Basic principles for organizing your digital life

Organized Desk

I just started reading the The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin, and I'm totally fascinated. If that sentence makes you want to punch me in the face, I won’t blame you — but if you allow the librarian in me to indulge in this vein of nerdiness for a few paragraphs, I think you just might like the outcome.

So, a few key points from The Organized Mind: our brains are awesome. We were created to retain an incomprehensible amount of memories, but retrieving said memories is the difficult part. Living in the Information Age now requires us to process more data at a faster rate. (Please note, this is a grossly simplified paraphrase).

My day-to-day life requires systems; without them, I get mega stressed. I get most stressed when everything seems fuzzy — when projects seem big and impossible because I haven’t taken the time to break them down into bite-sized, manageable tasks. I almost always need to brain dump before I begin! And since so much of my life is spent in front of a ding-dang computer, having systems for my digital life is essential.

Therefore, here my are 5 basic principles for organizing your digital life:

1. Get over the guilt

It’s not just pregnancy brain or baby fog or Monday morning mind — it’s science, y’all. We’re bombarded by information (images, music, words, text messages, new recipes, apps… you get the point). Lose your keys? So what! Misplace your kid’s birth certificate? Whatevs! Forget your lunch on the counter the fourth day in a row? It’s all good!

You’re not less intelligent or flawed, even if your coworker calls you a space cadet — you’re human. You’re human and your brain is performing, like, a million operations a minute. So get over feeling guilty or silly or frazzled… and then tweak your system.

2. Build systems that make sense to you…

...but that other people can figure out. When someone walks into your kitchen looking for a drinking glass, you want them to be able to find it. And just as that person is likely to look in a cabinet near the sink for that glass ( or in the event that someone else needs to find or use, say, a file of yours on the network drive) they’re also likely to look in standard locations first.

This is especially imperative if you have specific roles at home (e.g. bill paying!) or work (e.g. statistic keeping!). Good systems enable all potential users to work efficiently.

Good systems do, however, sometimes need a key, so don’t be afraid to create one.  Libraries, for example, use highly sophisticated classification schemas to organize books and materials, but you have to understand the key if you ever want to find anything. (Fun fact: when Melvil Dewey created his decimal system in 1876, he set out to create a way to organize ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Plan ahead, much?)

3. Commit and invest

This is a do as I say, not as a I do point. Pick one, or maybe two, containers for your digital life. For instance, use Google Drive or DropBox or Amazon Cloud Storage, but not all three. This will drastically improve retrieval because if everything is in one place you don’t have to remember where it is. Yeah! Commit to one thing and then don’t hesitate to invest in it (i.e., you may have to pay for or earn more storage at some point).

Using one place or container also creates an opportunity to eliminate redundancy and to reveal connections within your items. Evernote is especially wonderful for this. Need help choosing which system to use? Stay tuned, I gotcha covered.

4. Use naming conventions and be consistent

Because, duh. If you’re filing receipt images, decide if you’re a YYYY-MM-DD or a DD-MM-YYYY kind of person (hint: be the former. it’s better for long-term archiving).

You’re creating an index so that you can quickly access things later on. I like to control my own vocabulary: if I’m saving recipes, for instance, I will decide to call chickpeas chickpeas instead of garbanzo beans, and I will try my damnedest to do so consistently. This way I can find all of my recipes that contain chickpeas in one place instead of two. #authoritycontrolFTW

5. Work smarter, not harder

Even though information overload complicates life, the one thing that I absolutely love about the digital age is the abundance of tools and apps that allow you to automate life. Analyze the way that you work--what takes up the most time? Which parts do you hate doing the most? Start tracking the tasks that frustrate you most, because we'll be showcasing some of our favorite tools and apps for the most common issues. And in the meantime, don’t stress out if these principles seem overwhelming. Our goal is working less, and we’re gonna get there...eventually!

What are your favorite ways to keep your head clear and your digital life tidy?