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An illustration of pieces of blank paper floating in front of a cloud set against a turquoise background. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Easy ways to organize your digital life, from photos to emails

Do you need to buy more cloud storage? Experts explain how to organize your digital clutter.

If you possess a smartphone, tablet, email, computer, or online document storage account (and chances are you do), you may have at some point received a fated pop-up notifying you of the fast-dwindling storage space on your device or account. Perhaps the message instructs you to delete files or upgrade your cloud storage space — always for a fee — or else experience interruptions to your service or device. You oblige, paying a few extra dollars a month for storage, or scramble to mass-delete emails, texts, or images, hoping you aren’t permanently erasing a document of importance. The process repeats itself whenever you reach the upper limits of the next rung of storage space.

As the preservation of crucial documents, data, and memories moves away from analog hard copies to in-the-cloud storage, people can be awash in digital clutter. From perpetually full inboxes to a deluge of Google docs, experts advise putting systems in place to help better organize and maintain technological order. While storage and upkeep come with a cost, financial as well as logistical, keeping track of your files can save you money and hours in the long run.

Figure out your digital clutter issues

Nearly everyone differs when it comes to their digital preferences. You may be meticulous about deleting every email after you’ve addressed it but never sift through your camera roll. Instead of tackling your entire life in files, focus on the one area where you need the most help, says Amanda Jefferson, the owner of Indigo Organizing, who not only helps clients create order in their physical spaces using Marie Kondo’s KonMari method, but works with people to tidy up their digital lives, too. “What specifically is stressing you out?” she says. Perhaps your email is at max storage or you can never find the document you need on your computer. Figure out the problem you need to address, then focus on a solution that caters specifically to your issue.

Put some digital organizational systems in place

You don’t need to create an intricate web of folders and naming conventions to organize your files, Jefferson says. Stick with a system that makes the most sense to your brain and lifestyle. “You want to keep it as simple as possible,” Jefferson says. “A lot of times we start because we have these grand ideas of a really sophisticated organizational system and it falls apart.” If you’re a person who hardly uses Google Drive, it doesn’t make sense to implement a folders system there. But should your computer desktop need some tidying, create some general buckets of documents you’ll frequently reference, like tax info, rental paperwork, or templates you often use for work.

If you have issues finding documents in Google Docs or Dropbox, try sprucing up the way you title your documents, Jefferson says. She likes to start with the date (for example, YEAR.MONTH.DAY) then a few words about the file. Say you’re saving copies of your kids’ report cards; you might use your child’s name and the semester or marking period in the name of the document.

When it comes to email organization, Jefferson suggests creating folders, tabs, or labels if you use Gmail to categorize messages. “I have a folder for online orders and a folder for my daughter and a folder for certain work projects,” she says. You can move or archive the emails to these specific folders and they’ll be out of your main inbox. It’s important to note that archiving does not delete emails, they’re just moved to another place, so archiving won’t free up any storage space. (More on deleting and pruning later.) You can search for them in the Gmail search bar or go to the label you’ve moved it to. Creating rules will also automatically file incoming emails into these folders.

Photo organizing is a little different. According to Ana Carvajal, the owner and founder of photo organizing company Posterity Pro, you should keep your photos in chronological order without sorting them into files. Most devices come with a photo-viewing application where you can add descriptor tags like “first day of school” or “vacation 2022” for easier lookup later. This will definitely take you some time, but think about your goals for organizing. “Are you getting married and you want to search all the photographs that you have taken because you’ve dated for three years?” Carvajal says. “Having had your pictures tagged would make that really easy. Now, you may not care, and just being able to look by date, which your phone will do for you, is easy. You just have to make a decision and come up with a strategy that works for you.”

Because technology on photo libraries has gotten so advanced, you may not even need to do a ton of categorizing, says JR Raphael, the author of the column and newsletter Android Intelligence. Google and Apple Photos allow users to search their images by date, item, and person. “You can look for practically any characteristic you could think of that would describe an image or images you want to find,” he says. “Words like ‘wedding,’ ‘Halloween,’ ‘canoeing,’ ‘beach,’ color, red, green, purple, or specific text that appears somewhere in the image. So the organization of [photos] becomes superfluous and unnecessary.”

For phones littered with dozens of app icons, science journalist Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, has found success (and peace of mind) by hiding all apps on an interior page and keeping her home screen completely blank. The bottom bar on her home screen contains the phone app, messages, camera, and photos. Whenever she wants to use an app, she swipes down on her iPhone and searches for the specific app. To keep your home screen app-free, iPhone users can go to Settings>Home Screen, then select “App Library Only.” Android users can hold down on app icons and hit “Remove” to remove them from their home screen.

