One of the biggest areas of clutter-stress in my life has got to be the files and folders on my laptop. Working as a freelancer, I’ve used the same laptop for both work and personal stuff for the last four years, and despite several attempts to clean things up and keep them clean, an abundance of junk still mounts up on a regular basis.
What surprises me the most about all this, is that I work almost exclusively in the cloud.
With the exception of basic text files (great for distraction-free writing) that I use to plan stuff out and jot down ideas, everything I do is done online. I spend most of the day using Google Docs to write copy for my clients, track my goals and finances, and draft blogs.
Gmail covers most of my email needs. WordPress, blogger, and social media connect me to the rest of the world, and my music and entertainment needs are provided courtesy of Spotify, Youtube, and Netflix.
Yet despite all this, my physical hard drive contains to burst at the seams with clutter. That’s all it is too:
Clutter, mess, a bunch of junk which likely served some purpose for all of five minutes before spending months upon months just loitering around on my laptop.
I know the reason why. Most of the time, this junk was downloaded from the web to be used somewhere else.
Google Docs for example, were often downloaded in bulk so that I could send the physical files onto a client, photos were downloaded from stock photo sites or from my own photo storage accounts and reuploaded to WordPress.
I don’t mind this, I find it a quick and useful way to work. The problem, however, is that once I’ve used those files, I forget all about them, and months pass before I realise just how much stuff I’ve downloaded.
So, it was time to get rid of it.
First, I simply opened the main folder on my hard drive. At time of writing, it looked like this:
Not too bad, right? You’ve certainly seen worse. Me too. I’ve seen worse on my own computer, lurking behind each of those folders, where a mountain of junk awaits to be sorted. Rather than dive into one of those, however, I wanted to be methodical, to start at the starting point and work my way through my system, one folder at a time.
I began by looking at my files and asking myself the first question I wrote down when I began planning for my digital minimalism project:
A) WHAT VALUE DOES THIS BRING TO MY LIFE?
If none – get rid of it. If some – keep going.
Some of this was easy. I instantly picked out a bunch of stuff that had no value whatsoever and instantly got rid of it. With a couple of text files, I had to open them up, look at what was there, and be very, very honest with myself about whether the contents added any value to my life.
Was I really going to use that tutorial I wrote for configuring website addresses on hosting company iPage? There was a part of me that wanted to say ‘yes,’ but I knew what the real answer was, and after a little internal battle, finally got rid of it.
Already, things were starting to look a little clearer:
For better or worse, I decided that the best way to approach this would be to process all files of a similar type together, so the next task was simply to go through and sort each of the remaining files into their own folder. Pictures went into My Pictures, random text files went into My Documents, and notes that I was keeping for my new blog went into their own separate folder where I could keep everything together.
Doing this, I realised I had a few folders that simply weren’t being used. So I deleted those too, and was left with this:
Much better, right? Yep, I thought so too.
Next, I went through each of the remaining folders in turn, asking myself not only the question above, but also the second one on my list:
B) WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS THING THAT MAKES ME UNHAPPY/STRESSED?
If nothing – keep as it is. If there’s something, keep going.
I had to be brutally honest, to really ask myself some important questions about my work and my life and make some important decisions about what I was going to do going forward.
Doing all that, with everything I’d accumulated on my hard drive took the longest time.
See that image above?
That’s just a very small fraction of my Downloads folder, where the majority of my junk accumulated. I mean just about everything landed in here at some point, not just the client files and random music based stuff you see in this image, but also invoices, stuff I’d used for research for clients, ebooks I’d once promised myself I’d read but never had (nor ever would), useless apps I’d downloaded to help me solve a particular problem, random videos and MP3s, you name it, it was all here.
So I began by using a similar process as I’d used with the previous folder:
1) Get rid of as much stuff as I could
2) Sort everything else into the appropriate folder (pics with pics, videos with videos, etc).
There was one exception to the second step, and that was when I knew instantly what I was going to do with a certain file and could do it there and then. No point in moving a file from one location to another just to do something else with it when I can just do that thing straight away, right? Exactly.
I must admit too, that I felt an enormous amount of satisfaction from just selecting a whole bunch of files and hitting delete. Man, that felt good.
On day 1, I deleted 1GB of files, and that was just getting started.
I moved on to My Music folder, where well over 1,000 MP3 files totalling 10GB+ were waiting for me to deal with.
As someone who is very passionate about music, I had assumed that this would incredibly difficult to do. How do you get rid of things that represent one of your life’s biggest joys?
Answer: Quite easily.
It occurred to me that I never really listen to these 1,000+ Mp3s anyway, at least not on my computer. The majority of the music I listen to these days comes from three places:
If I did listen to these files, it was usually the copies I had on my iPod anyway, so no problem to delete them.
