Cut Through Computer Clutter

Sign reading "Do not put garbage on the floor"

Stop me if I’m wrong: there’s a lot of junk on your com­put­er.

Hey, look at that. Nobody stopped me.

It’s awful­ly easy to accu­mu­late so much stuff on your com­put­er that you can’t find the use­ful stuff mixed in with all the cruft.

And oh, the cruft. It saps our time and sucks our souls. But a few well-cho­sen tools can make a big dif­fer­ence.

Who this arti­cle is for.

Peo­ple with too much stuff on their com­put­ers.

What to expect.

Rec­om­mend­ed tools that will help you orga­nize the stuff, find what you need despite the stuff, and gen­er­al­ly bring you a lit­tle clos­er to san­i­ty.

A deep dis­count for non­prof­its.

Organize Your Notes

For the longest time I had the prob­lem of Too Many Places. Some infor­ma­tion would go into email or task lists, some in my browser’s book­mark bar, some in my paper meet­ing notes, and some in ran­dom Word doc­u­ments.

Not to sound like a Microsoft ad, but OneNote has changed that. I’ve been using it for about five years now and the dif­fer­ence is dra­mat­ic. Many peo­ple also love Ever­note, a free pro­gram with the same goal as OneNote. While I haven’t used Ever­note much, it looks like a great prod­uct and I know peo­ple who swear by it.

What they do

Think of pro­grams like OneNote and Ever­note as elec­tron­ic fil­ing cab­i­nets, but fil­ing cab­i­nets with unlim­it­ed capac­i­ty that you can search almost instant­ly. If you have a lap­top, they go wher­ev­er you go.

At their sim­plest you can use one of these tools as a vir­tu­al shelf of note­books with one page per meet­ing or top­ic. But if you want to break it down fin­er (and I do), a note­book can con­tain groups, which con­tain sec­tions, which con­tain pages, which con­tain sub-pages.

My Facebook Page in OneNote

My Face­book Page in OneNote

What I keep in mine

  • Reminders about how to do things. For exam­ple, I’ve set up a lot of com­put­ers in my day, and most of the steps are the same. I keep my step-by-step instruc­tions in OneNote, and every time I encounter a new trick or pit­fall it goes there for ref­er­ence next time.
  • Project plans. OneNote has nice sup­port for check­lists, so when I have a more com­pli­cat­ed project I’ll often turn it into a big struc­tured list, com­plete with how-to notes, in my uni­ver­sal note­book.
  • Meet­ing notes. I can instant­ly find all the notes for a giv­en top­ic or client. If I have to hand-write notes at an impor­tant meet­ing rather than typ­ing them, then after­ward I tran­scribe the major points (which helps me remem­ber them) and file or shred the paper orig­i­nal.
  • Links. I find gajil­lions of links that I want to save. I used to man­age them in my browser’s book­mark sys­tem or in a por­tal like NetVibes, but now I keep them in OneNote orga­nized by top­ic and subtopic. Sure I could keep them in an online book­mark­ing tools like Deli­cious. But when all my infor­ma­tion is in one place, a quick search for “web host” will turn up all my rel­e­vant per­son­al lists, webi­nar notes, client meet­ing notes, and book­marks.
  • All kinds of oth­er stuff. Notes about my busi­ness? Check. Tips for the lat­est com­put­er game? Check. Pass­words? Check (and pass­word-pro­tect­ed). Recipes? All the ones I actu­al­ly like are in one place. And on and on.

Of course, I still have a fil­ing cab­i­net, and I still use email, and I still have infor­ma­tion in oth­er com­put­er files. But when­ev­er pos­si­ble I put things in OneNote for easy ref­er­ence.

It’s worth the exper­i­ment. Give Ever­note or OneNote a spin for a month and see if they help you to avoid clut­ter.

Search Your Computer

Win­dows and Apple both pro­vide with built-in search pro­grams: Win­dows Search and Apple Spot­light, respec­tive­ly.

But third par­ty tools like Google Desk­top Search (free) and Coper­nic ($) can pro­vide added pow­er in search­ing for the nee­dles in your haystack. Google Desk­top Search, for exam­ple, will quick­ly search your entire com­put­er for a word or phrase, not just in the titles or con­tents of doc­u­ments but also in your email.

Google desktop search results for "cumin".

Search­ing for Din­ner

One warn­ing: for any of these pro­grams to search your com­put­er quick­ly on demand, they need to peri­od­i­cal­ly search and index your files in the back­ground, and if your com­put­er was already feel­ing slug­gish it might feel even slow­er. If so, you can decide whether the ben­e­fit out­weighs the penal­ty to your computer’s speed.

Print Only What You Want

Some com­put­er clut­ter lives in the real world. Ever want to print a cou­ple of para­graphs from a web page but end up with four pages of links and ban­ner ad clut­ter? You can print just the bits you want with Print­lim­i­na­tor, Click2Zap, and Print­WhatY­ouLike.

Printliminator

Print­lim­i­na­tor

Organize Your Thoughts

Ok, this isn’t so much com­put­er clut­ter as thought- and visu­al clut­ter, but it’s cleanup nonethe­less.

I used to plan out projects, pre­sen­ta­tions, web pages, and arti­cles by writ­ing out an out­line. It worked fine, but I’ve nev­er real­ly cared for out­lines.

Then I found visu­al out­lin­ing, aka mind map­ping. If you’re a visu­al thinker, and maybe even if you’re not, these tools pro­vide a refresh­ing way to think about a big, struc­tured top­ic. Rather than writ­ing out a big, bor­ing, top-to-bot­tom out­line, you can cre­ate some­thing that’s eas­i­er to take in at a glance.

While there are many mind map­pers around, the pow­er­ful Free­Mind is my favorite free mind map­ping tool by far.

Freemind Mind Map of an Upcoming Presentation

Map of an Upcom­ing Pre­sen­ta­tion

Other Great Tools?

Are there great clut­ter-cut­ting tools you’d like to rec­om­mend? If so let me know in the com­ments.

Post image cred­it: swanksalot’s

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