How do you organize your personal/professional desktops?
August 16, 2018 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm feeling overwhelmed with the task of organizing my work and home computers, and guides like this are medium-useful but not handholdy enough ("you can start by going through your computer and deleting files you just don't need" BUT HOW DO I KNOW?!). So I'm really curious about how people do this in practice. Do you have a system that works for you? Tell me about it! I need inspiration!

I work on both a PC and a Mac, and both desktops are cluttered with photos, interesting things I've screencapped, work documents, school documents, creative writing and other personal projects, and leftovers from planning a wedding last year. It's just overwhelming. In particular, the idea of "unused" files, or files I won't "need," is dragging me down. What if I need them in the future? What if I want to go on a nostalgia trip someday? How do you decide what to delete and what to keep, and how do you label all of it? Do you use color-coding?

This is not a general-organization question--I really just want to know what your desktops look like and how you maintain them. My to-do lists are set and I do not want recommendations for Evernote etc. Practical and security matters are taken care of. I work in digital preservation, so it's all here in line with best practices. There's just so much of it.
posted by witchen to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Get a spare hard drive. Anything you have not opened in 6 months goes on the drive.

Then organise whatever is left over and carry on in an organised fashion henceforth.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:47 PM on August 16, 2018

I organize files by the year I created them, and save them to Google Drive. If I really need it later, I’ll be able to find it. In the meantime, it’s not in my way.
posted by samthemander at 12:50 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I live a simple life. I have a work laptop where I keep my work stuff and a lot of personal stuff in a folder under my documents labelled "personal". I trust my company to back up my hard drive every few months.

I have a home computer with more personal stuff - all of that is backed up to dropbox.

I know this isn't terribly helpful to you - but for nostalgia - I just put photos in photos and that's that. When I leave a job I get rid of all the relevant files that I'll never need again.

Last, for screenshots and files I'm testing very briefly - I save in a "delete me whenever" folder that I can empty at any time with no regrets.
posted by bbqturtle at 12:54 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

There is nothing on my desktop except shortcuts. I keep files in folders in my “documents” directory. For me that’s things like “CAD,” “receipts,” “art,” etc, and then things are organized by project within that. I move files I haven’t needed in a few years over to cold storage on an external hard drive. I should really back up Documents to an NAS, and back up my NAS to e.g.: Amazon Glacier, but at this point most anything I actually need is backed up on somebody’s web service anyway...
posted by Alterscape at 1:06 PM on August 16, 2018

Here's my approach to managing my data:
  1. Make sure you have backups of everything important. If data only exists in a single location, it will be lost eventually. Having a good backup is essential before starting on any reorganization plan; like you said, you really can't ever be sure you'll never need something in the future.
  2. If you want to reorganize, don't try to migrate all the data from your old structure to your new one in one blow. Instead, archive everything in the old structure, and then move stuff from the old to the new one as you need it.
  3. Move data you need less frequently off of your computer (e.g. to cloud storage and/or external hard drives or whatever). Wait for a while before making the decision to delete anything (or alternately, you can be like me and just save pretty much everything 'cause hard drives are cheap).
  4. Don't sweat meticulous organizing of data you don't use often. It's probably not worth your time to organize it until you've demonstrated a need for it, and it's usually possible to just search the folder for the things you need.

posted by Aleyn at 1:07 PM on August 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Everything I save goes to Dropbox. Nothing goes to the desktop, nothing to Documents.

Within Dropbox, I have top-level folders for the primary buckets in my life: work, household stuff, "my" stuff (productivity templates, pictures of haircuts I like, reaction gifs, avatar photos, backups of bookmark files, just my general cruft that I carry around with me), photos, writing, personal projects. Every sub-folder within those is oriented to a specific project or type of task, with subfolders as needed, and I try to be specific and date-informative. Everything related to this house in my household folder is in a top-level folder with the address on it. I have a Current WIP folder for writing, but year-dated folders (with titled folders underneath) for dumping stale projects and research. Photos I actually dump in one place because so many photo apps now will sort by date for me.

Not every one of my Dropbox folders is synched on every one of my computers. I don't sync most of my personal stuff, except for one folder that's related to benefits etc, to my work computer. I don't sync my massive CUSTOMERS folder of all my work to my personal computers. At the moment I've got a lot of old software installers only on my cloud Dropbox because I only keep them just in case.

If a computer dies, I install Dropbox on a new computer and choose my selective sync and go on with my life. If I move from my personal laptop in my home office to my living room laptop or my bedroom tablet or hell, I think most of my TVs can access Dropbox if it was that urgent, it's all accessible.