Whatever your pain point may be, don’t feel pressured to organize or categorize every single file or photo you currently have, Jefferson says. Just use this as a method going forward. For instance, if you’ve decided to create new folders in your email inbox, save yourself some time and skip sorting every email you’ve received into these folders. “Say you have 15,000 emails,” Jefferson says, “you can go in and create an archive folder and take all 15,000 of those emails and put them into archives and you’re done. Then the only things that you have left in your inbox are things that are from the last week and you just work through those.” Put on some music or a podcast and spend 10 or 15 minutes a day organizing to make the process more manageable.

Pare down your photos, files, and emails

A significant amount of storage space is wasted on superfluous files: screenshots, newsletters, unused apps. When helping clients organize their digital photos, Carvajal estimates about 30 to 40 percent of their images are duplicates. “I go out on a walk – it’s been such a beautiful fall – and I take 25 pictures of trees,” she says. “Do I really need all these trees? Let’s take the best three.”

If you don’t usually take a lot of pictures on your phone or are good at keeping your photo library slim, Carvajal recommends going through your images every few weeks during downtime (maybe before bed or while in the waiting room of a doctor’s office) and deleting all except your favorite pictures. That means deleting any blurry pictures, shots where someone’s blinking, memes and screenshots you’ve already shared, or angles that aren’t your favorite.

However, if your photo roll (or hard drive) is thousands deep and scrolling through each image or file one by one would take an overwhelming amount of time, Carvajal says to download de-duplicating software. “What they do is run through your library and they offer you the duplicates and you pick which one you keep,” she says. Her favorite duplicate photo apps include PhotoSweeper ($10), Gemini 2 (starts at $20 and sorts through all file types), and Duplicate Cleaner (there’s a free version). Other free options include dupeGuru, Duplicate Manager, and Auslogics Duplicate File Finder.

Paring down emails when you have decades of correspondence you could potentially access again is tricky. Are you currently holding onto emails you sent when you were in college? If you don’t need them anymore, search “before: DATE” in Gmail, for example, to pull up all emails from before a certain date and batch delete. Want to save emails from your grandparents? Search “from:” or “to:” and their email addresses and archive those emails to another label.

To give yourself more storage space, sort your emails by attachment size and delete any large attachments taking up valuable megabytes, Raphael says. If you’re using Gmail, click the “Show search options” icon in the search bar and fill in the “size” search field.

Again, you’ll need to periodically give yourself a digital storage audit, Raphael says, to determine if you’re using your space wisely. Maybe once or twice a year, take a look at what you’re choosing to hold on to and decide whether you really need it. Perhaps a backup from a PC you had over a decade ago isn’t the best use of space. “Let’s say you have a storage room in your basement or maybe buy a storage unit,” Raphael says. “It’s really no different than that. Think about, I’m paying for the space, I need this space, it’s valuable, but do I need to keep all the old junk that doesn’t matter to me anymore?”

When to pay for extra storage

Even after you’ve whittled down your libraries, a time will come when a cloud provider will ask whether you want to shell out a few extra bucks a month for more storage. According to Raphael, continually upgrading cloud storage as the primary form of backup is suitable for most people who are storing photos, documents, and emails. Companies like Apple, Google, and Dropbox are trusted and secure, he says. “You could store all of your images locally on your phone and then transfer them from there to an external drive on your home network,” Raphael says, “but you’re going to be giving up a lot of not only safety and security reassurances that you can get to all your stuff anywhere no matter what — even if your home was destroyed. [If] whatever physical property you have goes away, you can still sign into a new device and they’ll be there waiting for you [with cloud storage].”

If you feel more comfortable with multiple backup options, by all means store your libraries on an external hard drive. Just make sure you’re backing it up regularly. Carvajal suggests the 3-2-1 method of backup storage: have three copies of your data, save these backups on two types of media (an external hard drive and cloud), and make sure one of these backups is offsite. (Using cloud storage is considered offsite, Carvajal says.) If you’re using an external hard drive, make sure you make a note of when you purchased it because most have a shelf life of three to five years. Again, this process is much more time- and labor-intensive than backing up your files to the cloud.

Maintaining your digital clutter is a lifelong process. Unless something revolutionary comes along and changes the way people live, communicate, and work, managing digital data is something you’ll contend with forever. Keep a regular cadence of deleting redundant files, unimportant emails, and large attachments (and not spending too much time on organization) and you’ll find it easier to keep tabs on your virtual life. “You just have to make that initial investment in the setup,” Raphael says, “and then every day from here on out will be that much easier.”

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