Weekend Project: Increase Productivity by Digitally Decluttering
Having a long holiday weekend is a perfect chance to complete some personal projects that you've been meaning to get around to. This holiday weekend, make your project to increase your productivity and to reduce your stress! This can be done by decluttering some of the aspects in your life, and I'm going to detail how easy it can be by using the right tools.
First, let's address the benefits of decluttering. There's been a bit of a debate across various sites for a while now about whether it's better to be organized, or to have clutter around you. The argument is that clutter can sometimes increase creativity. This...may be true, but I think there's an important distinction to make in this situation. What is likely the case is that it's not clutter per se that can increase productivity, but it's having relevant tools and materials available to you easily in a way that can be "cluttered." But having just random things all over your desk, in my opinion, seems unlikely to be beneficial.
So, even beneficial clutter requires some decluttering and purpose to how you organize your materials and make them available to yourself!
What are the other benefits of keeping things organized and minimalist? Organization allows you to quickly and easily find whatever you need. Minimalism removes unnecessary distractions that enable you to focus on your task at hand. Plus, for many people there is a general feeling of satisfaction when things are organized and kept minimalist, which is probably why both trends have become increasingly popular.
Decluttering your physical space is something many people have familiarity with, and it's easy to find resources elsewhere to learn how to manage that aspect of your decluttering endeavor. So instead, here I want to focus on the tools that are available to declutter your digital life, enabling you to increase your productivity and to enjoy using your tech products more!
The first step to decluttering your digital life begins with your desktop. Many of you reading this probably have a desktop that has at least a few icons on it, and several of you probably have icons all over the place. For some people, icons can be useful, and there are tools available to help you keep those icons organized. However, in my opinion that goes against the minimalist ideal, and in practice it may be better to remove those icons. Or, rather, to limit them.
What you can't see in the photo above is my taskbar. In order to make the most of the screen space, I have my taskbar set to autohide (in Windows: Right-click > Properties > Auto-hide the taskbar). On my taskbar, I have limited myself to just the apps that I use most frequently: Libraries (the Windows Explorer launcher), Mendeley, Chrome, YNAB, and a pinned work website. (I'll cover Mendeley and YNAB in more detail below).
For files, those are all organized in my document folders, using a hierarchical system. Doing so makes it generally easy to find what you need, when you need it. But there are certainly times when a file can fit well into multiple different folders, and it can be hard to remember where you saved it. For those cases, there are search tools to help out, which I detail below.
Okay, so you got rid of some icons on your desktop, and maybe you've gotten rid of some files using the services I detail below. How can you keep your desktop more organized (e.g., the various windows you use)? DisplayFusion is a great option, especially if you use multiple monitors like I do. DisplayFusion allows you to have specific apps launch on certain monitors, you can set keyboard shortcuts to move and/or resize windows, you can have windows stay on top of others to help with multitasking, and many other great features.
Along with organizing your windows, DisplayFusion gives you more flexibility with your taskbar, so you can have the Windows taskbar on the bottom of one screen, and a separate DisplayFusion taskbar (which looks just like the Windows taskbar) on the side of your larger monitor to help save on vertical space. The application also features things like automatically changing your background image at set intervals and matching the colors of the taskbar and windows to the background automatically.
DisplayFusion comes with a free trial, then can be purchased for a one-time fee. They have a listing on Steam, which allows you to use it on any computer your Steam account is on.
Launchy is an application that you can install on your desktop (it supports all major OSes), and it brings several advantages. First, it allows you to launch apps easily with just your keyboard. This provides you with another way to help reduce the number of apps that you have on your desktop and taskbar, and it keeps things minimalist because Launchy is hidden until you bring it up with your set keystroke combination (I use Alt+Space so it's quick and easy to bring up).
Second, it allows you to search for files and folders easily after you tell it which folders to watch in its catalog. As long as you remember roughly what the title was of the file you need, you can start typing it in and Launchy will quickly give you a drop-down of matching results. Simply select the result, hit Enter, and the file or folder will open up!
Launchy is open source and available for free, though you can donate to the project if you want.
Google Drive and Dropbox are two popular tools for backing up files and folders to the cloud. Both allow uploading files from their websites, but they also have applications you can install on your computer. Those applications can be set to watch certain folders, and whenever you add files to those folders they will be automatically uploaded for you.
