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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.

        More by this author

        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 September 18, 2019

        How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

        I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

        One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

        Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

        The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

        And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

        What to Write Down

        Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

        Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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        Dates of Events

        Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

        For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

        Names of People

        Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

        Theories or Frameworks

        Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

        Definitions

        Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

        Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

        Arguments and Debates

        Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

        This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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        Images

        Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

        Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

        Other Stuff

        Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

        I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

        Your Own Questions

        Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

        3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

        1. Outlining

        Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

        Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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        For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

        2. Mind-Mapping

        For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

        Here’s the idea:

        In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

        The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

        If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

        You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

        3. The Cornell System

        The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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        About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

        You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

        In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

        You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

        The Bottom Line

        I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

        I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

        More About Note-Taking

        Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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