Help me Kondo my computer.
February 7, 2019 1:28 PM   Subscribe

My tragic flaw: I have never backed up my personal laptop, save everything to Desktop or Download and now am overwhelmed by the idea of organizating it. I have Dropbox. Where do I begin? Help me organize and backup my computer(s). (I have laptops stretching back to 2001 in a box.) tl;dr - How do you organize your computer files and how do you continue to organize new files?
posted by melodykramer to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
(I have a Mac, if that makes a difference.)
posted by melodykramer at 1:29 PM on February 7, 2019

I just use folders and descriptive file names.

If the problem is you're just overwhelmed to start, you can start with broad categories. You can stick all of your persona; photos into a "Personal photos" folder. If you want this to be backed up to the cloud, you can put this folder into your Dropbox folder. If you're an academic and have a lot of papers, you can make a "Papers" folder. And so on. The categories will depend on what you have and what you think is worth categorizing together.

You can back up your computer before you make any progress on organizing it though, and you should. Just buy an external hard drive that is big enough and use Time Machine.

I think you might be overthinking it?

The major thing is not to just save files to Download, because that just creates more work for you later. Change your settings so that when you download, your prompted to choose a folder and filename.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:41 PM on February 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

I trust someone will weigh in with a better solution-- but one stopgap is just to create a couple of key folders in dropbox:

Desktop1 - move all of the files from computer 1's desktop to here
Downloads1 - move all of the files from computer 1's downloads to here
Desktop2 - move all of the files from computer 2's desktop to here

Get these documents backing up now! They'll be no more or less findable than they are now [right?] -- since you're not changing their current organization -- and they'll be spotlight searchable. And then you can always use the awesome organization method that the next poster will doubtless suggest -- after they're backed up. :-)
posted by rdn at 1:41 PM on February 7, 2019

Do the backup before you do any organization, especially if you plan to delete anything as part of the organization. This doesn't have to be as intentional; I'd probably get a large capacity external hard drive to do it.

My organizational strategy is very much geared towards low-effort laziness; what usually happens is I'll create a structure that I think will work for me and pull files into that new structure as I need them or if I deem them of sufficient importance. This means that there are large amounts of unorganized or poorly-organized files in a folders named "backup" or "archive", but this helps me identify the important files that I'd want to keep regularly backed up, perhaps using some sort of cloud backup or cloud drive, like Dropbox. The structure I use is relatively flat and based on some common topic or theme, e.g. a project might get a folder, and that folder might exist in a top-level folder that groups that sort of project or type of thing together.

If part of the problem is that you don't know what you have, then I'd set aside some time on a regular basis to go through my files and determine if a) they are important enough to organize and b) where they should go once they are.
posted by Aleyn at 1:43 PM on February 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

Do you regularly throw things away? Because if you don't, the first step is to get rid of all the things that don't need organizing at all. Sort your Downloads and Desktop folders by kind and start going down the list, moving trash to the Trash. You shouldn't have to think much at all about old installers, forms that you downloaded to printout, random screenshots that you took for some reason whose moment has passed.

Step two: your home directory has a Documents folder and a Pictures folder — use them. Shove any photos that you find and want to keep into Pictures. Everything else, unless it's an app, can probably go into Documents. And if it's an app that doesn't already live in the Applications folder, do you actually use it or can it be trashed?

You can start creating subfolders within Documents later, but step three (if not step zero, really) is to get an external drive and start using Time Machine. I have Wirecutter's current choice, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim, and it does me just fine.
posted by mumkin at 1:48 PM on February 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have never backed up ... How do you organize your computer files and how do you continue to organize new files?

I use a remote service (Backblaze (I'm on a Mac, too)) for backup, the thinking (such as it is) being that there could be a fire or whatnot.

As for organizing...smiles ruefully
posted by kingless at 1:58 PM on February 7, 2019

Think about what kind of files you have and come up with top-level buckets and then some sub-buckets. My Dropbox looks like this:

--Folder for every customer
--Customer Archive folder where I move customer folders I don't need to access any more


-series of folders for all my writing projects

-folders by product of installers I want to keep

-series of folders for all kinds of personal non-paperworky stuff, so hobby stuff and backups of bookmarks and pictures of haircuts I like, I try to keep stuff in meaningful folders

I mostly point my various devices at this folder, with subfolders for backing up device photos

I've been using Dropbox as the place I save **everything** for years now, with Selective Sync on all my machines/devices so I'm not holding the entire body of that folder in any one place but it is all in the cloud. I have computers and devices scattered all over and I can work with near total continuity between them. If a computer dies I put another one in its place and set up Dropbox, reinstall applications as needed.

