How to declutter, organize, and name your digital files

Holding on to files that you think you may use later makes sense. But when you haven't touched some of these files in over three years, why keep them? 

If you can't articulate a reason with a date in mind to continue to keep a file, hit delete. Otherwise, you'll end up on a fast track to digital hoarding. 

The problem with digital clutter

Too many folders and files later, the original purpose of keeping these in your digital library diminishes over time. You may have saved them for one reason, but when it was time to use them, you didn't even remember you had them. Not even searching for them could have helped you in this case. On top of that, the search feature is only as good as how you named your files in the first place.

Getting started decluttering your digital files

Schedule a time to go through all your files and folders and delete what’s no longer relevant. Consider removing everything you haven't opened in over three years and don't have a set date to use them again. So for example those scanned tax documents are OK to keep until they're no longer subject to an IRS audit. Finally if you have an empty folder or folders with less than two files, hit delete. The purpose of folders is to organize groups of files—not to make it more difficult to access a file.

Dealing with a massive digital library?

If your digital library is gigantic, you may have to take a different and faster approach to cleaning up your digital space. After all, the intention here is to increase your productivity.

Consider putting everything in one folder. Then start moving files out of that folder as you use them. Then whatever is still in the folder after let's say a year or two, delete.

Yes, it's a riskier approach. But it'll free you from being attached to a digital monster that does nothing but slows you down. Or even worse, hiding from doing real work behind a never-ending digital decluttering project.

Now it's time to organize

Folders are the drawers of the digital world. They help you find files by grouping them into categories that make the most sense to you. The rule of thumb is to keep folder names short and simple. E.g., family and work; marketing, sales, operations; or whatever your use case is.

Then use subfolders (folders inside other folders) as needed. But don't get carried away, where you have to click through too many folders to access a file—that doesn't seem more productive. 

There is no magic number of how many subfolders you should have. But no more than three layers deep will keep you from going to infinity and beyond. 

Finally, after organizing your digital library, re-organize it as you use it. Match what you had top of mind—when you were looking for a file and couldn't find it—so that's easier to find next time!

Don't let digital clutter happen again

Now that you have a clear and organized digital space don't let it go back to a mess. Schedule a time, like a "spring cleaning," to go through your files and folders and delete what you no longer need. This regular practice will help you preserve a useful digital library.

Best practice for file naming

Search is as good as how you name your files. And there are many ways to approach naming your files. But here's one approach you can use and why.

Put a date at the beginning of each file. It'll give you a new reference date than the file's created or last modified date stamps. This manual date is specially useful when working with documents associated with a future date. E.g., A sales page copy for an upcoming product launch.

Use a hyphen between words. Even though most digital files support spaces, some others don't. E.g., some online libraries will populate %20 per space in the file's URL.

The underscore is another victim. Some systems will process underscores as non-existent—no spaces. So hyphens are your safest bet to preserve the spaces in your file names in most systems.

Finally, use a consistent naming convention for your whole library, or by folder. When using a different naming convention by folder , create an empty subfolder starting with "_". Then use the description of your naming convention as a reference to stay consistent. For example "_date-category-author." The purpose on the underscore here it's to bring the reference folder to the top of the list when sorting by name. 

Special thanks to productivity consultant Debbie Rosemont for advising me on this topic. I included many of her ideas in this post. You can listen to our conversation on digital decluttering and organizing here.