During the summer break, we went through a late spring-cleaning. For me, physically cleaning things out is never a big issue. I'm relatively minimalist and willing to get rid of anything that doesn't have a use. It also helped that at the beginning of the summer I read The Minimalist Way by Erica Layne.
The goal of the book is to "[d]iscover how to apply the minimalist mindset to every aspect of your life by changing the way you think about your home, career, relationships, family, and money." And it does just that.
So I was able to go through material things and give away or throw away a lot of stuff. There is still a good bit we could probably toss, but it's not in the way now.
The enormous challenge for me was data.
I have almost 20 years worth of data. It could be pictures; it could be programs. But mostly it is copies of copies of copies. I make a lot of backups of all my data. And you should too!
I've used a lot of different backup software and strategies throughout the years. The result is that I have folders sitting around with strange names that I've never gone through and sorted. So now I have data on computers, hard drives, USB sticks, phones, and cloud services. Most of it has never been sorted since we always keep getting more space. Nothing gets deleted, because there may be something we need inside.
I realized that cleaning data is a lot like cleaning your house. The same motivations and limiting factors are there. The only real difference is that data is not really in your way. If you have too many clothes, you can't fit more clothes in your dresser. With data, more space is cheap and easy to get.
So to start to organize my data, I used this procedure:
- Take an inventory of the main storage locations that you use
- Collect all external storage - hard drives, USB sticks, etc. - in a central location (desk)
- Write down all of the cloud storage locations that you can think of
- Find the storage location that you use the most
- Look at how the main storage location is organized - do you have a set folder structure?
- Once you've identified some folder structure, this will become your template
- For example, writing, videos, pictures
- I sub-divided the writing folder into seeds, WIP, submitted, published
- Organize all of the main storage into this structure
- Delete anything that is no longer necessary
- Any data that doesn't fit into a category make a new sub-category
- Once the main storage is sorted, select the next most important storage device
- Sort all data from the next storage device into the main storage structure
- Delete anything that is no longer necessary
- Any data that doesn't fit the structure, the current storage device becomes the main storage location for that type of data
- For example, a hard drive only for videos
- Select the next storage device, and repeat
- Once all physical devices have been sorted, look at cloud and online storage the same way
The result of all this is that you consolidate all your data into one or two hard drives. Try to utilize online storage like Github for project folders. In that case, you don't need to worry about local long-term storage for the project (just working directories).
Cloud services should have some specific feature associated with them. For example, Office365 editing online, Google Docs editing, or just sharing services. Anything that is not associated with the feature should not go on that cloud environment. If you need a syncing service, but don't need cloud features, use something like Syncthing. All your data is stored locally, and it supports versioning and backups. Local sync services can let you get rid of services like Dropbox.
Any Cloud services you are no longer using, and are not likely to use, you should delete.
Getting Things Done
In doing this process, you end of getting a lot more work really quicky. I just finished reading David Allen's Getting Things Done, and applied his task management tips to data sorting. It took the stress out of a big, long-term task like cleaning 20 years of data. He recommends using an in-box and notes. I use Taskwarrior. Taskwarrior lets me set things like task deadlines, recurrence and dependencies very easily. Taskwarrior is not for everyone, but I found it a lot more practical than other task management systems.
There is one more action that significantly reduces the amount of data I have laying around and forces me to sort stuff promptly. That is setting my computer to delete everything in the Downloads folder every single day.
Before, I would use the downloads folder as temporary storage for exciting things I may want to work on. The problem is that the data would pile up. Projects would get mixed with random experiments, flight tickets, vacation pictures, etc. The result is that it would eventually be stressful to deal with all the data. I wasn't sure what was already done or not.
Now that my downloads folder is deleted automatically every day, I immediately have to choose what to do with the data. If it is somewhat important, it gets filed where it needs to go. If it is not important enough, it will get deleted. If I need it again later, I'll have to find it.
This system forces an evaluation of the data as soon as it comes into the system. I either need to deal with it or let it go. I've found that 95% of the things I download can be deleted the next day with no issue. Another 4% need actions in the next week. Another 1% is something that I want to keep long-term. This tip has significantly reduced management time and stress.