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Declutter Your Data: How to Organize Your Computer

Your memory may not be what it used to be (whose is?), but it doesn't matter as long as you can search your computer and email for reminders and backup. Try these systems for efficient filing and retrieving.

Confronting an unholy mess every time you turn on your computer negates the benefits of an organized workspace. Here's how to electronically clean up your desktop and use your computer to better organize your life.

1) Tidy your digital desktop.

Create folders. Filing away documents on a computer -- and subsequently retrieving them -- is infinitely easier than putting paper into folders and then into a drawer. So actually do it! Set up a system, such as a filing by project or task, or by month and year (or whatever works best for your specific needs), then start putting things away.

2) E-shop efficiently.

Systematize your passwords. Lots of people use slight variations of the same password for different sites -- and then can't recall which variation was for which site. Institute a system in which you use the same base alpha-numeric phrase, plus initials that pertain to the particular site ("AM" for Amazon, say).

If there are sites that you buy from all the time, give them dedicated email files. When you get order-, shipping-, and return-confirmation emails, file them away there, so they're easy to find if you need to track a purchase, package, or refund.

3) Maximize email.

Edit your inbox. Why do you have 19,583 messages in your inbox? Lately, the "inbox zero" idea has been catching on; if that seems extreme, aim instead for 20 to 40 emails. As you winnow your inbox, choose among these actions: delete, reply, and archive/file (in a designated folder).

Tackle email in 20-minute time blocks. Taking short breaks to surf the Web tends to boost productivity, but dealing with email decreases productivity and makes people cranky, according to a 2008 study by the National University of Singapore. To that end, spend no more than 20 minutes at a time emailing, says management consultant Marilyn Paul, author of It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys (Penguin, 2013). "When you limit your time," she says, "it helps you be decisive."

File email away. Label or file emails to keep track of them: Even general groupings -- photos, tax stuff, insurance -- will help. If your email lists files alphabetically, insert "aa_" in front of files you want at the top (aa_family &friends) and "zz_" at the bottom (zz_taxes).

4) Create a shared calendar.

Get everyone on the same page and create a digital calendar for the entire family, using Google Calendar, Outlook, or iCal, suggests Justin Klosky, author of Organize and Create Discipline (Avery, 2013). Make brief but detailed entries ("Dad's party, 7 p.m., 477 Elmwood Ave. at Hodge"), and add the whole family to the invite.

Set preferences for each family member's digital calendar so reminders are sent as emails, texts, or both. Choose the timing that works best for each person, like an email reminder four hours in advance of the event, as well as a text message 45 to 90 minutes before.

5) Get app-happy.

Some services are indispensable for helping you manage your information and files. These are some of our favorites:

Mint: This website can help you keep track of all your bills, payments, and personal finances.

Popmoney: Short for "pay other people," this lets you pay babysitters, tradespeople, and friends in cash-free transactions.

Dropbox: If you keep or share large digital files (such as photos, videos, or large presentations), this sevice will store them easily and allow authorized users access.

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