Archives — Your Best Friend for Dealing with Digital Clutter

“Binders and boxes on shelves in a large archive” by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

I finally upgraded my personal computer after an honorable 7-year run from my old MacBook Air, and as I was setting up my new laptop, I realized that the majority of space on my computer is taken up by stuff that I may never look at again. It’s stuff that’s around just in case. Examples include work files from previous jobs that I keep just in case I want to refer to an old project, scans of receipts just in case I have an issue under warranty, videos that I keep just in case I ever want to watch clips from that Roots concert from 10 years ago, and even photos from events with people that I don’t really know just in case one of them becomes POTUS one day (is that weird?). It’s all stuff that I could probably delete and never miss…but…but…who knows what the future holds! What if I need it one day? 😱

The issue with keeping all this stuff isn’t that I don’t have space for it. I do…at least now that I’ve upgraded my computer. Instead, the problem is that it all adds digital clutter that occasionally creeps into my mental space and obstructs my workflow. When I search through files, photos, notes, etc., it’s extra stuff that I have to weed through — things that I randomly encounter and wonder, “Why do I have this? Do I really need it?”

That’s when I realized that I need to extend a concept I’ve used in my email for a long time. I’ve loosely followed the Inbox Zero mentality for years, and Gmail’s Archive button (as well as “Send and Archive”) has been key in accomplishing that goal. So I wondered if I should establish archives for everything else that I may never need but just can’t delete.

Bear Notes (one of my favorite apps) implements the concept really well, and it’s one of the first places I started since I take a ton of notes. When I archive a note, it’s gone from the standard Notes List view and doesn’t clog my search results, but when I need it, it’s available and searchable in the Archive section of Bear. Easy.

While Google Keep has archiving (I guess that Google gets it), if you use Evernote or Apple Notes there isn’t an explicit Archive feature. However, you can always apply an “archive” tag or folder and export those items. Or in the Evernote case, you can use search operators to remove those items from your search results. Those tactics are similar to how I deal with…

What wasn’t as easy as clicking an Archive button was taming the Documents folder on my computer. I took a hard look at all those old homework assignments, scanned receipts, instruction manuals, etc., and I decided to create an Archive folder on one of my external drives and dump most of it there. Again, the criteria was anything that I may delete eventually but wasn’t quite ready to trash right now. Also, it had to be stuff that I wouldn’t need in a pinch or when I’m away from my computer, because it would be sitting at home on my drive (as well as backup drives/services).

Next up, those photos and videos living in Apple’s Photos app. Before this little exercise, I had 22,778 photos and 630 videos sitting in the app and in iCloud. Obviously, there’s stuff in there that I’m never going to look at again. But to be clear…no, I did not go through my library photo-by-photo and decide which ones should be moved! Ain’t nobody got time for that. However, I did export and delete some of my old albums, and whenever I’m in Photos and I run across something that qualifies, I’ll tag it with “Archive” and move it the next time I’m connected to my drives (I do the same thing with other files).

If those tactics are a little too much for you and you’re on a Mac, there’s the option to dump items into an Archive folder, keep it on your computer, but hide the folder from Spotlight using the “Privacy” settings in Spotlight Preferences.

In a similar vein, you can opt to just hide pictures in the Photos app.

Additionally, I think that the concept goes beyond files, and into the realm of getting stuff done. We all have dream plans, and sometimes those “someday” and “maybe” projects end up clogging the places where we capture our important projects and tasks. Things 3 (another favorite app) accomplishes something similar to the archive concept through its “Someday” designation. By adding a task to the Someday list, you can keep it from cluttering your Anytime and Upcoming views of your tasks.

So that’s where I’m at with my archives at this point. How do you handle your digital clutter and the nightmares of deleting items that you may need one day? If you don’t, how do you keep it all from zapping your cognitive energy? Feel free to let me know below!

Product Manager. @UMEngineering and @ChicagoBooth alumnus. Native of Flint, MI. Oakland, CA resident. I write about tech, culture, and life.

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