I don't delete much, because the space available to me only expands year over year, but I do use file utilities that identify very large files (like windirstat for Windows), because those are almost always either software downloads or customer work files that I can decide to delete when I'm sure I don't need them. Similarly, it'll identify very large folders that might deserve my attention as well.

I do have one "D:\DeleteMe" folder on my work machines, for testing and auto-saving for any kind of thing I don't actually care about (but my screenshot apps only capture to the copy buffer, so I have to do something with every one of them before I move on, generally I dump to a document or OneNote), and the rule is that I can delete the contents of that folder at any time no harm no foul.

My desktop is strictly for necessary application shortcuts, and really beautiful high-res wallpaper photos.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:08 PM on August 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

You don't need to delete anything - just make folders for everything using exactly the categories you listed above: photos, screencaps, work docs, personal docs, wedding planning. Even if you keep those folders on your desktop, it's much less stressful to look at a nice line of 7-10 file folders than a haphazard mishmash of dozens of files.
posted by something something at 1:08 PM on August 16, 2018

This is not a general-organization question--I really just want to know what your desktops look like and how you maintain them.

None of my desktops have anything on them other than hard drive icons.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:22 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with something something. Just make folders and then move the files to them as necessary.

Kind of tying in to DarlingBri's comment, one of the folders should be named "to be deleted". If you don't know which folder a document should go into, and you don't know if you'll need it again, put it in the "to be deleted" folder. Then, once a month or whenever, go through that folder and delete what you can.

I don't see any reason this couldn't be done in Dropbox instead of on the actual computer, but that's up to you. Before Dropbox was a thing, I used my email. I actually still have a bunch of papers from college there.

One thing to note is that you should be naming your files descriptively. On Macs, especially, screencaps have file names like Screen Shot 08-14-2018 blah blah blah, which doesn't help you three years later when you're wondering what you screencapped on August 14, 2018. When you save a file, make sure it has a name like "funny skype conversation with steve" instead of the default.

This is like an Inbox Zero problem in that, once you've got the old stuff cleaned up and put away, the system can handle new stuff very easily.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:30 PM on August 16, 2018

I use a program called "Fences" to help me organise my desktop. It makes grouping icons so much easier. I can send certain files automatically to certain groups. It is super flexible and I highly recommend it. One of the great things about it is you can use it can be used to reduce visual clutter. ie Until I move my curser to a certain part of the screen the "fence" with all my games in is invisible. With a double click I can bring up all my fences or make them all vanish. It's super flexible with lots of automated features. Well worth the few bucks it costs, but there is a 30 day trial.

I have one fence set up with different categories like you listed, then sub categories with in as folders.
posted by wwax at 1:34 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I've switched to absolutely nothing ever on the desktop and I don't miss it at all.
posted by lokta at 1:45 PM on August 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've just realised - did you mean desktop as opposed to laptop?

Regardless, for file management, I put everything out of sight and use search for everything I need. It's not like any physically organized system that needs shaping, that's the beauty of it for me. Like how Gmail prefers to have you search for things rather than keep them in separate places (folders).
posted by lokta at 1:50 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

All of my work files are organized as /Work/Client/Year/Project (sometimes with subfolders inside the project) and all my projects have consistent nomenclature.

All my personal stuff goes in /My Stuff/Project -- some of it is loose in My Stuff, some has more elaborate subfoldering.

I've got a few major side projects that each merit a top-level directory inside my home directory as well, with similar organization schemes.

My desktop has about 20 files that I need temporarily or I'm interested in but haven't figured out what to do with yet (many of these are pointers to websites). At some point, I'll delete most of them.

Photos all live in the Photos app; in general, if I use an app for managing a certain kind of data, that's where all that data lives.

I've experimented with tagging files, and I like the idea in theory, but in practice I can't keep it up. When I'm working on multiple files as part of an ongoing project, I'll tag the finished ones as "finished" so I know to ignore them. I do pseudo-tag some files right in the file name like "descriptive name {tag} {another tag}." If I really wanted to get fancy, I could generate real tags off my pseudo tags, but for searching, that works fine. The Mac's Finder has nice faceted search, and I use it a lot.