The only place this doesn't work just fine is my Chromebook, which I do have a Dropbox bridge installed so my file manager can see it, but it does NOT see it when I'm downloading, so I do have to drop things to the download folder and then move them. But my Chromebook is largely for browsing, this doesn't happen very often.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:04 PM on February 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was just thinking about this, and the first question was, how much do I care? In the end, I decided that outside of my pictures and a handful of documents, I don't really care _that_ much. So I backed up those and using TimeMachine and called it good enough for now. Maybe I'll feel strongly enough to make a second backup drive and bring it to work or my in laws (just to keep a copy not in our house in case of fire or other natural disaster.)
posted by advicepig at 2:22 PM on February 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's what I have done in the past.

1. Get an external hard drive with as much capacity as you can afford.
2. Sync things to iCloud if you are not already doing this. (contacts, etc.)

1. Make a bootable exact duplicate of your Mac's hard drive, using SuperDuper
1a. Copy the contents of your other computers to the same hard drive if there is room.
2. Do a clean install of MacOS on your laptop.
3. Gradually copy what you really need/want to your laptop.
(I don't have any advice on HOW to organize things, but develop a system that works for you, from the start!)
4. Keep the external hard drive in a closet as long as necessary.
posted by kidbritish at 3:12 PM on February 7, 2019

Honestly, my strategy for backing up my download folder & other unruly places?

1. Occasionally save everything to my "junk drawer" folder on google drive
2. Use google's excellent search features to find what I need
3. Periodically sort by size and delete anything huge (videos, etc.) that I don't need. Don't sweat the small files.

If you're comfortable with google (or if you're on a mac, where search is pretty great already) I would just start with something like that. You honestly don't need to organize every single file unless that's something that's important to you. I'd stick with sorting out the important categories (photos? any specific hobbies?) and let the rest form a searchable junk drawer.
posted by mosst at 3:21 PM on February 7, 2019

Do you regularly throw things away? Because if you don't, the first step is to get rid of all the things that don't need organizing at all.

I strongly disagree with this advice and strongly agree with those who say that backup is your best first step, after which reorganization is optional.

You work the way you do because it works for you. The only thing objectively wrong with the way you currently work is that you're not taking account of the fact that digital information doesn't really exist until you can put your hands on at least two separate copies of it that reside on different media.

Here in 2019, there at last exists a good backup tool that doesn't cause vendor lock-in. It's called Borg, it can make backups from multiple computers to a single backup destination using data-driven de-duplication so that backing up the same content from multiple sources costs only one instance's worth of disk space, it can use locally connected backup drives and/or network attached storage and/or commercial online storage and there's a Mac-compatible GUI for it.

Back up all your laptops, letting Borg worry about avoiding wasted backup space and starting with the latest one, then reorganize that one at your leisure if you still feel a need to.
posted by flabdablet at 4:01 PM on February 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

I keep a folder in $HOME named 'keep'. That's the thing that gets put onto a USB stick and kept on my person when traveling. Accounts/passwords, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, copies of ID, travel documents, etc. And make sure to put it up on my server so I can get to it almost no matter what.

The rest I rely on "disk space is cheap" and the infinite backups.
I do the same sort of just Pictures/{some,sub,folders} Music/{some,sub,folders} Documents mostly go into Calibre for the poor-man's "organize my docs and pdfs". Archives for .zip/.tar.gz type stuff that I'd like to just keep handy because they might be hard to find again.

Then it's just little things. Like I have Pictures/HomeTown/YYYY-MM-DD-description/ for all the times family sends me pictures.
There's a folder for Infographics, Wallpaper/{sizexsize}, and many more...

Music I once organized, but now just leave it up to the music player to sort things out. Just make sure things are tagged decently and toss folders into Music.

