It's a new year, and usually around this time I tell you that it's time to purge and declutter, to delete and organize and backup all your digital data so it's all easier to access and well-protected.
I imagine that this kind of advice doesn't get followed for too long before things fall apart. That's OK; I often fall behind trying to keep up with all the photos, documents and online stuff that my family accumulates through the year across multiple computers, cellphones and other devices.
This time, instead of telling you what you already know you should be doing, I'm going to ask you to think about a different way to approach the problem of too much data in too many places.
Think about it as a matter of duplication.
In my case, I've noticed that many of the same songs, photos, videos and other kinds of files keep popping up again and again, taking up hard drive space and making it harder to keep track of where to find things when I really need them.
Hard drive space is not such a problem. Digital storage space is cheap and ever-expanding. You could buy any external drive these days that would allow you to take photos for months and months and you'd never come close to filling it up. Free online services from Google, Microsoft and others give you lots of storage to park files. But on mobile devices, space becomes more of a premium. You're much more likely to reach the storage limit on a phone if you shoot a lot of videos or download a lot of apps.
And the issue of digital sprawl — having the same files duplicated across mobile devices, home computers and online in the cloud — might give you the false impression that your stuff is protected because it's in so many places. That may be partly true, but it shouldn't keep you from having a good system for backing up your most important data regularly.
Instead of trying to tackle the monumental task of getting your entire digital life in order, let's deal with this problem first: Let's get rid of the duplicate stuff we don't need.
Files and folders: This is the easiest place to start. Seek out the computer folders on your computer with your most important files (word processing documents, correspondence, presentations, etc.). Get rid of earlier draft versions of these files if there's no reason to hold on to them. Purge duplicate folders containing copies of the same files. (If your drive crashes, they're all going to go down with the ship together.)
That doesn't mean you shouldn't keep a backup. Protect the important data that remains by at least copying it all to an external drive. A second backup to an online or off-site location should be a priority, too.
For digital versions of tax receipts and other tax info, the same rules apply as their paper counterparts; you don't need to keep them more than 7 years at most.
Get rid of temporary folders like ones containing installation programs for software that was already installed.
Photos and videos: Here's where I tend to find a lot of wasted space. If you do a lot of digital editing, it's not likely you need to keep every version of a photo or video, just the finished version and perhaps the original. If your digital camera shoots in RAW + JPG format, you need only keep the RAW versions. (They're higher quality and can always be converted to JPG later to post on the web or to share with others.)
Video editing in particular tends to create a lot of extraneous work files. When you're done editing a video project, make sure to export it in a high-quality format, then get rid of all the work files and original video clips you no longer need.
And most importantly, delete photos from your camera's memory card or mobile device once you've imported them to an online photo service or a computer. It's fine to keep a few of the best shots on the mobile device to show them off to friends and family, but nobody needs to see five or six versions (most of them blurry) of the same image you tried to capture.
As you import movies and photos, be ruthless about deleting the bad, the blurry and the unwatchable.
Apps, software and saved games: We tend to keep software and apps around long past the time they've outlived their usefulness. You don't need four different pieces of software that perform the same function like keeping track of your finances or recording audio. If you've purchased software you no longer use, make sure you still keep the product code or installation disc to re-download or re-install it later if you really need it. But until you do, get it off your machine.
On mobile devices, ask yourself if you really need multiple apps to listen to music or to crop photos. It's easy to re-download mobile apps later if you need them again.
And video gamers: If you've traded in, sold or are no longer playing video games, get rid of those old game save files. You're not really planning to go back and try to beat that game again, are you? Even if you're still playing, you may need to keep only two or three save points, not 10 or 20.
Songs: Six different MP3 cover versions of "Stairway to Heaven?" No. You only need two at most. You're driving everyone crazy.
If you use iTunes, there's an option in the menu to show duplicate items. You can also find cheap software for PC and Mac that will comb your music library and point out multiple versions of songs (covers versus studio versions versus live performances, for instance). Get rid of the ones you tend to skip past.
Extra credit: If you really want to eliminate duplicate effort in your life, get rid of extraneous email accounts (or set them to forward to one central email address), social media accounts that are lying fallow and extra hardware like unused computers, digital cameras and USB drives.
A promise: You'll feel much better when you're not constantly seeing double or triple.