Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cyber-Clutter and Digital Disorganization

I am surrounded by little scraps of paper with notes on them. There's also a small pile of business cards scattered across my desk. Atop my handy little rolling cart sit several pages filled with scrawls of important information. The common link between these papers, all begging for my attention: each one contains data that must be entered into my computer. E-mail addresses, obviously, but also phone numbers and snail-mail addresses because, like many people, my primary list of contacts is online. Yes, I have a small Rolodex next to the most often used land-line phone, and it provides easy access to the phone numbers and addresses of people contacted regularly. But if I ever decided to upgrade from just a plain old cell phone to something like a snazzier BlackBerry that could organize absolutely everything, I'd no longer need my retro-Rolodex.

Of course, no matter what kind of electronic brain you're using, at some point the information does need to be put into it, by you, or, if you're lucky, by your hapless personal assistant. I am sans assistant, so I'm the one stuck typing this stuff into my online address book. And, alas, in the long-running battle of Me vs. Paper Scraps, the scraps won a mighty victory, so now the amount of data entry required to catch up looks pretty daunting. But this issue is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to managing one's life online.

How many of you have innocently hopped online for a quick check of your e-mail, only to discover when you looked at the clock that two hours had mysteriously disappeared? For many of us who rely heavily on e-mail, all that time could have been spent reading and responding to it. But most of us get side-tracked by a quick and easy detour, perhaps to check out that eye-catching news headline, and that story usually contains a link to another interesting story, containing a link to yet another interesting story, etc., etc., etc. Or the links could have been provided within the body of our incoming e-mails, for example, friends pointing out sites or articles they've discovered that you absolutely "must" see or read (I confess that I am guilty of this, but only on rare occasions or during contentious political elections); links to special offers from companies with which you do business regularly; or notices of program expirations or financial transactions that you don't want to link to directly, just in case you're getting fooled by some slick cyber-con, but which then require you to open a new window and go to the site in question to see what the real scoop is.

Some time ago, when my incoming e-mail quantity became unwieldy, I began using a system of folders for it. I've heard rumors that truly efficient people peruse their e-mail and pop each one immediately into an appropriate folder to deal with later. I fear this concept of "later" because if that e-mail isn't right out there, staring at me, probably with a big star or check mark by it indicating that it requires follow-up, I may never think of it again. This is the curse of a visual person. If it's filed, it's gone from my mind as well as my inbox, so I'd better make sure I handle it before I stash it away.

Dealing with cyber-stuff requires just as much brain-power as dealing with any other paperwork so it must be approached with the same determined and ruthless frame of mind. Entering data is similar to sorting and putting away important information in a filing cabinet; sorting and acting on e-mail is really no different than handling the same task in paper form. None of this qualifies as fun, in my book, but at least there's some small satisfaction in hitting that "delete" key to obliterate a useless communication. And there's greater satisfaction in having all that "filing" existing only in digital form so that it doesn't take up physical space in the house. But, as with the old standard metal filing cabinet full of bulging hanging files and over-packed folders, keeping things up-to-date and properly organized must be part of the routine.

Just a quick aside: I recently discovered a device that could further cut down the amount of paper in those cramped filing cabinets and I'd like to point it out to you (again, no financial gain for me, just an interesting tip). It's called the Neat Receipts Scanalizer. It allows you to scan "receipts, bills, medical forms, business cards -- everything. It scans, analyzes and organizes your papers and stores everything in a database on your PC." I suspect that it comes with its own set of cyber-quirks, but if any of you have tried it, please let me know.

There are just a few tips I'd like to suggest when facing our current cyber-challenges. While at your computer, try using a little kitchen timer set at half-hour intervals to keep you alert to the passage of time (it's a good idea to stretch and walk around a bit for a minute or two). Just as with incoming paperwork and mail, quickly discarding anything that's not absolutely necessary simplifies your online life immensely; remember, you can find information about almost anything you can imagine using a search engine. Setting up and using a filing system to corral the rest of the stuff is mandatory.

And now I must face my digital dilemma of the day: it's time to go through that e-mail file sadly labeled "Miscellaneous."

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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Jeri Dansky said...

Hi Cynthia,

Good suggestion about the timer - I recommend this to people all the time.

And I've heard great things about the NextReceipts Scanalizer - unfortunately, it's PC only now, and I'm on a Mac. But I just bought a Fujitsu ScanSnap, and I'm delighted with it - and thrilled to be getting rid of lots of paper.


Cynthia Friedlob said...

Hi Jeri,

I'm envious of your ScanSnap! We have tons of papers we'd like to let go, but they're the history of our writing careers: scripts, development projects, memos for use in some future juicy expose memoir about life in show biz. Okay, there probably won't be an expose, but some of that stuff is pretty interesting reading!

Frankly, the task of all that scanning, even at 15 pages per minute, seems daunting, but I'm encouraged by your positive experience.

Thanks for the comment!


sans auto said...

Thanks for contributing to my two hour detour every week. I enjoy it.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

So nice to hear that you enjoy this blog. Thanks for letting me know!


Alex Fayle said...

I find that an Internet connection is the worst thing for digital organization. Instead of being productive and cleaning up my computer, I often find myself surfing the web or playing online games.

When I really want to get things done, I unplug the Internet and force myself to stay focused on just the computer. It really works.

As for clearing the digital clutter, I'll offer up another detour at where you'll find an article I wrote last year about the subject.


Cynthia Friedlob said...

Hi, Alex --

Thanks for the referral to your helpful article about digital clutter. So true that the internet can be a major distraction.

I try to remember that there are junk files, just like there's junk snail mail, and it's important to delete them rather than just let them sit around in a digital pile. But it requires self-discipline. Guess there's no avoiding that, whether in your office filing cabinet or on your computer.


aquastell said...

My solution to digital clutter is to Yahoo email (unlimited holding potential) + folders (OMG - can you say scrooollll) and a new 160 GB external hard drive. How sad is that? I think it is just as easy to scan your receipts and scannable thingies into a "readable" *.pdf file, then I file those pdfs in folders on the external hard drive labelled receipts (with subfolders categorized by company name or subject) - and name the file appropriately.

Cynthia Friedlob said...


Well done! I think you've got quite a creative system going.

Digital and paper organizing challenges are so annoying because they are relentless. When you get rid of a cluttery "thing," it's gone; when you file a paper or receipt (hard copy or digital), it's quickly replaced by another one.

But at least the scanned versions don't take up a big chunk of your living space -- a big plus.

Thanks for your comment!