After investigating the “Identify” step two weeks ago and proceeding on to the “Filter” step last week, it’s finally time to organize! This phase of the IFO method helps you create a permanent home for each piece of data you’ve located and decided to keep (for now, at least). If this was a home organization project, this would be the point where you’ve already donated or thrown away everything you can, and you’re ready to bring the rest back in from the yard or driveway onto neatly categorized shelves.

Note that this post will remain at a high level and not get deep into details. Future posts will explore more specifics, but this one aims to paint a general picture—like the two previous posts did—to point you in the right direction and kick-start your consideration of how your own process will look and how to begin.

There’s Always More Than One Way

Although my approach works well for me, it might not make sense to you. That might mean I just need to explain it better, but you might also just think “well-organized data” looks different than my preferred system. My goal is to give you the blueprints you need to build an efficient system for you, regardless of whether it mirrors mine exactly.

Which way to go road sign

Someone who mainly wants to work through 30 years of data from old hard drives will naturally have very different specific tasks than someone who mainly wants to tackle a giant set of personal photos, or someone who wants to organize their last four years of college work, or someone focused on getting from 10,000 unread emails to inbox zero.

The good news is that the main concepts usually apply across the board. For this high-level post, that’s where we’ll focus.

Organize Like a Pro

No matter what data you’re organizing, the process usually looks the same. Assuming you’ve already identified and filtered your data, follow the steps below to make progress:

  1. Choose the storage destination for this data.
    Organizing data requires that you know where that data will end up. This part is only about knowing what device or storage system this set of data will ultimately reside on, rather than knowing exactly where on that device or storage system you’ll put it.
    • For email, this is usually your mail provider’s own server (where it already is anyway, such as with Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail/Outlook, Fastmail, Proton Mail, etc). Email can be stored elsewhere, but this is far less common today than in decades past.
    • For photos, this could be your own hard drive or a cloud solution like Google Photos or iCloud Photos. Cloud vs. local storage is a topic for another post, but either is a valid choice.
    • For general files, it might be a service like Dropbox, a dedicated external hard drive, or a more robust device such as a Synology NAS (short for Network Attached Storage) device.
  2. Define a draft organization structure for this data.
    This is where your personal preferences start to weigh in. The best organization structure is the one that makes sense to you. But the most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t make a complex system of nested folders or labels. Don’t worry about having a subfolder for every conceivable thing. Why? It’s exceedingly difficult to maintain, and a simple search is much faster.
    • For email, you might create a set of labels or folders like Friends, Family, Work, Orders, Banking, Health, and Humor. There’s no need to have a folder for each friend. Search will take care of that.
    • For photos, choose a folder or album name structure that fits with your data, such as “[YEAR]/[YYYY-MM-DD] – Event Name” or similar. Professional photographers might need more detail than this, such as a client name or camera model.
    • For general files, think about the kinds of data you know you have (remember the Identify step?) and how you would intuitively access them. This is the most personal type of data organization, since we all have different data. I found that I did best by writing out a simple outline of main categories, and tried not to get more than three layers deep.

      For example, I have School, Work, Projects, and Records at the top level of my file archive; “Work” and “Projects” are separate because one is for my day job and the other is for entrepreneurial things. Inside Work I have one folder for each of the companies I’ve worked for, while inside Projects I have one folder for each notable project I spent time on (yes, including Tidy Bytes).

      Sometimes you have to go deeper than three layers to define efficient categories when you have a huge quantity of very different data, but most often that means you should restructure something higher up, and then become more comfortable with search tools.
  3. Pick one group of data at a time and move it to the proper folder or label prepared for it.
    If you managed to create a thorough enough structure outline in the previous step, you might get through quite a bit of data before you find something that doesn’t fit. But most likely, you will eventually encounter something that requires an addition or modification to your structure. Go ahead and make that change, then continue sorting. The farther along you get, the less often this will happen.

That’s it! If you can repeat those steps as often as you have time, whether you’re working with a huge set of data or only a few items, you’ll eventually be able to look out over a pristine digital landscape and breathe a sigh of relief and contentment.

Stay Flexible

Remember that you can rarely organize your data all at once. Even if you have all the time in the world, your final organization structure depends on knowledge you can only gain by building it.

Flexible girl in an acrobatic pose in the gym

Organizing data is an iterative process, and you’ll inevitably make revisions to your plan along the way. That’s fine, and you should embrace that part of the operation. If you box yourself in (pun intended!) with strict rules at the start, you may discover that the result doesn’t serve you as well as you hoped.

Stay Focused

If the prospect of organizing your data feels stressful, intimidating, or even like a waste of time, try instead to focus on the benefits. Having organized data at your fingertips solves many problems in both tangible and intangible ways. It’s easy to forget the benefits when the challenges stare us in the face.

Camera Lens aperture Iris

We can all come up with a dozen reasons to procrastinate or just give up entirely, but remember what you’ll get out of the process. Here are a few of the many benefits:

  • Less time spent searching for what you want from a mass of digital clutter
  • Less money spent on services or storage devices that you don’t actually need
  • Less effort spent wondering what to do with each new digital thing that comes in
  • Less stress thinking about having to deal with digital mess later, or worse—forcing your family to deal with it somehow after you’re gone
  • Clarity about what you have and why you’ve chosen to keep it
  • Confidence that what you cherish is safe from accidental loss or malicious intent
  • Improved focus and productivity in all activities that make use of your data
  • The ability to share curated collections easily with friends and family members
  • The feeling that you control your devices instead of the other way around

You can likely think of even more reasons that apply to your own situation. Doesn’t that list sound like a set of outcomes you’d do almost anything to achieve?

Trust me—it’s worth the effort.

Do One Thing

Choose one small set of data (such as emails from a specific person or organization, or a single album of photos) and move it to an intentionally structured permanent location.

This “one thing” will look different depending on what you choose. For example, if you’re organizing email, maybe that involves creating a “Friends” folder (for folder-based apps like Outlook) or a “Family” label (for label-based apps like Gmail), and then searching for all messages from a specific sender so you can move them to the target folder. Or if you’re working with a set of documents on your hard drive, it might mean starting a folder hierarchy (“Z:\Archive\Records\Taxes”) that can grow to fit around other data you’ll organize later.

As before, don’t worry about doing everything, or even doing one thing perfectly. Just prove to yourself that you can make progress. You can achieve mastery over your digital footprint.

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