Help me Marie Kondo my squalid computer
July 5, 2019 7:28 AM   Subscribe

My computer is a wildly disorganized mess. The only way to locate things is to use the search function. It is an archeological dig going all the way back to my undergrad-- I'm now in my late 30s-- as well as every job I've ever held, everything I've ever downloaded, etc., etc., etc. I have time to try to wrangle it into shape this summer but I don't know where to start. How does one sift through, thin out, and create order with a disaster of this magnitude?

It stresses me out and I've actually got some time this summer to get organized but I literally don't know where to begin. It feels like it would take months to unfuck all of this. I'm wondering if having two computer might help? Something where I can transfer and save only what I want? Is this a thing? There is currently no system. Just file after file after file housed in myriad places.

If anyone can break this down into steps for me and give me marching orders, I'd appreciate it. I've been meaning to take care of this for a decade...
posted by jeszac to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
This may be a minority opinion, but if you can successfully find everything you need via the search function, than origination isn't strictly necessary. I've made endless attempts to organize everything via some criteria, and inevitably something comes along which doesn't fit in and it all gets disorganized again.

That all said, specific answers as to what steps to take to organize files will depend on which operating system you're using. If you'd care to share I'm sure we can put together some steps. Similarly, what level of familiarity do you have with using the machine?

As a side suggestion, you might want to consider ensuring that your existing files are backed up, and then just starting anew. If you need it, you'll be able to find it, and if you don't need it, then it's not so necessary to have it well organized.
posted by Kikujiro's Summer at 7:35 AM on July 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I am following along for advice on this topic because I also need it, but I can say that this one weird trick has helped me unfuck more areas, digital and analog, than I ever thought I could do:

Set a timer for 1, 3, 5, 10, 15 minutes--whatever you know you can realistically do--and devote that time to sorting through your files, and put it on your daily to-do list so you'll be doing a small chunk every day. Over time it will take shape as a more manageable thing.

For me, going through my files, what this looks like is I spend 3 minutes every day in my "old work" folder, deleting any duplicates that I spot. It's not super thorough or methodical, but it's already way less chaotic in there. And I don't feel overwhelmed. Don't approach this in marathon sessions--you'll be more effective if you take it as short sprints.
posted by witchen at 7:37 AM on July 5, 2019 [10 favorites]

Before beginning, backup everything. Make a couple pf backups. This is very freeing as you start trashing hundreds of files.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 7:42 AM on July 5, 2019 [14 favorites]

I've done similar things in the past. This is how I approached it:

1. Use a large-ish USB hard disk, or an empty partition on an internal disk, or a dedicated share on a NAS, or whatever... just somewhere clean and separate from your existing stuff.

2. Back up everything in its raw, messy state, as others have said.

3. Pick some broad categories for your stuff. I use thing like 'media', 'documents', 'downloads', 'work' and so on.

4. Add sub-folders to your broad categories as they occur to you. For example, my 'work' folder has a sub-folder called 'old work', and that's broken into a sub-folder for each job that I've had in the past, and then by year. I don't look at that stuff very often, so it just lives there in the 'old work' folder and I may or may not delve into it and organise it further one day, but for now it's all in one place that I know gets backed up, so I forget about it. Current work has its own series of folders, based around my work life.

4. One you've copied stuff to its new home, remove the old copy. If you make mistakes, you still have the backup you made.

5. Don't agonise. This is an iterative process, like moving house. Ultimately, it's about getting stuff in boxes, moving those boxes, and then unpacking at your leisure. So move stuff to the broad categories in bulk, then do the finer sorting later.

6. Most of the stress comes from thinking about the size of the task. So set yourself a small, fixed amount of time every day, and stick to it. Set an alarm. If you find yourself avoiding the schedule you've made, reduce the difficulty level until you can cope with it. Reward yourself afterwards.
posted by pipeski at 7:49 AM on July 5, 2019 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Create a new folder. Call it today’s date. Dump literally everything into it. Optional: Put it on the cloud. Delete it from your desktop. Mandatory: Never open it again.

Do whatever organization you feel you need on anything you download/create moving forward. Use search if you need to find anything in the old folder. Move anything you actually open from the older folder into that new structure as you go. Eventually, you’ll realize you don’t actually need to keep something you downloaded in 2009 (or even 2019), and you’ll just mass-delete the entire folder with today’s date on it. But for now, create the junk folder. Bonus points if you shove it on the cloud.

