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Organize This

Got a digital mess? Here’s help from local professionals

Barbara Streckfus

Photos by Tim Porter

No modern moment goes uncaptured, no event passes unrecorded, no gathering convenes without coverage by our own personal press corps of friends, family and, occasionally, passing strangers.

This is the world of digital media. We are awash in cameras of every species—sleek, polished point-and-shoots; bulky, black DSLRs; palm-sized video recorders; and, of course, ubiquitous cell phones that now do everything but make waffles (hey, there’s an app for that!)

There are about 100 million digital cameras in use in the United States, says the Photo Marketing Association, and that doesn’t include camera-phones. With these, we, the constantly clicking public, generate billions of photos and videos. Many we share with others—Facebook holds 15 billion photos; 20 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute—but most of our images never leave home. They sit in our computers, clogging up hard drives.

This growing mass of digital clutter is a mess—and too often an impenetrable one. We’re keeping so many keepsakes we can’t find that oh-so-cute shot of Mason at Heather’s ballet recital to show Aunt Minnie.

The task of taming our digital chaos joins the list of other uninviting—and perpetually undone—chores such as actually making room for a car in the garage.

Thank heavens we live in a service economy built on the principle that those who can’t do, hire. Sensing correctly the emergence of an unmet need, professional organizers, those efficient and relentlessly cheerful individuals who rescue us from unruly sock drawers, dysfunctional home offices and other manifestations of disorderly conduct, have now added digital decluttering to their menu of services.

Contain Yourself

The Container Store is a testament to consumerism and could only exist in a place like the United States, where most of us are able to buy so much stuff that we need to buy even more stuff so we can organize everything we own.

With towering displays of gleaming shelving, mod desktop doodads and colorful plastic boxes in every imaginable size, a Container Store can be overwhelming to a neophyte, especially one who has arrived at its front door seeking sanctuary from a life already run amok with muck.

That person needs Barbara Streckfus, the one-woman show behind A Space for Everything, a San Rafael organizing service. Streckfus strolls the aisles of the Container Store in Corte Madera like a docent at S.F. MOMA—commenting on the classics, recognizing new products and identifying items she has at home (“I have three of those,” she says, pointing to a folding ladder).

Streckfus is at the store to talk digital clutter, which, she says, is simply the electronic incarnation of the age-old organizing
bugaboos—disorder, indecision and indiscriminate attachment to “things.”

“Cleaning up digital clutter is similar to cleaning up physical clutter,” she says. “Items you no longer want or need, which includes old files, unwanted movies, old e-mails, and unwanted photographs, should be deleted. Software programs that you no longer use should also be deleted. This allows you to find the items you love or need.”

Be unmerciful, she says. “Not every picture you’re going to take is a good picture. If it’s blurry, delete it. If you can’t see the faces, delete it. If you have three of the same picture, choose the best one and delete the rest.”

Dumping all that digital detritus puts your computer on a diet, says Streckfus. It runs leaner, cleaner and, most likely, a bit faster.

Sounds simple, right? Boot up the box, scroll the files, purge unflinchingly, and then embrace your new uncluttered digital life. So why don’t we do it?

Why Can’t I Get Organized?

Disorganization stems from several roots, says Emily Wilska, a San Francisco organizer and author of Organizing Your Home. “For some, there’s a life shift that kicked things out of balance—married, divorced, starting or losing a job, a new business. What was effective and organized in the past suddenly is not anymore. That balance is pretty easy to redo.”

Other people, though, are “hardwired” for disorder, says Wilska, and face more difficult challenges. “These folks are not hoarders,” she says; “they just don’t have a system to put things in place—physical things, scheduling information.”

Finally, says Wilska, the floodgate on digital information, everything from our monthly PG&E bill to the two gigabytes of Billy’s bar mitzvah photos, is open and getting wider.

“This is reaching enough of a critical point that the crazy stack of paper on your physical desk is now the crazy stack of files on the computer desk,” she says.

Cameraphiles, Technophobes

Untold tens of thousands (millions?) of digital photos never even make it onto a computer because the picture-takers don’t understand how to use their cameras or computers.

Not long ago, after pointing and shooting, people took rolls of film to the corner drugstore and a few hours later picked up packets of prints. No more. Even today’s low-end cameras can be a befuddlement of settings.