The advantage to cloud services like these is that you may no longer need copies on your desktop, which allows you to remove some of the older content. By doing so, your new and relevant content becomes that much easier to find, without you needing to worry about finding that older content if you ever need it. Both services offer search functionality that makes finding your content easier, just like Launchy on the desktop.
If you use Google Drive, you also have the option of saving many files directly to Drive itself from within your browser rather than needing to download and then upload. If you're using Chrome, one of the print options is to Save to Google Drive, so the contents you're printing will be saved there automatically as a PDF. This works great if you're looking for research articles, so you don't have to download a bunch of them and clutter up your desktop or downloads folder!
As a sort of disclaimer, if you do backup content to the web I still recommend backing up to an external hard drive as well. Backing up to the cloud has the benefit of being available in any location and on any device, but it's always good to have a physical backup just in case!
Both Google Drive and Dropbox are free, with cheap paid options to increase your storage space, and they're available across devices.
Google Photos/Play Music
While Google Drive and Dropbox are great for many files, some files are unique and require handling in a specific way. Two examples are photos and music. Each can be organized in folders, but that drastically limits the potential of the files. Music and photos can both be organized in albums, tagged, put into slideshows/playlists, indexed by different people that are featured in the file, and so forth.
Thankfully, there are options for these types of files as well. Google Photos was just recently revamped, and it allows you to upload all of your photos to the service mostly for free (though higher quality photos do still use up some of your Google Drive space, unless you want them to be converted to a high-quality-but-smaller-file-size equivalent). Once in the cloud, you can organize, tag, and edit your photos however you want. In addition, the service will automatically touch-up and create some projects for you, such as slideshows from a trip or animated files from pictures that were taken together. You can search by people in the photos without having to tag everyone manually (it doesn't know their names, just recognizes if the same faces appear across photos), and you can search for various contents of the photos as well.
Google Play Music is similar, but for your music files. Along with having the All Access option that enables you to stream from their catalog of music (similar to Spotify and Rdio), you can upload your own library of music. Once uploaded, you can edit the metadata, organize into playlists, etc. It also allows for downloading music offline on your mobile devices, making it easy to sync.
Both services make it possible for you to upload your files and then potentially remove them from your desktop (though, again, make a physical backup first!) in order to help reduce clutter. In fact, Google Photos can automatically upload new photos you take with your phone and, when space gets low, will offer to remove device copies of photos that have been backed up so you can have more room to take more photos.
Both services are free, with applications across platforms, and with paid options to increase storage (for Photos) or allow streaming from a larger catalog (for Music).
For students, academics, researchers, etc., another special type of file is the research article. Many of us have folders filled with hundreds of PDFs, and it can be difficult to figure out a way to declutter such a mess. One of the prime difficulties with PDFs of articles is that there is no great way to organize them with folders, as research articles are often applicable to many different projects. You could put a copy of the article in multiple folders, but that's inefficient, especially if you want to highlight or add notes to the file! They're also not easy to search when stored this way, as you may remember the title but not the authors, the authors but not the title, or only the journal it was published in, which can't all be stored in the title of the file.
Enter reference management software. There are several options, like Endnote and Zotero, but my personal favorite is Mendeley because it offers syncing abilities and mobile apps that allow syncing to my tablet, including annotations.
One of the benefits to a reference manager is that it handles the organization of articles for you. I have found it best to keep all of my articles in one folder (which is synced with Google Drive so I have backups), and Mendeley is set to watch that folder for any new articles. (I "print" research articles directly to Google Drive once I find them in Chrome, like I mentioned above, and then move those files to an Articles folder after renaming them, which then downloads them and Mendeley sees them and adds them to my library).
Once in Mendeley, you can add articles to any of the folders that you have for projects, allowing you to effectively have one file in multiple projects. It also does the best it can to pull down accurate reference information for each article from their online catalog (though I recommend double-checking everything). After your files are in there, you can search all of your articles quickly for any of the information, including title, authors, notes you've made on them, and so forth.
In addition to storing your files and organizing them, Mendeley (and other reference managers) also handle exporting references for articles in your format of choice (e.g., APA Style for me). This can be done per-article, or you can also use Mendeley's integration with Microsoft Word to insert your references, and then it can put a references section at the end for you. It automatically handles formatting everything properly, and helps to keep your Word documents more organized as well!