I'm on Linux, and I backup enough of my laptop every 4 hours onto a remote machine that laptop going poof is really no big deal. Just replace and copy back the useful things. Another vote for the idea of just backing up everything and starting over because you can get back the things you had, they're not going anywhere.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:25 PM on February 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

My answer is specifically about sorting - and organising.
Apart from a sensibly arranged folder hierarchy and meaningful file names, the one thing I do is a short code that tells me something about the value of the file contents e.g.:

- 1a 1 for high quality\relevance and a for graphical content (noy graphic content!) with sub numbers 2 not worthy of a 1 but don't delete, 3 poor quality graphics and 4 references more valuable than article.
- 1b " but no graphics
- Mn, Pb, Ca etc - Periodic codes
- n3\e3 for exotic or native plants
- c4\C3 for photosynthesis types
- mu - especially for pdfs where I've marked them up with comments.
- LIC for Do Not Distribute\© etc.
- mono\di, for monocots and dicots

So if I search 1a e3 c4 Pb I get a nice short list applicable articles on exotic tropical grasses with a high affinity for lead.

The main problem is the increasing interdisciplinary nature of so many things, which is where the codes are key.

oh and I use Everything every single day.

I do have a readme for these as you have to learn in whatever your domain is.
This help a lot if (when) things do get out of shape. It also speeds filtering.

Moving to a new system - well I've been renting for two years and living out of boxes. So the books I use even out to a couple of months is 15 - the 100's of others are in storage and may well stay there or be got rid of. You could take the same approach with data.
posted by unearthed at 7:46 PM on February 7, 2019

After you're fully backed up, and only then, I recommend the following re-organization strategy.

First thing is to make a new folder under /Users/melodykramer called Archives. Inside that, make a subfolder named for today's date, like /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08 (using yyyy-mm-dd format for the date will make the folders so named sort nicely once you get more than one).

Next, make empty folders inside /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08 that mirror the present set of folders immediately inside /Users/melodykramer except Archives itself, like /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08/Desktop, /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08/Downloads, /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08/Videos and so forth. Make one of these for each folder immediately inside /Users/melodykramer that's got anything at all inside it.

Next, move (don't copy) absolutely everything from /Users/melodykramer/Desktop into /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08/Desktop, everything from /Users/melodykramer/Downloads into /Users/melodykramer/Archives/2019-02-08/Downloads and so forth, until all the folders immediately inside /Users/melodykramer (except Archives) are empty.

At this point you have swept everything under the rug, and your computer should at first glance appear to be as starkly tidy (and as utterly sterile and useless) as it was when you first turned it on after unboxing.

Never actually delete stuff. Just don't bother; the beauty of computer filesystems is that the rug has essentially infinite capacity for concealing mess. You can just keep sweeping stuff under there, and as long as you organize your under-rug space into a consistent overall pattern it will never cause you grief.

Now, the next time you actually need to use something you've swept under the rug, what you do is spend 30 seconds thinking about a good way to give it somewhere tidy to go, inventing new folders for that as needed if your existing folder structure is not yet quite up to the job; unearthed has some useful suggestions worth considering.

Next, you move - not copy - whatever it is out of its Archive subfolder to the place you've decided it should go. Then you work on it.

Over the course of the next six months, what you will most likely find is that about a quarter of your archived stuff moves back to where it started from in the first place (which is fine) or to somewhere that makes more sense now.

And after that six months, you do the whole under-rug-sweep process again. You've already got Archives, so you just start from the date-named subfolder and go from there.

After two years, you convert any date-named Archives subfolder to a zip file (or whatever the standard alternative to zips is on a Mac; is StuffIt still a thing?) because at that point the only stuff left in there is stuff you haven't touched for two years so you probably won't need it again in a hurry.

When you start finding disk space getting a little tight - say, when the drive is 80% full - the first thing you hive off to external storage to make more room is the earliest zipped archive under Archives.

This strategy is sustainable because storage devices get bigger every year, as does newly created data. After ten years of using it, you will probably find that the first five years of hived-off archives are occupying space equivalent to maybe 10% of what's still available on the last computer you bought.
posted by flabdablet at 11:30 PM on February 7, 2019

All of these recommendations are excellent, and you can combine them.

Do: Back up everything first, then follow flabdablet's guidelines in spirit if not in letter. I actually do end up having to throw things away because I edit video and audio which uses a lot of disk space.

Don't: Beat yourself up over it. Finder isn't a great file manager with the default settings, because it prioritizes never having to think about where things are going or make choices. Every single time I set up a Mac, I tweak Finder, Chrome, and Logic Pro (the only real reason I use a Mac for anything anymore) to actually prompt me rather than just saving things under whatever non-semantic path they default to.

Rather than dropbox I would set up some kind of Network Attached Storage (depending on your router this can be as simple as plugging a drive into the router).
posted by aspersioncast at 1:30 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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