Frankly, the computer’s ability to search is better than your ability to organize. Use it.
posted by suncages at 7:59 AM on July 5, 2019 [15 favorites]

I'm in the "if you can find it, it ain't broke" camp. What will organizing get you that finding something in a search won't? And is that worth the time you'd spend on organizing files and folders?
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:03 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have folders in folders in folders in folders, etc. I have so much anxiety about it and getting started and stopping multiple times makes it worse. I can't find anything!

What I did was back up everything to an external hard drive. The messiness can live in there and I don't have to worry about deleting something on my computer and losing it forever.

Then, I created a few folders on my desktop for stuff I'll need on a frequent or regular basis. I also use specific names for files so I know exactly what it is and where it goes. Naming something docs or image2 is a no no. I also use the Documents, Pictures, etc. actual folders instead of a million iterations and twice as many subfolders.

It's easier to find stuff if you limit yourself to 1 or 2 subfolders. Trust me, you don't want to end up clicking through multiple folders in multiple folders that it's needle in a haystack territory. Good luck!
posted by VyanSelei at 8:03 AM on July 5, 2019

Response by poster: Already very helpful! One poster had asked about operating systems. I don't know enough about computers to provide a lot of information but it's a 2017 MacAir that uses MacOS High Sierra. Keep 'em coming.
posted by jeszac at 8:18 AM on July 5, 2019

Best answer: When I'm deleting crap, I use the sorting built in to Windows File Explorer. Sort by type, review all the audio files. Set the View to medium size thumbnails and review all the images, that sort of thing. I try to organize my saved files by year, by quarter(documents, spreadsheets) or month(pictures) if there are a lot.

File names can be long, so if you have generic doc names, like Letter1 and Letter2, you can add Letter1-landlord-renewal-June2019. In Windows, press F2 to quickly edit a filename in Explorer.

Another trick is useful for that long list of IMG01234.jpg, IMG01235.jpg, etc. Highlight all the pics for, say, June2019. F2 to rename (or rightclick, rename) on the 1st file, rename to June2019. Windows will name all the files sequentially June2019, June2019-1, etc. I have found this useful.
posted by theora55 at 8:21 AM on July 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm in both camps. One of the virtues of tech is that if you can find it with search, then find. On the other hand, it's mentally irritating when things are all over the place.

So I recommend choosing one of two top-level organizing principles: either year (which is a little easier to work with) or categories like Photos, Work, Movies, Life Docs, Writing. In either case, you're going to have one of these principles as the top level organization and the other as the next level down. So:

> Photos
> Work
> Movies
> Writing
- or -
> 2019
> 2018
> 2017

It really depends on the way you look for stuff. If you start with YYYY as the top level, then you can simply search on any files created in that year and then dump them in. Then you can organize with the YYYY by big categories like Work, Photos, Movies, whatever.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:32 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I agree with cocoagirl. Start with big categories. Don't get too caught up in your sub folders unless you really need to break it down. Just putting things in the big folders will be a huge step.
posted by roaring beast at 8:36 AM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I have a Disposition Needed folder, into which I move anything I downloaded that doesn't have an immediate home, and/or where the name doesn't clearly say what it is.

The eventual home of everything is supposed to be within one of these top level folders:
- Scanned Docs (mine are made into searchable PDFs by the Fujitsu ScanSnap)
- Digital Records (sub-folders for every company, college, charity, etc.)
- Projects (sub-folders name of project)
- Photos
- Music
- eBooks
- Audio books (sub-folder author and work)
- Videos
- Movies

As witchen suggested, by doing this in time chunks (and having a clear idea of where things are headed) you should see improvement. For instance, from Disposition Needed you can move things to one of your top most folders, and then put them into sub-folders later. At least you will be moving toward organized.

FYI, I also use Library Thing to keep track of my books of various forms.
posted by forthright at 8:38 AM on July 5, 2019

Best answer: Something where I can transfer and save only what I want?

Lots of good answers already. I agree that if all that's bothering you is the appearance of clutter, just throw everything into a folder with today's date and forget about it.

As someone who actually needs to find things on multiple shared environments where search may not cut it, here's what I'd do in your situation:

1. As advised above, back everything up on an external drive and confirm you can access it. Now you know it's backed up, in all its messy glory. Disconnect it.

2. Work with your OS's organizational structure. This already exists on your computer (folders for your Desktop, documents, pictures, movies, etc.), so you can always just start with their terms and decide what you need from there.

Lets start with "Documents" as an example.

3. Open Finder. Open your Documents folder. Tweak the default view so that you can see the files and folders as a list, and file modification date is displayed by default. Sort them by modification date.

