We’ve all gone through periods of time in our work lives where everything felt like it was accelerating.
Deadlines get changed or moved up with no notice, or The Big Presentation is suddenly happening next week. Something unexpected happens at work that forces you to have to pivot or take on more responsibility or work more hours.
More often, it’s a week or two or three in a row of working late, maybe missing some weekends – that unending march of working and working that every week you tell yourself will “be over next week.”
You get into a rhythm of coming home, sleepwalking through making food (or settle for opening a bag of chips—so much quicker), sitting on the couch staring into space for an hour, then going to bed. It seems relatively harmless and low impact the first few times you do it—you deserve a break, after all, darn it, and if you only have an hour you’re going to spend it how you want. And the only waste you’re really producing is a pot of old pasta water and an empty Doritos bag, right? But that cycle can only repeat so many times before you notice the garbage can and the dishes in the sink and the laundry hamper all starting to overflow – always at the same time, it feels like.
In a work-life that’s likely already a bit chaotic, all of that physical piling up around you can start to feel a little bit overwhelming. It contributes to that feeling of “drowning” we’re all too familiar with.
And then, it hurts even more to open your computer and see your desktop swamped with random files and folders strewn about. You open your phone and those little searingly red badges with numbers signifying notifications dot the screen like a crime scene.
It’s as if your physical world translated itself into your digital one—the two are of one feeling, united in their disfunction. Memories start to fill your mind of the time you could have saved that file to a specific folder but you got lazy instead. Or that hour you told yourself you would clean up your inbox and then…didn’t.
That moment is not a fun one. We all go through them from time to time.
But if you’re fed up with feeling that feeling, it’s possible to do something about it. If you have a day to spare this weekend, maybe give it a try. It’s not much more than a little electronic spring cleaning and some subtle planning.
Start with the inside out. We interface with our digital world just as much, if not somehow sadly more than our physical one. At the very least, we dip out of one and into the other at a near-constant clip. So when you’re feeling out of sorts or disorganized, start with one end and clean up until you get to the other. I just like to start on the digital side because dragging and dropping files is easier and more satisfying than dragging and dropping big bags of recycling.
Cut out all the garbage
Before you even start, especially if you feel particularly disorganized, go on a hunt around your computer. Document folders, photo folders, work files, creative assets, anything that’s lying around on your hard drive. Start deleting with abandon. If there’s something you know you should delete but can’t bring yourself to, put it in one designated folder. Later on, you can leave it in a main folder and stare at it, or back it up to an external hard drive where it’s out of your hair, or muster up the courage to delete it after all. The point is to get things out of your way that don’t need to be there. I had an old boss that would sit down at the computer and move files and windows out of the way and into a configuration that was “just so” before starting anything. “I like to work clean,” he said. That always stuck with me. We all probably feel like we would agree with that statement. But we let things pile up, especially in our digital life, if we don’t have enough discipline to sort it out as we go.
For some people, it’s a tougher concept to grasp. You might think “my desk is clean, the screen itself is clean and shiny, what do you mean my computer is messy?”
But we spend so much time here. We spend so much time in this world. And that world can take on different appearances and feelings depending on how you treat it. It can really start to consume you and influence how you feel as you work. If you don’t know where things are, if you just drag things around willy nilly, if your calendar has duplicate entries that give you the same reminder two hours apart for no reason, you’ll start to feel heavier. Delayed a step. And you don’t have to. You just have to be intentional with how you interface with your tech.
Focus on what’s important
From a work perspective, you can likely filter your workflow down to a few select applications. You likely have a word processor, an email account, a calendar, a web browser, work-specific apps (creative or administrative or otherwise), and of course, a file manager.
Get those looking clean. Mark as many emails as you can in a quick burst as “unread” so that big scary red notification number goes down just a little bit. Filter your calendar down to work obligations and personal appointments. (Be honest with yourself about whether that daily “Workout” reminder that you set to repeat every Monday-Wednesday-Friday until the end of time – it might not be particularly useful anymore.)
Think about what on a daily basis you truly use, and truly need. Then think about what slows your day down. There’s hunting for missing files of course – we’ve checked that box. But what about those little stutters when trying to find a specific email because they’re all marked as unread and all marked as “Important” for different reasons? Or trying to add something to your calendar, but you don’t know which calendar to put it in because apparently, they’re different? And color-coded, but you don’t remember how?
