Last week’s Tidy Tuesday post listed the three key steps of the IFO method: Identify, Filter, and Organize. This might be easy if all you have is a phone, or even just a phone and a computer. But if you’ve kept a few old devices around through upgrades, or if you use a bunch of cloud services, establishing where everything is might feel like a daunting first step. Regardless, it’s the only logical place to start—If you don’t know what you have, you can’t hope to organize it.

Identifying your data requires answering two key questions: what do you have, and where is it?

1. What Do You Have?

Most of us have some idea of the kinds and quantity of data we possess. (Indeed, this knowledge might even trigger a feeling of existential dread.) We probably couldn’t reel off a comprehensive list, of course, but a high-level short list from memory provides a great jumping-off point. For example, here’s where I’d start:

  • Personal and work email
  • Photo and video collection (multiple phones and cameras, multiple decades)
  • Music collection (partially sorted MP3 library that I could probably toss most of)
  • Financial records (mostly PDFs of tax-related data)
  • Notes (personal and work)
  • Scanned copies of official documents or important receipts
  • Source code archives for a wide variety of personal, consulting, and day job work
  • Collected massive archive of 30 years’ worth of hard drives (mostly unnecessary)

I could identify many additional smaller categories, but it’s easier to add those to the list as I come across them later. Right now, we only want to capture the obvious groups.

Notice that as I made this list, I intuitively added brief notes to some items describing where they came from, or their purpose, or their estimated importance. This extra context can help later on.

2. Where Is It?

Oddly enough, data you think of as “yours” might not exist in any meaningful way on your own devices at all. Social media posts, email conversations, to-do lists, and sometimes even extensive collections of photos, videos, and music often reside on a remote server somewhere—not your computer. Facebook, Twitter, and basically everything Google creates are all examples of this: you access them on demand through your smartphone or computer, but you’re really just viewing temporary local copies, downloaded just for a moment and discarded when you swipe away to the next item. We usually refer to data stored this way as being “in the cloud.”

Cloud storage comes with trade-offs, which we’ll get to in more detail in a future post. But the distinction doesn’t really matter for the “Identify” step of the process. You still usually have control over the data, and that means you can choose how to organize it, or whether to keep it at all.

For this step of the identification process, if you aren’t sure whether the data in question lives on your own hardware or not, it’s often most helpful just to note how you access it. Maybe you use the Outlook or Gmail app on your phone for your email. Maybe it’s a set of files in your “Documents” folder on your computer. You might make a list or table to keep track of the what it is (general category), where it is (the device you use), and how you get there (if you need a specific app).

To continue using some of my example data above:

What (Category)Where (Devices)How (Apps)
Personal emailPhone, desktopFastmail
Work emailPhone, work laptopOutlook
Photo and video collectionPhone, desktopACDSee, Synology Photos
Financial recordsDesktopMoneydance
NotesPhone, desktopMicrosoft OneNote

Once you work through your high-level categories, you’ll undoubtedly discover things you didn’t think of earlier. When (not if!) that happens, just add the new items to the list, and revise and clarify existing items if needed. This is an ongoing process.

Do One Thing

Answer the two questions above to create your own list or table identifying what data you have and where it is.

The exercise from last week’s post might help you get started. You may end up with only a few entries, and that’s fine. For extra credit, see if you can identify whether the data is stored in the cloud or not.

Next week, we’ll tackle a more hands-on part of the process: filtering!

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