4. Create a new folder called "old" and one called "misc."

5. Decide on a cut off date - say e.g. anything you haven't touched in more than a year is "old."

6. Cut and paste (not copy, not drag, cut) everything older than your cutoff date into the "old" folder. You can organize it later if you need to, for now it's out of the way.

7. Everything in this folder now gets categorized and placed in a subfolder. Start with big categories: e.g. "Jobs", "bills", "school," "taxes." More than 2 categories, fewer than ten. Now everything in this folder goes in one of these or into the trash. If it's not actually a document or doesn't seem to fit any of your categories, it goes in "misc."

8. Cut and paste the "misc" folder to your Desktop.

9. Now we tackle the Desktop. At this point it's helpful to have a second file manager window open. Navigate to the Desktop via the file manager so that you're viewing it as a folder, sorted and with the same view as your Downloads folder.

10. Categorize everything on your Desktop. It either goes into one of the Documents subfolders (including "old") or Pictures / Movies / Music / Misc. If you discover you really must have some other category, make it, but try not to get into the weeds.

11. Do the same with your Downloads (Navigate to it as a folder in Finder). OSX is stupid about Downloads. Most of these can probably just be deleted.

12. At this point you can go back through and organize subfolders if you really need to.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:39 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I generally agree with suncages's approach, at least for documents rather than media files (photos, music, videos), but storage space in the cloud does cost money, so you might first consider doing a bit of culling:

Dump everything in your browser download folders -- if you downloaded it once, you can download it again. If you have used more than one browser, this will be more than one folder.
Do a search on .pdf and glance through the list of PDFs. If you didn't create them, you can probably dump them on the grounds that if you downloaded it once, you can download it again. If you did create them, you can probably dump them on the grounds that you will still have the original file you created it from.
Look through other broad categories of files for duplications. Do you have 147 different versions of your resume and cover letter tailored to specific jobs? You probably only need to keep a handful of them as examples -- you'll end up retailoiring for new jobs anyway. Do you need many drafts of your undergrad essays or only the final papers or none of the above?

Separate out your media files. Some media players / photo viewers will do this for you if you let them crawl and organize your files. Decide if you want to keep everything. You might want to keep all the MP3s you've purchased, for example, but not every episode of Game of Thrones you torrented.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:39 AM on July 5, 2019

Best answer: I give the major subject folders and subfolders on my computer the same names as their counterparts in my paper files and vice versa. It reduces visual clutter to keep the place where you store whatever you're working on reasonably small (so it really is just current work). Most of all, adopt file naming conventions that help future you sort, e.g.,
  • Start related files with the same 4-character prefix. So if your client is Cornwallis of York, start all related files with CORN or YORK. That way they'll all be together in your current work folder and can be moved en masse. You can take this multiple levels, e.g., CORN MKTG whatever.doc This system helps avoid inadvertently copying over another file also called Report Intro or whatever. NB: you can rename copies of the files you send to the clients and then delete them or save them somewhere else if needed.

  • Avoid the trap of unanticipated additional file versions that result in things being named Report FINAL FINAL FINAL or Report v. by ending the file name with the date in YY.MM.DD format. That will result in easy identification of old versions and automatically sort in date order.

  • When dealing with a file that has a primary author and other editors/reviewers, append a standard suffix to the file name after the above date, like "with [NAME] edits" so that it's readily distinguishable from the original and the versions submitted by others but falls into order.

    Oh and one other thing: set the number of past files in the "Open Recent" dropdown list of your programs as high as possible. It saves a lot of time finding relatively recent stuff.

  • posted by carmicha at 9:49 AM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

    Oh and I have a folder called "A Sorting Hat" in which I dump stuff that I want out of the place where I keep current work to alleviate visual clutter but haven't gotten around to sorting into their final storage locations. This name puts it at the top of the file tree and the Harry Potter reference amuses me.
    posted by carmicha at 11:33 AM on July 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

    Best answer: I like the Windows program WinDirStat, which gives you a nice graphical overview of the contents of your disk, color-coded by file type and sorted into boxes representing folders. It lets you instantly see what's taking up space, and you can realize that temporary files from some long-forgotten program are using up a third of your disk, and can be instantly deleted. This is satisfying and makes backing up easier.

    Duplicate file finder programs are also useful.
    posted by alexei at 11:41 AM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

    Everyone else has mentioned the strategies that I use -

    But a big one I think is worth emphasizing is ... make it part of your workflow to organize your files as you create or acquire them. This means, for example, changing your browser preferences so it asks you what to title a file and where to save it when you download. It means already having the appropriate folders (or creating it as needed).