Get a grasp on all that. Barebones can be a beautiful starting point. Later, you can add back the window dressing and color-coding and creative names for things.
Make a system and stick to it
That creeping feeling of “drowning” starts somewhere. For many, it starts the first time they “let something slip” in saving or organizing their files. “I can’t think of a place to put this – oh just throw it on the desktop, I’ll figure it out later.” We all know how that turns out.
This is the part of your digital makeover that will require the most willpower. You have to stop doing things like that. Start filling your “Documents” folder (which far too many leave vacant year-round) with folders for any category you can think of. Work, Writing, Videos, Photos, Paperwork, Resumes, Important Files, Notes, Apps, Finances, Cooking, Games. Does anything in there sound helpful to have a folder for? Once you’ve made some picks and made some folders start grouping them together, then start saving files and other things to them. It’s that easy. If you start out with effort, that is.
The key to making any kind of organizational system stick is to make it as easy as possible to stay organized. Ideally, it would be easier to stick to your system than to abandon it. Like, if you actively had to search for “Desktop” to save things there, you’d be less likely to do it. It’s the “Defaults” that keep popping up in your life that traps you, as they build loops around you and send you spinning around your bad habits. But those defaults can change. Your default file saving location can and should be the correct one. Your default calendar shortcut should be the one that actually helps you and actually makes a calendar event that you use.
And worst-case scenario, if you truly don’t have time to think for those twenty seconds about where to thoughtfully place the file, at least do yourself the service of putting the file somewhere where you know where it is. Make an “Inbox” folder somewhere other than your desktop. Any time you absolutely can’t or won’t save a file where it’s supposed to go, throw it in there. It keeps things clean and best of all, it inherently makes it so that you still know where all your files are – if they’re not where they’re supposed to be, they’re in the inbox.
Deep file structures are your friend
Every file on your computer has a perfect home, where it’s at its most useful, logical, and accessible resting place. That home might not exist yet, but you can create it with two clicks. And you can create an infinite number of them, too. Get geeky with this. If you have any kind of organizational or categorizing tendencies, let them fly here.
I have folders for “Work,” “Personal,” and “Business.” Inside “Business” are boring folders like “Paperwork,” where, under sub-folders of course, you can find copies of documents often required on online forms like my driver’s license or insurance card. There are also multiple folders for each work client, each project I complete for them, and all the related files and assets for each. Three folders deep. See how quickly it can add up? “Personal” contains my photo library and my somewhat embarrassing “funny pictures” folder where I keep my favorite memes and other tidbits from the internet. I don’t know why I started the folder—easy access for sharing with friends I guess?—but now I’m glad I have it as an internet archive of sorts.
You’ll get good at darting between these folders. Double clicks will become second nature, especially when you know you’re going to be diving three or four layers deep into a folder and you can leave your mouse in the same spot and just click away. But keyboard shortcuts are also your friend. On Apple computers, “Command-O” opens a highlighted folder. “Command-Down Arrow” will also open or “take you inside” a folder. “Command-Up Arrow” will take you back out, or back a step. In Windows, “delete” will go back a folder layer.
Get good at creating things, placing them, and then navigating to find them, and it will all become second-nature, and even fun. You’ll start to glide around your computer like a magician. Things might even happen faster, and more consistently in a quality way, if you get really in the zone.
Use the newfound peace productively
If you do all this right, your head will immediately start to feel at least a little bit cleaner. When you interface with your devices, you might even feel sharper, and happier. It’s a more crisp experience, with more intentionality. Everything you do on these devices, even leisure time, should feel that same kind of intentional. That’s how you maintain your power over these tools to remain tools, and not completely take over your waking life.
Open your computer every morning to a blank desktop. From there, use a keyboard shortcut to open a blank page on your word processor, or your email, or calendar, or whatever. Everything in its place, and in three seconds. It just feels like the right way to use these things.
And when you’re in the driver’s seat, you can do something really special. Go knock out some work on your passion project. Have some fun. And when you’re done, save it to the right folder. Future you will thank you.