A messy computer desktop is very similar to a messy inbox: It is extremely difficult to remain productive when you're surrounded by a mess. So, rather than drowning in email, you may find yourself drowning in word documents, pictures, shortcuts, and folders.

In this article, I'll show you how to adapt my Inbox Zero techniques to your computer so that keeping things in check isn't so difficult. The easier it is to stay organized, the less likely you are to let things pile up and find yourself buried.

The Technique

The technique in a nutshell is:

One Inbox, One Archive, Frequent Organization

These are some guiding principals to keeping a neat and tidy computer. Before we really dive in, keep in mind that this is what works for me- if you have a completely different system that works for you, then by all means, keep doing it!

Step 1: Keep Only One Inbox

Here's the problem: When I take a screenshot on my mac, it automatically saves the file on my desktop. When I download a file from my browser, it goes to the downloads folder. Documents are automatically saved in the documents folder. Screenflow recordings automatically saved in the screenflow folder. You get the point.

This in effect creates multiple inboxes on your computer. It's hard enough for you to keep your one email inbox clean, so why should you allow yourself to have a virtually unlimited number of inboxes on your computer?

My recommendation is to try to set as many applications as you can to automatically save files to the same place. Note that I say try because it's not always so easy to remember to change these settings every time you install something new. You can go a long way by setting all of your web browsers default download folder to your desktop, and do the same for your email program if possible.

Step 2: Create Just One Archive

Like the rule above, why should you store all your files in disparate places? Before I really started enforcing a system on my own computer, I had a handful of folders on my desktop for frequently used files, but then more folders in the Documents folder.

What ended up happening is that I would have a folder on my desktop that had a similar purpose to one in the documents folder. Then I wouldn't know where to put something or look for it later.

The solution is to keep only one archive. What I mean, is that you should pick one location where you'll store all your files, and build out your organizational folder tree in there. Don't have two separate trees in different places.

Step 3: Frequent Organization

This one doesn't need a lot of explanation. Don't wait until you have a huge landfill-sized mess of files scattered around to organize. Ideally, you should organize every day, or every week, or at the end of projects. Just make it routine to scan your “inbox” for stray files and put them in the appropriate location.

Create shortcuts to popular folders right on your desktop.

To help with this, I'm a huge fan of creating aliases on your desktop to popular projects or folders. Allow me to explain- when I'm working on an active project, I generate a lot of related files. So even though my folder may be in Documents>Cloud Coach>Clients>Sarah, I create an alias to the folder Sarah right on my desktop.

I've made it a habit to do this whenever I start a new project. The best thing is, once you're done with the project, you can simply delete the shortcut off of your desktop (or wherever your inbox is) and the files are untouched.

Note: To create an alias or shortcut on Macs, Ctrl+Click the folder and click Make Alias. The alias will be placed in the same folder as the original. You have to drag it to your desktop.

On Windows, right click the folder and choose Create Shortcut. You can also choose Send To > Desktop (create shortcut) to send the shortcut straight to your desktop.

Why bunch everything together?

It's a lot easier to deal with a mess when you can see the whole thing. It's also easier to see patterns when you have a more holistic view.

For example, when I set everything to my desktop, it became very clear that I needed a folder for organizing my Cloud Coach testimonials, which I had just been screen taking screenshots of and leaving in various places. The famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said “what gets measured, gets managed”. I think the same is true for organization. In this case, “what gets seen, gets organized”.

Your Turn

Is your desktop messier than it should be? What have you done to get things under control?

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