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How to declutter your digital workspace

7 tips to create a distraction-free workspace so you can be more productive.

By Sara J. Nguyen · June 23, 2023
Hero image with an icon of a desktop folder

It's easy to store your digital files in the cloud and think, "out of sight, out of mind." That is, until you're scrambling to find that one important report you need for a meeting with your boss in five minutes. 

No matter how unlimited your cloud storage supply is, it's important to establish a file organization system and a digital decluttering routine. As a freelance writer, this routine is key to creating the distraction-free digital workspace I need to be productive. 

Here, I'll share the exact routine I use to keep my files organized and clutter free—and how you can too. 

Note: While these tips focus on desktop and email organization, you can also apply them to other aspects of your digital life, including your social media accounts and phone files. 

How to declutter and organize your files

Before you can get into a weekly decluttering routine—i.e., the maintenance phase—you need to establish a baseline of digital hygiene. This means doing an initial cleanup of your existing files—deleting what you don't need and rehoming the ones you do. 

Here are seven tips to help you start your cleanup process. 

1. Audit your digital environment 

Take stock of how your files are organized. Are they scattered across your desktop with file names like c88236218b.jpg and unnamed.pdf? Consider how your current system supports or distracts you. Once you identify your problems, you can start to focus on a solution.

2. Use folders 

Imagine if all your clothes were tossed into a closet with no bins or dividers. It would make finding a matching pair of socks near impossible. The same goes for "loose" files on your computer. 

To make it easier to find what you need, sort your files into folders. Not sure where to begin? Start by creating top-level folders (a.k.a. parent folders) for content you know you already have, like Photos or Client work. Then you can group similar files together into subfolders. For example, my Business folder has three subfolders: Operations (tax documents and contracts), Marketing examples (a swipe file of marketing inspiration), and My marketing (files related to my personal branding). 

Portion of a Mac Finder window which shows a top-level folder named, "Business,"and its three subfolders.

If you already have folders set up, then review if there are any folders you can add or remove to help with file management. 

Tip: Folders are great for organization, but having too many nested folders can make finding files cumbersome. If you regularly find yourself clicking through four or five layers of folders to access what you need, that's a sign you may need to simplify your structure.

3. Assign file names using a clear naming convention

Remember files c88236218b.jpg and unnamed.pdf from before? Default names like these don't tell you what the file is or why it's worth keeping. 

That's why it's important to rename files with names that clearly indicate what's inside without having to open it. Specific, logical names also make it easier to retrieve a file using the search function. For example, if I need inspiration for a 404 page, I can quickly look through my Marketing examples folder for any file names that begin with 404-page.

Portion of a Mac Finder window which shows an expanded view of the folder "Marketing examples."

4. Evaluate your Downloads folder 

By default, files you've downloaded are automatically saved to your computer's Downloads folder. While this is technically a way to organize your files by folder, left unchecked, your Downloads folder can quickly turn into a pile of digital chaos. 

To curb this, review your Downloads folder, delete what you no longer need, and then move the remaining files into a relevant folder. As you sort through your files, you may start noticing trends in what you keep, which will help you create other folders for further organization. 

5. Choose your file storage 

As much as possible, store everything in one place. Whether it's a cloud storage app or a hard drive, keeping all your files together will save you from having to dig through multiple systems to find what you need in the future. 

6. Back up your files

If your computer ever crashes or gets lost during your travels (quick—knock on wood!), you can say goodbye to your precious files. That's why it's critical to regularly back up your files for safekeeping. 

7. Schedule time for file organization 

While organizing your files can be a daunting ask, you don't have to tackle it all at once. Start with baby steps. For example, you can set a goal to sort through 10 files every day. Or perhaps you can schedule 15 minutes, once a week, to organize your files. Whatever your target, choose one that's manageable for you. 

My 10-minute digital declutter routine

File organization isn't a one-and-done thing. A distraction-free digital workspace requires maintenance. The good news, though, is that it only takes a few minutes of your time if you stick to a regular routine. 

Here's the simple, 10-minute digital declutter routine I use on a weekly basis to ensure I come back to a calming virtual workspace every Monday: 

  1. Review my Downloads folder. By the end of any given week, my Downloads folder is filled with screenshots, PDFs, and personal files. So this is the first folder I review to determine what can go and what should stay. If I decide to keep a file, I'll rename it and move it to a relevant folder.

  2. Check emails. I use my end-of-week digital declutter to respond to outstanding emails and sort old emails into their appropriate folder. This way, the only emails left in my inbox are ones related to projects I'm currently working on. 

Tip: Use Gmail filters to automatically delete, archive, or move emails to another folder, so you can come back to a cleaner inbox full of the emails you want to read.

If you're ready to move into the file maintenance phase, but you're not sure what tasks to include in your decluttering routine, try mine. You can also modify it based on what's realistic and most helpful for you. For example, you may want to add one or two of the following tasks to your routine: 

  • Delete or move files on your home screen to the relevant folder

  • Unsubscribe from unwanted emails

  • Review browser bookmarks and delete any unnecessary ones 

  • Delete unused apps on your phone

Whether you're aiming for inbox zero or wanting to minimize virtual distractions, a digital declutter routine will help get you there. 

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