If you’ve been following along with earlier Tidy Tuesday posts, especially the article outlining the 3-step IFO method, you may already realize just how critical it is to build good habits. It’s usually unrealistic to do everything at once, whether that’s effecting an immediate change in behavior or accomplishing a giant project in a single day. Instead of that one impossible leap, you’ll achieve success much more readily through a hundred small steps.

What does that look like in the context of personal data organization? For most of us, there are two different areas to focus on: new data and old data. To clarify, “new data” means things that you haven’t created or received as of this moment in time, while “old data” means everything you already have.

New Data Habits: Turn Off the Firehose

I recommend working on habits for new data first. This will give you a moment to pause, breathe, and consider more carefully what you want to do with what you already have. You already know it’s not going anywhere by itself, and the best thing you can do is stop making more of it.

Fire man spray water from hose for fire fighting. Firefighter spraying a straight steam

With any organization project, digital or otherwise, it’s easy to focus on what you already have. This makes sense, but you should consider how you ended up with so much data in the first place. For most of us, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen by design. We just accumulate a little at a time until our pile of data becomes a virtual monster that we can’t stand looking at.

Sometimes, it’s not a slow accumulation, but more like a firehose. A hundred new emails in a single day. A few hundred photos taken at a party or graduation. A meme-downloading binge. If we had to store each new item somewhere physically, it would be alarming. But since it’s invisible, we ignore the volume of digital debris building up across all our devices.

How do we stop this and reduce new data to a manageable trickle? To avoid overwhelming you with too many instructions, here are three simple improvements you can work toward.

New Data Habit #1: Say “NO”

Be aggressive about shutting off channels of incoming data. Emails and photos especially seem to multiply like rabbits, but sometimes other things can build up as well.

  • “No, I don’t need that email.”
    Unsubscribe from promotional emails and newsletters at every opportunity. You can always go back and re-subscribe to anything you truly need. Imagine the sheer joy of receiving only one or two important emails a day, without any of the cruft that usually fills your inbox! I recently worked through a culling process with someone who was able to cut out over 90% of the various newsletters and mailing lists she was receiving. This had a predictably enormous effect on her incoming mail.
  • “No, I don’t need that notification.”
    Push notifications can be extremely useful, but they are also immensely distracting. When we let others decide when to alert us to new information, we give up some control over how we spend our very limited attention. Certain things warrant immediate alerts, but very often we willingly allow arguably unimportant things to fracture our focus with a pop-up, chime, or vibration on our smartphones. All this task-switching negatively impacts our productivity, even for those of us who pretend to be able to multitask.
  • “No, I don’t need that picture.”
    Reconsider taking photos and videos so often or in large quantities. Enjoy each moment in person and commit it to memory; experiences are often richer that way. And when you do open up the camera app, only capture what you know matters. Nobody, not even you, wants to look through 200 pictures of the same five people at a single event. No, not even a wedding.
  • “No, I’m not going to read that.”
    Be honest with yourself about “someday” things. It’s too far easy to leave a few dozen “I’ll read it later this week” tabs open in our web browsers, a few hundred “I’ll read it later this month” emails in our inbox, or a haphazard collection of “I’ll read it later this year” PDF documents on time management, organization, and mental focus. It’s fine to save interesting or useful or fun things for later, but it’s important to be realistic. At the very least, practice enforcing a time limit on postponed tasks. Once it’s been too long, cut it loose: close the tab, delete the email, erase the file. You’ll feel more relief than disappointment, I guarantee it.

New Data Habit #2: Organize On Arrival

This trick stems from the OHIO productivity method: Only Handle It Once. For the items that made it through the filter of Habit #1 above, the best thing you can do is deal with them as soon as possible to avoid letting anything linger on your to-do list—or worse, fall through the cracks.

