How to Easily Clean & Organize Your Digital Files

updated May 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

Everyone’s digital life and needs are different. Consider this a very basic guide on how to do a little digital cleaning and organizing of your computer in a couple of hours so you can have a system that runs a little smoother and so you can find files you need a little easier.

1. Backup now!

Before you start doing any deleting, fiddling, cleaning or sorting — backup everything important to you, whether in the cloud, by syncing with another computer or by using an external hard drive.

2. Start by cleaning out

How you go about this step will depend upon the type of machine you have (PC or Mac), but you can start by going through your computer and deleting files you just don’t need. You can also uninstall programs you don’t use. You can empty your recycling bin. You can use what came with your computer (Disk Utility for Macs, Disk Cleanup for PCs). Or you can download third-party disk cleaning apps that will delete unneeded files from your computer (though be wary of only choosing those with good reviews and ratings). And don’t forget to go into your web browsers and delete cookies, the cache and your internet history. Gizmodo UK has more advice for Mac or PC users here.

Remember: Don’t delete anything unless you’re 100% sure you can. If you’re unsure, leave it!

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

3. Design a file structure that works for you

There are many ways to structure the files on your computer. In fact, you can get fairly technical with this task (we like articles like
this one from Lifehacker). But if you’ve got all of your data files — photos, PDFs, text documents and more — cluttering your desktop, you could benefit from establishing and using a basic file structure — much like you would organize your paper files.

→ The starting point is deciding what your highest level folders are. These are the big parts of your life. From your photos, to work files, to finances to half-written sci-fi novels, these are the categories that will serve as the first portal into your digital life.
(Some folks let these big folders live in “My Documents,” others stick them straight to the hard drive — just don’t put these folders on your desktop!)

→ Put all the free-floating files into the correct top level folders. Put any errant photos in the big photo folder. All taxes, bills and more in the finances folder. (Or whatever folders you’ve made for yourself).

Then, organize each big top level folder into smaller, more specific sub-folders, one at a time. Take it one folder at a time, and start putting files (or other folders) in an order that will make sense when you need to find them again.
Consolidate existing folders so they begin to fit into your new, more organized file structure. Don’t be afraid to go deep with sub-folders. You don’t really want to have a folder with say, 1 file in it, but you don’t want to stop at folder that has like, 50 files in it.

Keep working at organizing your file structure — Once everything is in its proper place — here’s the key part — stick to your file structure! Some folks use third-party apps to automatic certain tasks, others reorganize how their desktop works with an app (like Fences for PC, mentioned in this
Mashable article along with other suggestions). And there’s the old “file later” folder you can stick on your desktop, regularly emptying it out. Chances are there’s an area on your computer or a type of file that gets most out of hand for you — do extra research on how to keep those types of files organized most efficiently and the rest of your computer filing might be a breeze.

Photo organizing help How To Organize Digital Photos

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

4. Backup important files again (and backup regularly!)

And make sure you set your files to either backup automatically at regular intervals, or set reminders for yourself to back your files up at regular intervals.

Bonus ideas if you are feeling extra inspired:

→Declutter your inbox

If you’ve still got energy after tackling your file structure, work on making your inbox a sleeker place. Sort by size and delete big ones. Delete emails you no longer need. Set up filters or folders to organize incoming messages. Consider an app like to get an handle on all your subscriptions.

→A smartphone sweep

Tackle the small computer you take everywhere with you by deleting unneeded photos (you do not need those 30 blurry photos of your cat) and deleting apps you don’t use.

Okay so this was a really, really basic guide, but feel free to share in the comments below digital file cleaning and organizing tricks that have worked for you!