Mendeley is available for free across devices, with a paid option to increase storage space in the cloud for synced articles (though the free storage should be more than enough for most people).
Whenever you're online, chances are good that you go to a lot of different sites and read various articles. You may go to them one-by-one, have bookmarks for them, open them up in different tabs, and sometimes get lost in trying to read all of them. I've talked in the past about using Pocket to help alleviate some of these problems, but there is another tool that can help: an RSS reader.
Some sites have argued that RSS is a dying trend that won't stick around much longer. Google Reader used to be the most popular RSS reader, but after Google closed it many assumed RSS would stop being useful. RSS is still wonderful though, and there are many great RSS readers out there. My personal choice is Feedly.
So first, what is RSS? RSS is a way for a site to list all of its new posts once they're available. That doesn't mean much by itself, because if you look at an RSS feed (like mine), it will just look like a bunch of jibberish. What's useful about RSS is that you can add feeds to an RSS reader, which can understand that jibberish. By adding RSS feeds from a list of sites, your reader of choice will then detect all new articles published on those sites, show them to you in a list, and allow you to read excerpts (or sometimes full articles) from that site.
What that means is that you can get most of your news all in one place. Sure, you'll still go to sites that you don't regularly visit to read articles. But those sites you visit regularly? Put them all together in Feedly, feel confident that you are up-to-date on the posts from those sites, and enjoy having all of your most valued content available to you in one convenient place without the clutter of many tabs or messy sites!
Feedly is available on the web and mobile devices for free, with a paid option to enable some extra features (though those extra features aren't required for its core functionality).
Tweetdeck/Falcon Pro 3
Feedly works great for news you get from various websites, but what about news from social media? It largely depends on the site that you're using, but Twitter is a popular one so I want to discuss a couple of options for how to organize your Twitter feed.
Chances are good that you follow a lot of different people on Twitter that post about a wide range of topics. This can make your feed cluttered and difficult to navigate. It also makes it difficult for you to keep track of mentally, as you constantly have to shift your mindset as you go from tweet to tweet. Thankfully, Twitter has a built-in lists ability!
You can go through the people you're following on Twitter and add them to lists based on the type of content they generally post about. You can also group them based on how they are important to you, such as a list of friends and family. You can have users in multiple lists, if that is helpful as well.
So, what do you do with these lists? Make them into separate streams! On the desktop (web), Tweetdeck is a good option, and on mobile (at least on Android) I recommend Falcon Pro 3. Both use a column-based layout, and you can make a column out of a list you've made on Twitter. That means that you can effectively have separate streams for each topic and group of people that you follow, and you can go through them one-by-one. This makes it much easier to navigate, and it helps to ensure you don't miss out on more important tweets (such as those from friends and family) because they were crowded out by frequent posters (such as news sites).
Tweetdeck is owned by Twitter and available for free, while Falcon Pro 3 is a third-party app that requires a small one-time fee to use with your account.
Emails, though not files, are a major source of clutter for many people. Gmail and other services offer a lot of tools to declutter your emails, but they require some effort to setup. Inbox, on the other hand, makes the organization effortless. Inbox uses "bundles" to group your emails in meaningful ways. Along with grouping them, it offers options for you to control them as a group, such as how often you see emails in that bundle, and you can dismiss all of them at once.
This ability really shines when you use it for things like promotional or listserv emails you may get throughout the day. These emails are frequent, can fill up your inbox quickly, and are a pain to dismiss one at a time, especially since you probably don't need to look at most of them! By having them bundled, you can tell Inbox to show you all of the new emails you've gotten in those categories just once a day. You can then scan through them, look at and act on the ones that matter, then dismiss the rest all at once. The algorithm that groups emails is also very good, so there is little worry of emails getting bundled incorrectly.
The service also offers other great features, like assists for certain types of emails and the ability to pin emails. These make it easier to prioritize your emails, and to get useful information from them more quickly. The end result is that you spend less time searching through your emails to find what you need, and you can keep things less cluttered as a result!
Inbox is a free service from Google's Gmail team that uses your Gmail account. It's now open to everybody, and you're still able to use Gmail even if you enable Inbox.