  • Read and delete (or archive) important emails right away. I don’t necessarily mean the instant they come in, since it’s better to check emails on a regular but infrequent basis (such as at a few predetermined times of the day). But when you’re churning through your inbox, don’t put off anything you can do in two minutes or less. Most emails don’t take anywhere near that long to read, even the long ones. This may feel impossible if you’re starting with a huge backlog, but for anything new, it’s an easy practice.
  • Save new items where they belong the first time. This requires some legwork to flesh out your organizational framework—more on that in future Tidy Tuesday posts, or review the “Organize” step in the IFO method—but the goal is to avoid the generic “Downloads” folder or “Camera Roll” catch-all album that we all use. Our computers and phones provide us with this fall-back as the default option, but it often turns into the only thing we use. Then, we end up with a single pile of data going back months or years with no organization. This is a recipe for an endless mess. Instead:
    1. Decide where something will go as soon as you encounter it.
    2. Create the required album, subfolder, organizational tag, etc. if it doesn’t already exist.
    3. Put the new item in the right location immediately.
    4. Breathe a sigh of relief.

New Data Habit #3: Consider Your Purpose

Think about what’s actually important to you. Some of the things you receive or create certainly do matter, but for most of us, the important stuff makes up only a fraction of everything we have. All of us can benefit from a more intentional approach to data creation and acquisition. Remember, just because we can store a billion things on a single tiny storage device, those things still have psychological weight.

Ask yourself some basic questions about anything you’re thinking about saving or creating to figure out whether it’s really worth it:

  • Do I know specifically what I’m going to use this for?
  • When will I cut this loose if I don’t act on it?
  • Will this actually improve anything important?
  • Will anyone else truly care to see this in the future?

If these questions don’t have satisfactory answers, save yourself time and stress later and just delete the file, email, or whatever it is right away (or don’t download it in the first place).

Old Data Habits: Little By Little

After you cut down on the flood of new data coming in, you can dig into the collection you already have with fewer distractions. It turns out that the process you use to organize is less important than that you actually follow your process regularly. Whatever you do, just do it without giving up.

Classic metallic chrome mechanical analog stopwatch

The How to Organize Your Data post describes a basic approach you might follow, but here are a few specific habits to wrap around your process and into your digital life:

Old Data Habit #1: Five Minutes Every Day

The most important part of your data organization journey is that you actually make even a tiny bit of progress regularly. It’s why every Tidy Tuesday post has a “Do One Thing” section at the end. You don’t have to do a lot, but it’s critical to move forward all the time. This is the best way to build motivation, and it reinforces the knowledge that you can accomplish your goals.

While everyone laments that the day doesn’t have enough hours, the reality is that you’ll never find time to do anything, even for five minutes. You have to make time. But while an hour or two might be genuinely challenging, making just five minutes available for data organization is almost certainly within your power.

Old Data Habit #2: Log Your Progress

Every time you accomplish anything towards your data organization goal, record it somewhere. It could be that you deleted 10 emails, or unsubscribed from a single pesky mailing list, or moved that set of photos from a party last weekend into a proper album, or any number of things. Keeping track of your successes is another way to reinforce the feeling of accomplishment, which motivates you to keep going.

Old Data Habit #3: Leverage Your Routine

Whether you can set aside a dedicated block of time or not, train yourself to use existing everyday activities as a trigger to clean up a bit of your data. A few obvious possibilities are meals, restroom breaks, or the beginning or end of a regular work day. Imagine deleting or archiving emails for just a minute or two every time you have to pee, instead of accidentally falling into a social media scrolling session! Sure, you might not make much progress each time, but small wins add up. You’ll certainly make a ton more progress over a few weeks than you would if you spent that time watching 10-second videos that are purpose-built to make you want to watch even more 10-second videos.

Do One Thing

Choose one of the New Data habits to use on at least one type of data (email, photos, etc.) and write it on a sticky note or anywhere you’ll see regularly. Then, add a single 5-minute block of time to your calendar for the next seven days, and use it to make a small dent in your old data.

See if you can stick to it for one week. You can do it, I know you can!

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