I back up primarily using Time Machine, with offsite backup to AWS via Arq. I don't really throw much away. I only use Dropbox for syncing files between my Mac and my phone, or sharing with my wife.
posted by adamrice at 1:55 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a lot of computers. Everything is stored on only one computer. Everything from that computer is backed up. Really important stuff is also backed up to the cloud (which is non-trivial because I have terrible broadband). I have a Dropbox account for stuff I share or stuff I frequently need to access from multiple computers (not that much, surprisingly)

Some of the answer to this question is how you access stuff. So I teach computers to people who aren't very organized. And part of what I do is see how they look for stuff. Are they comfortable looking in folders? Do they use Search for everything? Does everything need to be more or less on the desktop? Do they have internet access everywhere?

My desktop on my main computer is basically for three things

- "working files" or things that I'm doing something with this week. Usually only 5-10 of these max
- short term stuff like screenshots, something I downloaded that needs to be stored (all downloads and airdrops go to my desktop, not elsewhere). I toss these out at the end of every day
- high level folders where things are stored that I can drill down into

I have a few filing schemes

- Websites - I maintain a lot of websites, they are all backed up to my HD and they are in a big folder "websites" and then in folders by website name under there
- Work - this breaks down into Talks, folders by project name, contracts and invoices and letters that don't go with a project (one-offs or otherwise)
- Personal - anything I am keeping that is not already in one of other areas or the Photos/Music areas the Mac puts them in. I usually file these by file type so have folders for PDFs, images, documents, movies, whatever

So the big things are to know yourself and know your computers. Figure out what your patterns are and how you look for stuff. Figure out if you're an "I'm running out of space" person or a "I barely put things on my HD" type of person. Think about when you have looked for something you haven't been able to find. I'm nearly 50. Turns out I don't really go on nostalgia trips very often and when I do, they don't go on for days. Iv'e given myself permission to get rid of a LOT more digital files now than I might have, say, ten years ago. You have to think about what your sweet spot is and aim towards that.
posted by jessamyn at 2:37 PM on August 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

A lot of Marie Kondo principles can be applied to computer files, you don't really need to keep everything forever, once you clear out all the non-essentials it becomes so much easier to organise whats left.
posted by Lanark at 4:38 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I keep nothing on my desktop.

My secret is the vertical stack. So it works like this. At the top level, I have basically only two folders in my main directory:

Within each of those are plenty of folders, like under Personal is:

>Admin (receipts, bills, travel documents, legal things, taxes, money)
>Projects (a bunch of folders, one for each project, one for "Misc Projects"
>Family and Friends
>Clippings (stuff I just want to save)
..and so on, however many categories of stuff you have.

and under each of those, as many folders as I need. I do some of them by year - like everything I stick in "Admin" in 2018 will eventually get archiveed in a "2018 Admin" folder. I keep the old archive folders right in the "Admin" folder so I can go back when I need to.

Pictures just stay in the Pictures folder, but I do group them by month and year.

An IT person once told me they try to train people NOT to stack vertically. I have no idea why. I am extremely overwhelmed and distracted by seeing a scattered set of dozens of icons or a huge folder list. Vertical arrangement is really clean and really easy to manage. At each level, I'm only presented with a small handful of choices. I just follow it like a key guide and everything eventually finds its perfect home.
posted by Miko at 9:07 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Put everything in the appropriate folder, depending on your personal preference. I have Music, Photos, Movies, Faculty, Work etc. Also, within that folders, organize files by whatever category you want in subfolders. Place everything in the Documents. Make your Desktop completely clear. You'll feel much better.

Make sure to transfer all those files you have onto the external hard drive for permanent deposit and then delete once you don't use and need regularly from the computer so that you have more free space.

And follow one simple rule - always put files where they belong straight after creating them. Or you will end up with a mess once again.
posted by Liliana at 1:00 AM on August 17, 2018

When I start a task, everything goes onto the desktop for easy access. When I'm done, everything gets either deleted or put away elsewhere for archiving. When I start to feel cluttered or like I'm having a difficult time finding stuff, I sweep the desktop for cruft that I don't need and delete it. Aside from the stuff that I'm working on at any given moment, I do keep a handful of shortcuts for my most heavily-used programs and one folder for archived tasks. Basically I put everything on the desktop to begin with, but as soon as it's not being actively used I get rid of it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:33 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

So as an example, I turned on my work laptop and this is a screencap of what my desktop looked like at the end of my last work day. It has the aforementioned handful of apps, a folder for archiving old jobs, a shortcut to the place on the company's fileserver that I have to go to all the time so that I'm not clicking through eight levels of folder hierarchy to get there, and a training document that I'm currently reading through in my spare time.