Then there’s the software! Photoshop, Elements, Aperture, Lightroom! Ach! Professional photographers can spend a lifetime mastering these. No wonder so many amateurs, after shelling out hundreds or thousands for their fancy digital cameras, recoil at the thought of enhancing and organizing their images in a computer.

Sarah Bay Williams, a photographer and curator fellow at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, finally had enough of her friends’ digital disorganization and wrote a book to help them out, The Digital Shoebox: How to Organize, Find, and Share Your Photos.

“People would come up to me with hundreds of photos on their cameras,” she says. “I had friend who visited L.A. and she brought her digital camera and a film camera because she was afraid her digital camera was going to run out of room and she didn’t know how to empty it. People love taking photos and it so easy to click that shutter, but afterwards it’s a wide open sea of mystery for a lot of people. People don’t understand how things happen on a computer. They fat-finger something, it disappears and they don’t know where it went.”

Wilska, the San Francisco organizer, agrees. “A lot of folks really don’t know how their computers work,” she says. “That’s why we see folks with 1,700 documents on their desktop. They’re afraid if it goes onto their depths of their computer they’ll never see it again.”

Key to Decluttering: Decisiveness

“Clutter is just unmade decisions,” says Angela Wallace of Wallace Associates in Novato. “You didn’t decide where you were going to put it when you put it there.”

Creating a decision-making process is the first step to decluttering, but it can also be the hardest one.

“It is overwhelming,” says Wallace, a board member of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “Most people call us in because they don’t know where to start. Having someone to help you through the decision-making process can keep you going. It’s a matter of little steps.”

Wilksa took that approach with a leadership trainer whose computer had gone rogue on her.

“She had one of those overwhelmingly cluttered desktops,” says Wilska (and, yes, organizers do use the word “overwhelming” quite often). “First, we created a mirror filing system to what she had in her physical files. Then, we went through piece by piece what was on her desktop, deleting stuff that was excessive or she didn’t need anymore and moving other things into their files. We spent a couple of hours on it. That was enough to get her moving. When you’re staring down 40,000 photos it can be impossible to know where to begin.”

An intuitive and simple-to-use digital filing system is key, something that doesn’t get abandoned after the first big holiday upload of photos.

Williams prefers a chronological approach. “It starts with setting the clock on your camera because being digital allows you to organize by time,” she says. “Organize everything by month and by year so when you want to find something you only have to look through 12 folders.”
A nondigital reminder also helps, she says. “I recommend that people keep a calendar. Then if you want to know when something happened, you can reference it and then go back to your year and month file system.”

To Delete or Not to Delete?

“What in the world am I going to do with all these photos?” asks AllynD, a participant in a digital scrapbooking forum who had 9,850 photos in her computer. “Most of them, quite frankly, are terrible. But they are pictures of my children, or my mom, and I am not going to delete them because they are precious to me.”

In the nondigital world, all professional organizers favor tossing unused items, citing the 80/20 Principle—we only use 20 percent of what we own 80 percent of the time.

In the digital world, with humongous hard drives costing less than the cameras we’re filling them up with, organizers diverge on a key question: to delete or not to delete.

“Delete?” says Williams. “ I keep everything. I recommend that other people keep everything. You just never know when you’re going to want something. Even with family photos, you just don’t know when you’re going to want that picture of your cousin doing something funny. Mistakes can be very valuable. There’s no reasons to delete, because hard drives are getting so cheap.”

Wallace of Novato disagrees. “The delete key is a very powerful tool,” she says, “and one we all need to use a whole lot more.”

Digital photos should be dealt the same fate as the other family “treasures” gathering dust in the dark places of our homes, says Wallace. “A lot of people say ‘I’m saving it for my kids,’ ” she says. “I tell them if your kids wanted it they would have taken it with them when they left home years ago.”

There is a third approach to the delete-or-not debate, a decidedly nondigital solution favored by Streckfus of A Space for Everything.

“I don’t call photographs clutter,” she says. “I call photographs memories. Everybody has all these digital photos on their computer and they don’t get them printed. I get them framed and I get them up on the wall.”

CAPTIONS: (middle) Angela Wallace. (bottom) Sarah Bay Williams.

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