    Don't just stick new files into Downloads or a "to do" or whatever. It might shave off a few seconds in the moment, but it creates a much bigger task in the future.

    Personally, from my own experience, it is not a good idea to separate your files between two devices. It makes it harder to find the things that you need, and now you have to worry about backing up two devices. I like the advice to stick everything into a folder with today's date, and then organize everything new that comes in according to a system you decide on. You can then organize older files as you have the time or as you need them.
    posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:50 AM on July 5, 2019

    However you choose to organize your files, make sure to back them up. Bare minimum is to get an external hard drive and back up once a week or so.
    posted by Ahniya at 12:00 PM on July 5, 2019

    This won't help Mac users like OP, but Windows users in the same boat might benefit from Search Everything (sometimes just called "Everything," which is why it produces the best error messages on the occasional crash) which is a greatly enhanced file-search which can do substring (partial name) matches and searches by file type. If you dinked around in the settings to only search the disorganized places, you could A) see all the files at once by leaving the search field blank, B) easily find all files of the same type or same name across all of those places, and C) search partial filenames to find files generated by a common source (e.g. camera) or containing a keyword you've used. You can drag files directly from Everything to a destination folder. It's fast and brilliant.
    posted by Sunburnt at 12:08 PM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: I'm going to recommend you take a look at Hazel. I have it monitoring a folder on my desktop, and my Downloads folder. Anything older than a week in the Downloads folder? Trashed automagically. Anything dropped into the folder on my desktop? Gets sorted out onto my data drive - photos in one folder, organized by year and month of the photo. Music goes into a to-be-added-to-iTunes folder. PDF's go through a process to rename by year, month and content (for bills, etc) before being sent to DevonThink for management. You can automate most of the above advice using Hazel and a little thinking.

    In place of WinDirStat, I use Daisy Disk to similar effect.
    posted by neilbert at 12:13 PM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: I know you're not on Windows, and it's been a decade since I used a Mac, but one tool that might help is finding an orthodox file manager... that is, one that allows you to open two windows into your filesystem, either side by side or top and bottom (think Midnight Commander on Linux or FreeCommander on Windows). This is better than two open file manager windows, because it stays together as a single application and prevents one window being hidden by something. Finder may do this natively, and if so it's a good idea to use that capability.

    I typically use the same window as a source of files to move or copy (usually the left for me), and the other as a target. No matter what methodology you use, this makes the process at least consistent. I use FreeCommander, and it's entirely usable via keyboard, using the tab key to switch windows and standard keyboard shortcuts for cut, copy, paste, etc.

    Since you are likely to be reducing the amount of data (after making one or more backups, of course), you probably don't have to worry immediately about working with an external disk unless your drive is very full.

    For Windows users, consider switching from WinDirStat to WizTree, which is much faster because it reads the master file table instead of crawling the file system (or whatever WinDirStat does).
    posted by lhauser at 7:03 PM on July 5, 2019

    If you have important files, it is vital that you back them up with more than one copy of them before going all marie kondo on them. I'm generally in the camp of "dump old files in a folder, start organizing with new files and pull anything from the old folder into the new system as you need it. The old files should not be deleted unless you've determined they are not useful, just archived.

    Also, previously
    posted by Aleyn at 11:10 PM on July 5, 2019

    My suggestion is to start organizing your new files right now. Figure out what works with the shape of what you do. This is what works for my art and may give you some ideas, or maybe not. Spend some time figuring out how you want to organize the stuff you make as you make it, make one place all your stuff goes with a folder hierarchy that feels right to you, and put stuff there the moment you make it.

    I would personally recommend making a folder in ~Documents and putting that folder in your Finder sidebar. A lot of apps will create subdirectories or files in ~Documents so that directory is kind of a mess; make your own space in it, keep it quick to access, and use it.

    My downloads directory is a giant mess. There’s fragments of attempts to organize it but it’s basically where I keep stuff I don’t care about enough to organize. What files do you actually care about? Pluck them out and organize them.

    Honestly I agree with the people who say “put all the mess in one folder that you have to use search on”. When you search for stuff and find it, then consider putting it into the appropriate place in the new structure. Or leave it there and just know that anything from before 2019 is in the Trash Heap, whereas anything from afterwards is in the Organized Zone.

    Good luck!
    posted by egypturnash at 9:12 AM on July 7, 2019

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