In the previous Tidy Tuesday post, we explored the first step of the IFO method: identifying your data. Once you’ve figured out what you have, your next step is to filter it so that only the important data remains. The filtering process is more hands-on; you’ll actually delete some things during this part of the process, so prepare to get your digital hands dirty!

WARNING: I recommend using a two-step process to filter your data in order to avoid accidental data loss. The first step is to COPY, NOT MOVE, all data from the device or drive being cleaned into a separate “triage” location. As you filter through everything, only delete FROM THE TRIAGE LOCATION, never from the original source. Once you finish filtering data from that device and only the data you care about remains, ONLY THEN should you delete the data from the original location.

Benefits of Filtering

Choosing to filter your data at this stage provides some noteworthy advantages:

  • First, filtering streamlines the final organization step by making sure you don’t waste time sorting, tagging, or otherwise handling anything you already know you want to discard. To paraphrase an idea popularized by Donald Knuth and Elon Musk, among others: don’t organize what you’re going to delete.
  • Second, in order to filter correctly, you’ll need to actually look through your data. While you don’t need to perform the more time-consuming organization step yet, getting eyes on what you have will help to fill in any important missing details and will inform your choices about how to categorize and sort the final set of data later.
  • Third, filtering early also reduces the amount of storage space you’ll need later for intermediate steps, where the work-in-progress items might get temporarily copied to a dedicated hard drive (or cloud storage location) while you sort, tag, rename, etc.

Filter Using Categories

Deciding whether to delete something can be challenging for many reasons. Sometimes we don’t know if something is important, or we feel we might need it later, or we hold on out of nostalgia. It’s exactly like cleaning out a cluttered garage, except the clutter has no physical form.

To overcome these mental roadblocks, start with a set of high-level categories that will decide for you without involving those pesky emotions. Of course, you can treat these as guidelines rather than strict rules; they’re here to assist, not constrain.

Although everyone has unique categories of data to work with, here is a list of some common types of data that most people can comfortably delete:

  • Operating system files or applications on old hard drives
  • Sets of photos that look 90% similar (keep only a few)
  • Music or movies that are available on streaming services you’re already paying for
  • Reminders, notes, or lists concerning events that already occurred
  • Installation tools downloaded from the internet

Working through data with a category filter like this only gets you so far, however. What do you do when you encounter files that don’t fit?

Filter Using Questions

To further remove uncertainty or emotions from the filtering process, use a list of clear yes-or-no questions that direct you to a confident answer about any piece of data you encounter. Answering “yes” to just one of a set of well-defined questions probably means you should keep the item around. Just make sure your conditions aren’t too lenient, or they won’t do much good.

The list below is what I use for filter questions:

  1. Do I want this?
    It’s so obvious that we sometimes overlook this one. If you don’t want it, and nobody else is expecting you to keep it (boss, lawyer, spouse, kids, etc.), then by all means—mash that delete button. However, just because you do want something doesn’t mean you should keep it. Continue on with the rest of the questions!
  2. Do I need this for record-keeping purposes?
    Tax forms, warranty receipts, legal agreements qualify. Shipping confirmation emails for last year’s online orders do not.
  3. Will I likely need to use this again for something important?
    Keep that set of creative design files for your business logo and a PDF copy of a paper covering a topic you write a blog about. Delete the set of icons you downloaded in 2007 for a project that never got off the ground and a PDF copy of a user guide for a home appliance you don’t even have anymore.
  4. Did I create this personally?
    If you actually had a hand in making something digital, it’s often important enough to keep: personal or business letters, art or other graphics, program source code, an electronic journal, etc. However, watch out for things like pictures, videos, and emails; we create these things in such high volume that we can (and should) get rid of most of them.
  5. Is this unique among my other data?
    Photos are the worst offender here. It’s too easy to take hundreds of photos at a single event, then never even go back to look at them—let alone curate or organize them. It’s often possible to cull dozens of photos down to just three or four meaningful, well-framed, in-focus images. Just keep in mind that nobody, including you, enjoys swiping through an album of 100 pictures where 90 of them look the same.
  6. Is it impossible/difficult/expensive to get this again?
    If you managed to hunt down a hard-to-find product manual, obscure audio recording, or scanned copy of a rare book, it can make sense to keep it even though you might be able to find it again if you had to. But don’t use this as an excuse for something otherwise irrelevant. If you don’t need it, it doesn’t matter whether it’s hard to get it again.

If you can answer “no” to all of those questions regarding some particular set of data, then you can confidently delete it.

Do One Thing

Choose one small set of your data (such as the first 10 items in your email inbox, a single photo album, or document folder on your computer) and filter it to delete whatever doesn’t qualify.

If you did last week’s exercise focused on identifying your data, you’ll have a head start. Don’t worry about catching every potential candidate for deletion at first. Remember, the IFO method is an iterative process; do a little at a time, then later do you can do more.

Next week, it’s time to organize!

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Ready to get your data under control? You can do it!