Of course, I did have some fear:
What if my iPod broke and I lost all these songs forever?
So what? It’s not like music is a scarce commodity that couldn’t easily be replaced. Besides, if the worse did happen, was I really going to miss that copy of Baby Got Back or that Spice Girls song I once downloaded to amuse a friend at a party?
So I plugged in the iPod, made sure everything that I wanted to keep was backed up on there, and then deleted the whole lot.
Ah, what a wonderfully satisfying feeling that was!
I won’t lie, partly because I was on a roll, but mostly because I wasn’t looking after my ADHD particularly well that day, doing that gave me a good opportunity to actually sort out my iPod too, going through and organising playlists, making sure the info on all my songs was correct, actually making this thing something that I could value and really enjoy, rather than a small box of music files.
I was starting to feel much better, but there was still work to be done.
Next up was the one folder that was possibly even bigger than my Music folder – Pictures.
I kid you not, 2,980 files, 52 subfolders totally 8.80GB. They had to go.
At first, it was easy, just go through the main folder and select all the junk that I no longer needed, wanted, or that added any value. This could have been even easier if I’d originally been a bit more selective about what I saved.
Instead, every blurry, bad, out of frame, out of focus, terrible shot I ever took was stored on here, so getting them all deleted took some doing.
Yet even after doing all that, and deleting a bunch of other folders which I knew instinctively no longer served me any kind of purpose, I was still left with 2,408 photos to either store, delete, or use in some way.
This is where things started getting tricky. I could very easily convince myself that I needed all those 2,000 pictures, some for practical reasons, some for purely sentimental.
As a freelance writer, I often had to illustrate my content with images, and it was always much easier to simply grab my SLR camera and take my own than go ploughing through the mindfield of copyrighted images, plucking something out of a Creative Commons library or – worse – a generic bank of stock pictures.
But here’s the thing – A lot of the pictures I’d saved on my hard drive for this purpose, I’d never actually used. I’d saved them with the idea of “One day” using them for something. Two years later, the only pair of eyes that had ever seen them were mine.
It was time to get ruthless.
I’d say I deleted 90% of those “practical” pictures – Another 5% -mostly shots from my attempts at learning proper digital photography- were uploaded to a Flickr account, keeping the remaining 5% for a project I knew I was about to start work on.
Then it came to the sentimental pictures. I realised that actually, out of everything that remained, only a handful of pictures really had fond, sentimental memories for me – a bunch of pictures of my family taken one Christmas day. For now, I moved those to a Dropbox account until my digital photo frame arrived – that’s where they’d go and ultimately stay.
Again, I had that moment of fear – what if something happened to those pictures and they got destroyed? Don’t worry about it, that’s what. The pictures aren’t the things I treasure – they’re just things. The pictures are just representations of a memory. I can remember that Christmas Day fondly and warmly. If the pictures disappear, all I have to do is go into my own mind and bring them back. I can’t replace that.
The Last DeClutter
With the pictures done, all I had left to do with my computer hard drive clean out was delete a few videos and do one final sweep to make sure I hadn’t left anything out.
With that, all my files and folders were sorted – either by being deleted or put into their rightful place – whether that was Dropbox, Flikr, or Pinterest (more of that at some other time).
From there, I had one last task to complete: Remove any unnecessary programs.
I fired up CCleaner – the tool I always used whenever the urge would strike me to clean out my computer – and went through being brutally honest with myself about whether such a programme was actually necessary.
One of the good things about the majority of my software being open source, was that I could delete it, knowing that it wouldn’t take much to download it again if it was absolutely necessary.
If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done…
With all that done, there was one last thing to take care of.
After all, deleting and cleaning out my hard drive was only ever going to provide me some temporary respite from the insanity and chaos unless I changed how I managed things going forward.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got
In other words, it wouldn’t take long for my files and folders to be completely full of junk again if I just carried on as normal. Instead, things had to change.
In this case, the answer was simple:
Use one single folder on my laptop for downloading files from the web and uploading files from my devices.
Process them immediately (in other words – use them for whatever purpose I needed them for)
At the end of every day – delete that folder and empty the recycle bin.
Other people might have a simpler method, or even a way to avoid having any files on their laptops altogether, but this approach allowed me to keep the fluid working system I’d developed without cluttering up my laptop.
Getting into the habit of deleting everything at the end of the day wasn’t easy either. It really took a lot of getting used to, and sometimes I would forget. When that happened, it wasn’t a problem to just do it the following morning when I fired up my laptop again.
Eventually, I got into the habit where I didn’t even need to wait until the end of the day, processing files on the spot and then immediately deleting them became the new way that I was working, and I can honestly say that from that day to this, I’ve enjoyed a completely clutter free laptop that causes me no stress or anxiety…until I get online.
That, however, is another story for another day.