Once I'm done reading that training document, it'll get deleted. I can always pull it back down off of the company wiki if I need it again.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:47 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

A lot of Marie Kondo principles can be applied to computer files, you don't really need to keep everything forever, once you clear out all the non-essentials it becomes so much easier to organise whats left.

The good part about computers is that storage space is essentially infinite; for most people, the rate at which you can afford to acquire new storage vastly exceeds that at which you can create content. So it becomes practical to "clear out" non-essentials not by engaging in an emotionally wrenching and potentially disaster-prone process of pondering the value of things and then discarding the duds, but simply by creating a subfolder of C:\Users\witchen\Archives named for today's date (use a format like 2018-08-17 so that alphabetic sort yields the same sort order as sort-by-date) and just moving everything in sight straight into that.

Back your computer up before you start in case you get carried away during a Great Catharsis and start to behave as if some of the things you're touching are unnecessary.

Make sure the folder structure you create inside each Archives subfolder is the same as the existing structure outside it (so for example everything removed from C:\Users\witchen\Desktop during a Great Catharsis would get moved into C:\Users\witchen\Archives\2018-08-17\Desktop). That way, everything will just go in there without clashing with anything else, and your idea of Where Stuff Lives won't have major violence done to it.

Having swept everything on your computer under the Archives rug, thereby rendering your normal working environment ultimately Marie Kondo by virtue of the fact that there's simply nothing left in it, you'll then spend the next few weeks moving stuff back out of Archives and into its normal subfolders again as and when you find a need to use it. And this is the point where you spend a few extra minutes on deciding whether re-organizing the stuff you're pulling out is worth your while.

As long as you're not doing Great Catharses at crazy rates, you will probably find that the archive you're dealing with overwhelmingly more often than any other is the most recent one you made, and that you pretty rapidly get an idea of which folders it's simply not worth churning back and forth between readily-accessible and Archives on the regular.

And then, every year or so, you dig your onsite external archive drive out of its dusty drawer, and copy every Archives subfolder that's more than two years old onto that, then Safely Remove it and put it back in the drawer; then you go grab your other external archive drive, the one you keep offsite in case your house burns down, and you copy every Archives subfolder that's more than two years old onto that, then Safely Remove it and put it back in the car; and then and only then do you delete those old Archives subfolders from your computer.

Note well: these external archive drives are not your regular backup drives. They're separate because they're not backups, they're archives. They back each other up by virtue of the fact that you always add the same stuff to both, but they are never involved in your regular backup schedule.
posted by flabdablet at 5:40 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a lot of computers. Everything is stored on only one computer. Everything from that computer is backed up.

I have a lot of computers. Everything is stored all over the place. There's lots of stuff that exists on multiple computers. Some of it has multiple names. Some of it exists in multiple places on one computer. It's a huge, horrendous mess. I am extremely happy with it.

And it all gets backed up and still fits in a reasonable amount of space on my backup drives because I back all my machines up to the same Borg repositories (one per backup drive), and Borg does content-based de-duplication. Which means that my backup drives only need to store one copy of that Ubuntu ISO I might have got scattered across multiple machines, or downloaded four times in the last two years because I forgot I'd already done it, even though every backup set appears to be a complete copy of everything from its source machine.

It's really, really nice to know that I can just reach out to my backups and restore anything I killed by accident and know that I can make as much mess as I like on all my live computers without needing to spend ten times too much on backup drives or ten times too long making backups. I like Borg very much.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I too save random files on my desktop from time to time. If they are important, I will move them to a better place under my Documents folder after I'm done working on them. Otherwise anything I leave behind will automatically get filed away in a folder called archives. Read below for how.

Here is how it works. I have a folder called Archives on my desktop. Any file on my desktop that has not been accessed in 10 days (opened/modified) and is > 10 days old will get filed away under YEAR-MONTH/ inside the Archives folder. I do this using a program called Hazel that constantly cleans up both my desktop and Downloads folders without my intervention based on rules.

Anytime I take a screenshot, it immediately gets moved into a folder called screenshots inside my documents folder (Hazel watches for this pattern and immediately moves this).

Similarly Hazel will delete any DMG files (installers) from my Downloads folder once it has been opened once and 10 days have passed since. Stray pdf/word/image files get sorted into their own folders. Duplicate files are deleted.

Once or twice a year I will use a program called Gemini to inspect both Archives and Downloads and prune out any duplicate or large files.
posted by special-k at 9:35 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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