Digital Decluttering: Get Control of Your Unruly Data

Jan 18, 2010 by


This week, I tackled a non-digital task that has been driving me nuts for years.  I had one spice rack and two spice drawers, but whenever I needed to find a spice, I ended up looking in all three places. Even worse, I had to pull out every single jar to read what was on the label.  During this process, I often discovered that I had  duplicate spice jars or that I was completely out of the spice I was looking for.  Over the winter break I purchased a 48  little glass jars with white tops, and yesterday I moved all the spices into these jars, labeling the side and the top of each with the name of the spice.  Sure enough – there were duplicates, there were empty jars, and in the end, I got this unruly collection down to one drawer of neatly organized spices.  Now that it has some uniform structure to it, I can find the spice I am looking for easily and quickly check for the spices I need when I am making a grocery list.


What would be the equivalent of this organizational task in our digital world?  For me, the digital spices are all the miscellaneous and unruly pieces of information about professional trips I take during the year, including flights, presentation titles, speaking fees, lodging, who I’m meeting for dinner and on which nights, who is reimbursing me, etc.  This information is all over my computer and the Internet (in email, on websites, and in files).  Every time I got ready to go on a trip, I found myself in a panic, hoping that I’ve got all the right information and that I hadn’t forgotten something crucial (like booking a hotel room).  Like the spices, the details for each trip are fairly similar in structure, but they lack the proper “container” to hold all the information.

In the last year I’ve begun using TripIt (which is free) to hold all the travel and lodging information for trips (you can just forward your emailed confirmation bookings to TripIt and they are all imported into one place).  Using TripIt has definitely improved how I track trip information, but I’m also worried about losing information about whether I’ve registered (if I need to), when my presentations are, who my contact persons are on the trip, etc.  Maybe there’s a magic web tool to organize all of this (ConferenceIt?), but I haven’t seen it yet.


During the next year I will be traveling out-of-state on at least ten trips, giving different presentations at each.  Just like with the spice drawer, it was time to get control of this information too.   So I made something of a checklist/table document that lists everything that I would possibly want to know about every trip I take:

  • Event name
  • Location
  • Event date(s)
  • Travel date(s)
  • Funding for event (who’s providing the conference fee?)
  • Funding for travel & lodging (sometimes this is different)
  • Speaking fee (if applicable)
  • Contact info (who is your main contact at the event?)
  • Event website
  • Event Venue (it might not be where you’re lodging)
  • Presentations, times, and technology (Internet, projector, etc.)
  • Other events during this trip (dinners, breakfasts, meetings)
  • Registration (and date paid, if applicable)
  • Travel (flights, mileage, and/or car rental information)
  • Lodging
  • Meals (costs to be added after event)
  • Invoice (how and when did I submit for reimbursement / payment)
  • Payment / Reimbursement (when did I receive reimbursement / payment)


I’ve gone back through every trip I plan to take in the next six months, and filled out all the data that I currently know for each event.  These are all filed in the appropriate folder in my mega folder called “Conferences” (which also includes miscellaneous speaking engagements).


Now, when I get new information about an event (like a dinner invitation or a change to my presentation time), I don’t have to try to file it away in my personal memory somewhere, I can just open the data file and update the file with the new information.  This blank table is my digital equivalent of the empty glass spice jars with the uniform white tops.

In this case, it was important that I be able to access the data from any computer, so I have the files folders stored in my synced Dropbox (see Sort those Files!).  Another wise place to store these kinds of files would be in a web-based document application like Google Docs, since it would be accessible anywhere with Internet access.

For me, the “digital spice drawer” was my cluttered and hard-to-find trip information, but for you it might be something different.  As you’re going through your normal week, keep an eye out for some aspect of your digital life where you need to get control of some unruly data of your own.

Once you’ve found that “digital spice drawer” in your life,  take the time to bend it to your organizational will.  I would love it if you’d share the examples of your own “digital spice drawers” or other tips on ways to organize them.

You have a week to get this task done before we move on to the next Organize Your Digital Self (OYDS) task.  New assignments will post each Monday.  This is just the tip of the digital decluttering iceberg.

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Travel Uses for McDonalds

Jul 15, 2007 by

This is like an “Ode to Chris” blog as I am just making lists tonight.

1) McDonalds will always give you change no matter how ridiculously large the bill you have is and how little you have ordered.

2) There are always reasonably clean bathrooms.

3) It is a good well-lit place to duck into if you are being followed late at night by questionable people. (I have not used it for this purpose myself, but I can see how it might be good for that)

4) Some McDonalds in Europe have cheap Internet.

5) If you have been waiting at a restaurant for 30 minutes and have not even been given a menu, and are starving after a very long hot train ride, you can get your food in under 5 minutes. (sorry to any Intrepid leaders who might be reading this, sometimes hunger wins over local eating)

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What do you do if you read too fast?

Jun 26, 2007 by

I know a lot of people that buy a nice thick novel and bring it on a 2-week vacation in hopes of getting through it on their trip. Well, what do you do if you can get through that thick novel in one plane flight?

When I was a child, my family would have to make room in the trunk for a box (yes, a box) of books for the family vacation, just to keep me occupied. (mind you, this was before the advent of portable DVD players).