One of the most important types of information we need to handle is our todo list items. There are many todo list apps available, so I recommend finding one that works for you, but my personal favorite is Todoist. By having all of your todo list tasks in one place, you can easily keep them organized and not have to try to remember them in your head. Todoist allows grouping by project, labeling tasks in whatever way you want, assigning priorities and due dates, and you can even add notes and files. The result is a comprehensive todo list that contains all of your tasks in an organized and meaningful way, which can easily be sorted/filtered.
Todoist also makes it easy to quickly add new tasks. As you think of them, you can use the site, desktop app, or mobile app to quickly add an entry. This means that the service is not only great for helping you to declutter initially, but it's also great at helping you to stay decluttered! You can also feel confident that you'll be able to add todo list items just about anywhere you are, as the service is available on a wide range of platforms.
Todoist is free, with a paid yearly subscription to enable some of its most useful features.
Similar to our todo list, another important type of information to keep organized is our notes. Notes are typically small, contain a lot of different types of information, need to be jotted down quickly, and can cover a wide range of different topics. As a result, organizing them can be difficult! It's helpful to have them available electronically so you can pull them up wherever you are, and you can easily attach things like URLs and photos, but having notes in files isn't very useful.
Instead, it's helpful to use services like Google Keep and Evernote. If you just want a place to jot down the occasional note or checklist, Google Keep is a good lightweight option. It allows you to have different colors for notes, so you can come up with an organizational system that way, and it allows adding a photo to a note.
For more extensive notes, Evernote is probably the most popular service. Evernote allows for longer notes, adding more photos and other pieces of information, organizing your notes into different notebooks, and making your notes searchable. It also supports other useful features, like handwriting input and setting reminders.
Both services are available across devices, allowing you to jot down your notes electronically and in an organized way no matter where you are, rather than having to clutter up your life with paper notes and/or files all over your desktop! Keep is completely free, and Evernote is free with paid options to make the service even more useful for power users.
This one may or not be useful for some people. Most people I know are firmly in the "I need a physical calendar" world, or the "I need an electronic calendar" world. If you're in the latter, or you think having an electronic calendar may be nice, then look into using Google Calendar. By putting all of your events onto your calendar, and having it available anywhere, you can help to declutter your mind from having to remember when things are.
More beneficial in terms of decluttering your digital life is the ability to add files to events. Have a presentation coming up, and you need to easily access the PowerPoint file once you're there? You can add the file to your presentation event in Google Calendar, then easily pull it up when needed. It's just another tool that allows you to organize your digital content in a meaningful, easy, helpful, and decluttered way.
Google Calendar is free to use, and is available across devices. Currently, it has extra features and an updated look on mobile devices, but its web version hasn't been updated yet (and doesn't even have an informational introduction site that I can get a screenshot of to add here as a photo).
Finally, finances are a major part of our lives that require careful tracking, but it can be difficult to do so effectively. Enter YNAB (You Need a Budget), a finance-tracking application available on desktop and mobile. YNAB combines all of your accounts into a single budget, allows you to divide your budget into different categories, then enables you to enter all expenses and incomes so you can track your spending and how much you have left for a budget in different categories. It's a different approach than many other finance trackers, and one that is highly praised by finance-conscious users.
Rather than trying to budget with spreadsheets or only on one device, consider trying YNAB. It can save to Dropbox, allowing for syncing across devices, and it features reports and different information that can help make sense of your messy expense tracking.They also offer free online trainings to help orient you to the application and show you how useful it can be.
And, if you're a college student, you can get it for free! For those who aren't college students, you can get it for a one-time fee, and it's sometimes available on sale. You can also try it for free with a trial.
Decluttering and organizing your digital life can help make your life a lot easier, but it also enables you to be more productive by streamlining some processes. By choosing the right tools, a lot of the hard work can be handled for you, and by using all of the tools I've listed above you can be confident that your clutter will be well managed.
Not only can you declutter the digital information you already have, but you can easily keep things decluttered into the future, meaning an afternoon of work could make your longterm future much easier. Not bad for a holiday weekend, right?
Are there digital forms of information I missed that you need help decluttering? Do you know of other services that are useful for decluttering your digital life? Let me know in the comments!