Jan. 11 2016

A Guide to Organizing Your Digital Life

In honour of today being Clean Off Your Desk Day (yes, it’s a real thing) I want to share a post about something I’m oddly passionate about.

Digital Hygiene

Yes. It might not sound sexy, but there’s nothing more satisfying than sitting down to work at your computer and having organized icons, a clean desktop and a logical filing system.

I just tingled a bit.

In my undergrad I was the T.A. for Digital Imaging.  When I’d look over students’ shoulders and see files scattered willy-nilly across the desktop, named variations of ‘fgfdh’ and ‘untitled’, it drove me crazy.

Do people actually live like this?” I asked my professor.

Some people thrive on chaos and disorganization.  They can walk into a hoarder’s closet and expertly tell you where the yellow sock with the pink flowers is.

But for most of us, digital clutter is exhausting, distracting and unnecessary.

My desktop at the moment. And no, I didn’t just shove everything under the rug into my Documents folder. This is generally what it looks like and how I always try to put it back after I finish working.

Why You Should Care

If you feel stressed when you look at your desktop, or the thought of rooting through your Pictures or Documents folders causes you anxiety, this post is for you.

If you quickly open your Internet browser to block the poorly-named JPEGs from glaring menacingly, this post is for you.

If a friend asks, “Do you have a copy of that audio file from the project we worked on last month?” and you panic, this post is for you.

We do so much work on our computers.  You might be able to shut your laptop and walk away, but even if you can’t see the mess, you know it’s there. 

There are also practical benefits to organizing your computer.

  • Less crap on hard drive = faster computer
  • Less clutter = easier to find things/finish work faster
  • Finish work faster = more time to enjoy non-computer life*

*This is the important part.

There’s a Better Way!

You’re tired of your desktop looking like it held a rager last night.  Let’s get down to it. You can even pull out the glasses-cleaner, cloth and clean the screen at the same time. Hold a spa day for your computer.

Have a Filing System

And stick to it.*

Have one central location for your files, be it the Documents folder, Google Drive or Dropbox. Keep it all in one spot.

Within that spot, sort by project.

If you’re a student you might try:

Documents >> Undergraduate >> Year >> Class Name

If you’re a freelancer, you might try:

Documents >> Client Work >> Client Name >> Project Name

And then within Project Name have subfolders like Client Questions, Assets, Source Material, Presentations or whatever makes sense for you.

Here’s an example from me. This is from a class I did last semester during my Masters. It was called ‘Radio Workshop’, so my hierarchy looked like this:

Dropbox >> Masters >> Year One >> Radio Workshop

Because we had a daily production schedule, within the Radio Workshop folder I sorted my folders by date, production type, role, story name.

Ex: 2015 12 01 –  RADIO ROOM – HOST/EDITOR

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 16.09.33 copyWhatever folder hierarchy you create, try and create the same one for each project. This sounds like a lot of work, but I swear it’s worth it.  Your brain will start to think in these terms and you’ll find things a lot faster.

The nice things about naming things chronolgically from as YEAR MONTH DAY is that if you hit Shift + + 1 they will automatically grid-sort to chronological order.

*This is the most important.

Have a Naming System

And stick to it.**

Same as your folders. Be intentional.  Don’t jam ‘dgjkhf’ into your keyboard when you hit ‘Save As’ because it’s quicker.  It’s not quicker if you spend 5, 10, 50 minutes looking for it later on.  Nobody likes looking for files after midnight.

When you’re working on a project, you might call the final file Project Name – Final.  This is great.  This makes sense.

The thing is, often when we tweak those projects after we think we’re done we end up with things like:

  • Project Name – FinalFinal
  • Project Name – FinalForReal
  • Project Name – ActuallyFinalThisTime
  • Project Name – UseThisOneSorryMark.

It’s hard to look back at that a week later and say, “So… which of these was the real final?”

When you’re done, go back and edit the names of the false finals so they don’t say final.  Better yet, just delete them.

Think of your computer like a room.  Digital files take up physical space there.  Be intentional.  Where is this file going to go?  What am I going to call it?  How am I going to find it later?

**Seriously, the most important.

Try These Habits

Set your default Downloads location to your desktop.

Downloaded files on your desktop you’re more likely to deal with right away.  You can change this in your computer browser.  In Google Chrome, you can find it by going to your settings > advanced > downloads.

Delete files as soon as you’re done with them. 

Program installers and that cat GIF you were sending to your friend.  Anything you’ve sent via gmail doesn’t have to be on your computer as well.  It’s saved in gmail.

Keep your desktop clean.

Treat the things on your desktop like clothes lying around your room.  Or dirty dishes.  Whatever works for you.

Anything you download to your computer is like kitsch you’re bringing in to your home.  Do you really need that third bear GIF?  Do you need an intervention?

Know your redundancies.

Get rid of any double files or things you don’t have to hold on to.  For example, anything you import to iTunes gets copied over to the iTunes library, so you don’t need to keep that original file.  Delete that sucker! Double-check under your iTunes settings to make sure yours is set up before you start deleting. 

Organize your browser bookmarks

The more organized every aspect of your digital life is, the better.  Get rid of bookmarks you never click on.

