Reduce Digital Clutter. Gain Time.

You need a computer file, and you need it fast. But where is it? Is it on your desktop, or did you put it in a file folder, and if so, which file folder?

You run a search, and 30 files show up with similar names. You review each one, and the last one is the file you needed. You open your email to send it and find 50 new messages all needing attention.

You’ve just spent an hour trying to find a file and complete a task. Does it sound familiar? Of course it does, and it’s all too common in the digital age. It happens to most of us, and it happens a lot more than we care to admit.

Searching for “lost” files and managing emails sap productivity, says Jocelyn Coverdale, president of organizing and productivity training company Ballantrae Solutions. She says 40 percent of the workday is often spent on managing email, up from 20 percent in 2010. The average number of corporate emails received daily is 115. Even with good filters in place, roughly 19 percent are spam.

Workers also spend so much time daily trying to find “lost” files because of disorderly filing systems that it amounts to about three weeks a year of lost productivity.

A lot of us are overwhelmed with all of this information and data. When you say “clutter,” most people think of desks and garages, but our digital lives have become cluttered, too. Coverdale says when there’s no structure, there’s no decision being made about why you are keeping the file.

The endlessness of the Internet has made clutter worse, too. It has created so many choices affecting our ability to make decisions. Coverdale likens it to drinking from a fire hydrant, because you may get more than that sip of water you needed.

It all comes down to what’s commonly called “information pollution.” We are barraged with information, and much of it isn’t relevant to the tasks at hand. It’s just plain noise, and it’s hard to tune out. Loosely interpreted, the old adage of Parkinson’s Law suggests that stuff expands to fit the space, and that goes for hard drives, too, not just attics.

So how can we tame this digital clutter? There are strategies and tools available to help you reclaim some productivity. The key is to find a system that works for you.

Calendar: It sounds simple enough, but you need to decide on paper or digital. When it comes to digital, it is helpful to have a syncing option.

Email: Use the tools provided to you in your email package. Set up folders and flag emails requiring action.

Task manager: There are many task managers out there. Depending on your preference, you can keep a paper to-do list or go digital. Many email packages, such as Microsoft Outlook, have task managers built in. There’s also Apple’s Reminders, if you’re running the most updated operating system.

Other Web-based offerings include Producteev.com, Getflow.com, Rememberthemilk.com and Doit.im. Some are free platforms and many have mobile options, which come in handy if you are always on the go.

Contacts manager: This software stores contact information as well as activities such as phone calls, meetings, etc. Some of the best rated are available at Salesforce.com, Oncontact.com and Community.act.com.

Search tools: Microsoft and Apple operating systems have search functions to assist you in finding files. There are Internet search tools beyond Google and Bing such as Ask, Lycos, and AltaVista.

Hard-drive organizers: This software allows to rid your hard drive of duplicate files and folders. For PCs, StuffOrganizer is available.. For Macs, go to MacKeeper or TidyUp.

File index: You can create a Microsoft Word document or Excel spreadsheet listing all of your files in a standardized way. Keywords can be placed in it to allow for easier search.

Putting workable systems in place can clear up information pollution, and you can use those newly found three weeks for vacation.

This column was originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday, August 27, 2012.

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Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR, is an accredited public relations professional with over a decade experience bridging the gap between traditional public relations and emerging technologies. Need help reaching your business’s customers, call 302.563.992 to schedule an initial consultation, or contact Mind The Gap Public Relations.