So, if you can consume reading material at lightning speed, how do you keep yourself entertained on long plane trips, car trips, train trips, bus trips. Obviously, you can’t carry a box of books with you (unless you’re planning to travel naked).

My self-entertainment plan: iPod with Audio books from Audible, two Paint by Number puzzle books (they don’t take up much room, but do take a lot of time), two novels (which I will swap with folks at hostels for more reading material), one leadership book (need to read it for my comprehensive exams in the fall), disposable reading material (like magazines) and one book of logic puzzles. This is a total of six physical books, several magazines, and an iPod. I know that still sounds ridiculous, but for me, that’s not very much reading material.

iPod Leadership books (studying for exams):
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (John C. Maxwell)
The Book of Leadership Wisdom (various speakers)
The Fifth Discipline (Peter M. Senge)
Primal Leadership (Daniel Goleman)
Transforming Leadership (James MacGregor Burns)

iPod Books for fun:
* These are books I’ve listened to before, but I want to hear them again.
A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)
Deep Storm (Lincoln Child)
The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin)
The Lemon Tree (Sandy Tolan)
*My Sister’s Keeper (Jodi Picoult)
The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
Quicksilver (Neal Stephenson)
*The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
Snow (Orhan Pamuk)
*Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
Social Intelligence (Daniel Golemen)
*Tara Road (Maeve Binchy)
Thirteen Moons (Charles Frazier)
The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)
*The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
The Wall (Jeff Long)

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All Packed and 24 Hours to go…

Jun 26, 2007 by

You’ve heard the phrase “All packed and no place to go”? Well, for the first time ever I am packed well in advance of a trip (usually I pack the morning of the trip). Here’s what all that packed up stuff looks like…

Okay, you’re thinking, I thought we were only allowed TWO bags. Well, the middle one is my “I don’t trust the airlines” carry-on duffle with the stuff I would really not want to be on a vacation without or that I would really not want to repurchase (bathing suit, extra underwear, etc.). After I arrive in Vienna (with my luggage), I will pack that stuff back into the large bag and carry the empty duffle (it will work also work nicely as a carry-on on the plane trip home for the stuff I accumulate on the trip).
Here’s what all that stuff you packed looks like outside of the bags… the day pack (there’s a little extra here because of the need to carry on important stuff, like prescription medicine).

And the large backpack (shoes, clothes, towel, etc.)…

Did I forget anything?

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How to pack for a 32-day trip?

Jun 24, 2007 by

Mission (should you choose to accept it): You get one day pack and one piece of luggage (a larger backpack). You must pack everything you need for 30 days and save space to bring back a few things. You also must be able to carry everything you’re bringing with you.

First the technology: (this is my version of technology-lite)
1) Digital camera, an extra memory card, and batteries.
2) Digital voice MP3 recorder (not so good at writing anymore).
3) iPod loaded with approximately 15 audio books, 2 days worth of music, and several photos of home, headphones, and headphone splitter (in case you want to share).
4) Regular film camera (I can’t give up my extra-wide angle lens, and I can’t afford a digital SLR + wide-angle lens), film, and extra batteries.
5) Thumb drive.
6) G-Mail account – email yourself your Internet favorites too.
7) Alarm clock.

Vacationing necessities:
1) Travel pillow (one of the really cushy ones, not the blow-up ones).
2) Rain jacket and warm liner, just in case the weather is bad.
3) Bathing suit(s), travel towel (packs in small space and dries quickly), and lightweight sari (good cover-up when you don’t want to get burned).
4) Paint-by-number puzzle books (also called Nonograms).
5) Passport, ATM card, and credit card.
6) Outlet converter (to charge iPod).
7) Bug-spray wipes, hand wipes, stain-removing wipes, and spray-on sunblock.
8) Lonely Planet Central Europe book.
9) Sunglasses, a watch, and a hat to keep the sun off your face.
10) Cool stylin’ moleskine journal to keep track of travel notes and spending (a birthday present from some friends).
11) A few 50-cent packs of Raisins, Peanuts & M&M’s for snacking emergencies.
12) Immodium and Cipro (I think that one is self-explanatory).
13) Two locks (one for each bag). I hope you didn’t buy a backpack with a lot of zippered compartments, because that would be a lot of locks!

Things I have been forbidden to bring on my vacation:
1) My laptop.
2) My cell phone (I recently got a TREO and am a little too connected to the Internet now), and besides, my cell phone won’t work in Europe.
3) A book on Quantitative Analysis, a book on Qualitative Analysis (these two books were vetoed by my husband as non-vacation books).
4) A copy of MathType on my thumb drive (this effectively prohibits me from doing any math-related writing while I am on vacation).
5) Addresses for postcards. (I am forbidding myself from bringing adresses. It is too time-consuming to find proper postage and post offices in foreign countries. Consider the blog your postcard.)

Of course, you also need to pack enough clothing to survive for about a week between laundry opportunities (don’t forget pajamas and nice clothes for evening outings) and you need to pack comfortable walking shoes, sandals that are comfortable, and sandals for water activities. And you need to pack your toiletries (shampoo, makeup, contact solution, toothbrush, etc.).

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