Digital Decluttering: Get Control of Your Unruly Data

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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.

spicedrawer

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.

tripit

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)

digital-spice-drawer

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).

conference-folders

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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  1. Rebecca C. says:

    Have you tried any of the 37 Signals products for organizing? (http://37signals.com/). They’re geared for a small business, but I use them to organize just MY life as a college student (at age 53!) and they’re marvelous. Backpack has my calendar and a myriad of pages holding all kinds of related stuff relative to my courses. Highrise has all my contact info, and I occasionally use Basecamp to track really deadline-intensive course work. They’ve recently integrated all products into a single sign-on. I can’t live without ‘em!

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