to some primordial time when each missive you got was a treat (“You’ve got mail!”), but it’s probably healthier to accept that your email is a vital filing system, not a task to conquer. Most of us have so much stuff going on (work tasks, plans for upcoming birthday parties and gifts, plots to overthrow the government) that we’re always going to have dozens of emails lingering in our inboxes. Ideally, you’ll file, sort, or delete these items once your project/bash/coup is complete. But cut yourself a little slack: Most emails don’t take up a lot of room, and if you completely clear your inbox you’ll lose the benefit of it acting as a helpful reminder system.
Storing Photos, Music, and Other Stuff
For financial, legal, and tax documents, know what you need to keep and what you can delete—and what you should print out and stash as backup. Keep paper records of tax returns (for at least five years, but the longer the better); real estate records; birth certificates; Social Security cards; divorce decrees; and death and marriage certificates. But quit your file-clerk second job and sign up for electronic delivery of bank and investment account statements, insurance policies, credit card or utility bills, charity receipts, payroll info, and most other financial documents.
For items you save to your computer, make searches easy. One of the biggest digital-doofus moves many of us make is downloading or saving documents (insurance statements, charity receipts, etc.) and not naming them to allow for easy retrieval later. Consistently label filenames, incorporate dates for statements and bills (for example, “Amex_2017_March”), and use long, descriptive names (“recipe_peanut_brittle.doc”) to help you find random stuff. And, of course, use folders to keep everything sorted, rather than stashing it all on your desktop.
Backing It All Up
There’s a saying among IT pros: If it doesn’t exist in more than one independent place, it doesn’t exist. Your beloved devices are doomed eventually to fail. Unless you have a backup plan, there’s a danger they’ll drag your work, tax returns, and all those pics of your adorable children with them to digital hell. Set up your computers to automatically back up important data to an external drive or to a cloud-based service. The advantage of using a cloud is that you eliminate the danger of a fire or robbery destroying both your computer and its backup device; and as you continue to accumulate snapshots of your precious Sally and Stan, you’ll never run out of storage space.
When shopping for a backup hard or cloud drive, keep in mind:
- A big advantage cloud services have over physical drives? You can log on from anywhere. Take a pic with your phone, save it to the cloud, then use your computer (or a friend’s) to log on to the cloud and download it. If you go to work and leave your laptop at home, you can access the laptop’s backed-up files from your cubicle.
- Many companies (Dropbox, Apple, Google, Amazon, MegaBackup, MediaFire, FlipDrive) offer free cloud backup, usually capped at 2 to 5GB, which is plenty for most of us. If you need more, sign up with two or three services, or buy a large-capacity plan. For example, with Amazon you can get 100GB of space for $11.99 a year and 1TB for $59.99 a year. MegaBackup offers unlimited backup for $83.88 a year; FlipDrive provides 10GB free or 100GB for $10 a month or $120 a year.
- If you mostly have photos and home videos to store, Google+ offers users unlimited free cloud storage for them, with the caveat that you’ll need to cap your video resolution at 1080p and your photo resolution at 16 megapixels (not a problem for most of us). Amazon Prime members can back up unlimited pics and video to its cloud for free.
- Get a hard drive or cloud storage service that offers a syncing feature. When you plug in a backup drive or log on to a cloud service’s website, these devices or sites automatically scan the folders you want backed up, examine them for changes, and save new or altered files. As long as you correctly designate the folders where you’ve saved stuff you want to keep, you don’t have to do anything else.
- But if you enable syncing features, don’t treat cloud backup as a secondary storage device if your computer runs low on space. If you upload a file onto your cloud account, and then delete the copy from your hard drive, the service will notice the deletion while syncing, assume you deleted it because you no longer wanted it, and delete the uploaded copy.
- Before signing on for terabytes of backup space to stow your music and movies, check with the vendors who sold them to you. Most digital music and movie sellers allow you to re-download content you own, so backing up these files is unnecessary.