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Hard Drive Zen with the Humble Folder

Hard Drive Zen with the Humble Folder

Hard Drive Zen

    The hard drive; you bring one home and pop it in your computer, and it’s a totally clean slate. You take a look inside the root directory and see the beauty of nothing. But like all hard drives, over time the files clutter up, filling every nook and cranny. Eventually, space runs out, but because you figured you’d process your files “another day,” it takes hours to figure out what’s what, where’s where and what to delete.

    Then, after repeating this process a few hundred times, it dies. Like all hard drives. This is just one of the gems of joy in computer ownership.

    Reader Olivier writes in asking:

    I have a big hard drive, download a lot and it gets messy. Do you have a good way to keep the hard drive a zen place?

    The folder (or, as it was known in ancient times, the directory) is a simple tool, a way of organizing files on your hard drive into clear and distinguishable sections. The practice of using sub-directories began with UNIX, so you’d think by now effective file management would be a second-nature skill in our digital society.

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    You’d think so, but you’d be wrong. Olivier isn’t alone; I’ve yet to meet someone who keeps their hard drive in the coveted zen state of organization as often as they should, but there are sure a lot of methods for reducing clutter both automatically and manually.

    Downloads

    Olivier downloads a lot, and this contributes to some of the clutter. One common problem with downloading so much is that the default save location, in most applications, is the desktop. Who knows why, but I think that’s a big design flaw. I bet a large portion of the planet’s population has so many files on the desktop that they extend for miles off the screen. Okay, slight exaggeration, but anyway.

    One of the impressive yet subtle, little things I admired about Leopard when I first installed it was that it redirected all my downloads to the Downloads folder. Unfortunately, I don’t use Safari as my primary browser, so if you’re not using Leopard with Safari you’ll need to do what I did: change the default save location in all your internet applications manually. This is a fantastic solution to the clutter of downloaded files that take over the desktop, or even other folders that are quickly selected in the rush to download a file.

    Firefox

    Change Firefox Downloads Location

      In Firefox’s options pane, under the Downloads header, select Choose or Browse next to the “Save files to” field. Navigate to the location on your hard drive which you’ll designate as your Downloads file and press Open.

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      Skype

      Change Default Skype Downloads Location

        Your browser may not be the only place from where downloads stage their attack on the desktop – I find that at least half of my daily downloads come from Skype. Fortunately, it’s just as easy to switch download locations – go to the options pane, and change the “Save received files” field to the appropriate folder.

        Folder Structures

        Olivier mentions that advice on folder structures would be particularly helpful. The problem with most folder structures is that they’re either too comprehensive, creating more folders than you’ll ever use or remember, or too lax, providing no real organizational benefit (such as one called “Home” and one called “Work”).

        An effective folder structure is very unique to your life and the projects and endeavors you are involved in. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all system of folders that can be copied from person to person. I once tried one of these and found it totally and completely ineffective.

        The best advice on folder structures is to spend the time to sit down and think about what you need to organize, and avoid being too lax or too comprehensive. Find a happy medium. You need to have few enough folders that you’ll be able to learn where they are relatively quickly and get used to using them, but enough folders that there are logical places to put different types of data – for instance, under your business folder you’ll need separate folders for legal and financial data.

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        Put the time into creating and refining a structure that is uniquely fitted to your life and you will not believe the time it saves you in organizing files later on.

        Naming Conventions

        How you name files is just as important as which folders you put them in. For instance, an old friend had a “Chat Transcripts” folder in which he saved every MSN conversation he ever had. Instead of naming them with the participant’s name or email address and a date, he simply used numbers – quite literally, it went in numerical order from 1 all the way to the current conversation (there were several thousand).

        Then, when we had a disagreement about something we’d discussed via instant messenger, he decided to go and check what had actually been said.

        “This is why I keep these transcripts,” he said. Of course, we were never able to find out; it was impossible to find the right conversation.

        This is a matter of self-discipline. When you name a file, any file, you have to ask yourself: am I going to know exactly what this file is and what it contains just be reading its name? If the answer is that no, you’ll likely get it mixed up with a dozen other documents, you need to spend the extra couple of seconds rewriting it.

        Is it easier to save yourself ten seconds of time by naming a file invoice.doc and spending 45 minutes looking for it later, or to spend an extra ten seconds naming a file Client X – 4/5/08 – Invoice.doc?

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        Projects and Inbox

        Projects and Inbox are my two indulgences in what is frequently considered bad organizational practice, but I find that these two folders on my desktop save me more time than they cost.

        Projects contains the files I need for a project I am working on during a given period of time; not long-term projects that take months or years to complete, but projects that are the focus of a one or two week period. Since I’ll be using these files anywhere between 10 and 100 times a day, it’s handy to have them close by under Projects on the desktop, rather than hunting through my organized folder structure.

        The catch is that once the project is done you must – MUST – remember to clear the folder out and archive the files where they belong.

        Inbox tends to consist of files that end up on my desktop, despite my best efforts, and I have not decided whether to delete them, act on them, or archive them. It may be a good idea to keep your Downloads folder as a subdirectory of the Inbox folder.

        The catch here is that you need to process the Inbox on a weekly or monthly basis and never – EVER – miss a date with the declutterer.

        That’s why it’s a good place to keep your Downloads; unless you set a separate unbreakable date with the declutterer for your Downloads folder, it may be a long time before it gets cleaned out.

        Fellow productivians, you may scream at me and throw tomatoes for using an Inbox folder on my Desktop, but I think it’s a very enabling tool. Drag your mouse over those weaselly files on your desktop and drag them into your Inbox and you don’t need to worry about them until you’re no longer in a massive rush to complete your client’s project on time.

        If you have questions for us that you’d like to see tackled in Lifehack articles, we’d love to hear from you.

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        Joel Falconer

        Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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        Last Updated on January 21, 2020

        Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

        Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

        Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

        This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

        The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

        The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

        Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

        Curiosity

        Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

        People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

        Patience

        Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

        When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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        Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

        A Feeling for Connectedness

        This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

        A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

        The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

        How to Self-Taught Effectively

        With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

        1. Research

        Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

        Learning the Basics

        Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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        Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

        What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

        Hitting the Books

        Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

        Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

        Long-Term Reference

        While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

        My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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        2. Practice

        Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

        A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

        Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

        Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

        3. Network

        One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

        These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

        Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

        Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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        4. Schedule

        For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

        Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

        Final Thoughts

        In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

        If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

        At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

        More About Self-Learning

        Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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