Photos in one central place

Whether it means using Lightroom, Photos, or another service.  Any program that makes you sort your photos in a consistent manner is useful.

I recommend sorting photos by Year, Month, Day.  If you’re in Lightroom you can set that up in your Import module.

Schedule regular backups

This is just a good practice that will save your butt if anything ever happens to your computer.  Once it’s organized, back it up!

Always run the latest OS & be diligent about software updates

They’ll make your OS quicker and save you all sorts of trouble.

Try These Tools

External Hard Drives

Great if you’ve got a lot of media to store.

Disk Utility / Disk Repair

Get familiar with the functions of Disk Utility on your Mac.  One really useful thing it does is run ‘First Aid’.

disk_utility_first_aid copy

The First Aid option is in the upper menu – left hand side.  Click it and it will automatically run through your disk to locate and detect any problems.  A good idea to run this every few months.

Cloud Storage Services

Dropbox, Google Drive, Flickr (for photos) can all save you space on your computer and also make it easy to access documents on the go, from any computer.

The caveat: you need the internet to use them.  Files stored locally with Dropbox or Google Drive can be accessed offline.

Cloud Mail Server

Gmail. Plain and simple.  It connects seamlessly to any other email you’re using and has a very smart storage system.  Use it.  It’s quickly becoming the global standard and is quite secure.

You can turn on two-step authentication for additional security.

Cloud Calendar Server

Google Calendars is the way to go.  They’re more useful across platforms than iCloud’s.

I use Sunrise.am to view my Google calendars.  They also have a great feature that lets you send your availability to people.  You can also view your Sunrise calendars in-browser as well as using their desktop and iOS apps.

Cloud Writing Services

For taking notes on the go and syncing with all your devices.  Great for class, meeting, workshop notes.

Ulysses in night mode.

Evernote is a popular choice.  Alternote is a beautiful Evernote desktop client.  Ulysses is what I use.  I prefer its minimalist interface and option for dark mode for night writing.  Notes is also a simple and effective option.

Disk Cloning Program

You want to develop a regular backup habit (water your plants, sweep the floor, back up your computer and hard drives).  I like Carbon Copy Cloner because you can automate and schedule your backups.  I have it set up so that whenever I plug in my PHOTO and PHOTO BACKUP hard drives, it’ll automatically backup PHOTO  to the other for me.

Disk Cleaners

These programs can help you locate where your system might be hiding extra weight. Some examples are Omni Disk Sweeper and DaisyDisk.  They analyze the contents of your computer and break it down for you. From there you can choose to delete what you don’t need.  

Good to run this every couple months or if you suddenly run out of space.  You may be surprised what you find.

Hazel is a bit different. Hazel lets you set up rules to organize your files.  For example, I have it set up to mark with a red tag files I haven’t accessed in 3+ months. You can colour code images, videos, etc. and have it empty the trash for you.  Like a digital maid.

Fun Stuff

Personalize your dock with custom icons!

I explain how to do it in this postYou don’t have to use the developer’s icon.  Check out these alternate Google Chrome icons.

Customize your computer’s highlighted text colour

Under System Preferences > General Settingschange_color copy

You might find some other settings here you’d like to customize as well.


When you’re working at night this app takes the blue light out of your screen so it’s easier on your eyes and better for your circadian rhythm.  Just make sure to turn it off if you’re editing photos!


This app keeps your computer from going to sleep when you’re running long tasks.


Block distracting websites and schedule time off the internet.  Hallelujah.

Momentum browser plugin

Be reminded of your daily focus every time you open a new tab.


Converts your movies to iTunes-friendly format.


Plays every type of video out there.

Mac Shortcuts That Make Sense to Know

⌘ + H  hides programs

⌘ + TAB  toggles between open programs

⌘ + TAB + Q  quits the selected program when toggling

⌘ + Option + Esc  is CtrlAltDelete for Mac.

Shift + + 1  sorts everything on your desktop/finder alphabetically and put it into a grid. No files hidden under files.

⌘ + F  finds a word in any text environment.

⌘ + Spacebar  Because it’s 2016. Don’t search for things in Finder.

Learn the shortcuts for any program you use regularly. Here are all the Mac default shortcuts.

Going Forward

Keep practicing and don’t give up! Were there any questions I didn’t answer? Ask in the comments below and I’ll give it my best.

Hopefully you found it useful.  I know it was long. It probably could have been two posts.

May I suggest downloading this handy reminder wallpaper?



Treat your digital space like a physical space and keep it clean. Be consistent.  Throw out crap.  Organize your shit.

Here’s to being a digital organization freak. ????

Mel Hattie Signature 2016 - Final - Mel Only





p.s. If you liked this, check out the shorter How To Design a Good Workspace


You just made me cringe in guilt at my desktop…. But a great post about helping me to deal with all the crap that’s accumulated on my computer and needs to be dealt with. Will follow your steps and sort it out now!

Try taking a before and after desktop screencap so you can see your progress! Very satisfying. 🙂

The most messy place in my laptop is downloads folder. Thanks for the tips. I shall delete the things I’ve downloaded as soon as I’m done with it.

The downloads folder is a sneaky place indeed. Last night I was organizing a friend’s laptop and we found over 2,000 abandoned files in her downloads folder. Good luck in your quest!

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