You use far fewer files than you think, so stop hoarding them.

In July 2019 I stopped keeping any files on my computer I created a new user account and didn’t put Dropbox on it.

I downloaded 20 files from Dropbox in the first 44 days. I guess I uploaded about twice that many (mostly banking aspects that needed processing) and I’ve edited a lot online. All the ones that got downloaded got edited and then either put back or emailed somewhere. Then they got deleted. For most of that time there were almost no files in my user area.

I started working like this when I realised that all my work ended up as three steps:

  • Download (clone,checkout,create new) a file or files
  • Work on the file.
  • Send it somewhere: email; a blog; uploaded to a website.

Every document I touch has a purpose, and it normally has to leave my machine to complete that purpose. It might leave by uploading to a blog, or website, or it might leave by email, but all of it leaves. Any anything that leaves by blog or email I can get back the same way so I can delete it from my home system. Increasingly the file I create is in the cloud anyway (Google Drive, a blog post).

Now I wipe out my files every morning. In two years, I haven’t had any problems at all.

Picture of a clear desktop

It’s got a lot of advantages:

  • I know that every file on my machine is something I’m working on: files don’t get lost in the ether and projects get properly finished
  • There’s a real feeling of freedom, like you get from inbox zero: you know that everything is dealt with, everything that needs to be uploaded is uploaded, and everything that needs to be sent has been sent.
  • It encourages sharing, and blogging, and keeping team ‘knowledge bases’ updated: there’s a small timecost to putting files back into Dropbox, so I may as well fire off a quick blog or share it with a team.
  • Far far easier to switch machines
  • You don’t need a big hard drive.

Bottom line: my workflow has got a lot lot smoother and easier since I recognised that most files are mess.


Some attempts to predict questions responses from readers:

You clearly don’t have a proper job

I run the charity eQuality Time, as COO and work from home on the same machine I do everything else on. I take one day off a week to spend with family but otherwise: I’m on this machine

Applications are files!

Well, yes, from a Computer Science point of view. From a workflow perspective they are tools: I have all sorts of programs and python libraries and vim config files that I use to work. They don’t count.

Doesn’t work for a programmer

I clone a lot of repos, work on them, push them, and delete them. I don’t see the point of keeping them around if it’s only a few seconds to clone.

What if your internet goes down

It’s 2021, if my internet goes down I’m probably not going to be much use anyway NO matter how many files I’ve got. I suspect I’d go for a walk or have some family time. If there’s an urgent thing I need my internet for, and my phone hotspot isn’t working, then I drive five minutes to the local coffee shop with my old laptop, at which point I’ll be glad everything is online somewhere.

UPDATES in 2022

  • One unexpected useful thing: it’s now a lot easier to periodically factory reset my machine, and because it’s easier I do it more and that has lots of benefits on it’s own.
  • I mention Dropbox a few times in the article. I now mostly mean Google Drive.