Digital spring clean

· life · geekery ·

I’ve had a bit of an obsession with spring cleaning recently. I’ve tidied and cleaned elements of our physical space (nothing makes you more aware of how much junk you have accumulated than a period of lockdown), but I’ve also had a ‘services and digital’ spring clean too. It has taken quite a bit of time, but I do feel better for it.


It started with our bank. We’ve been with the same bank since we bought our house in the early 2000s. It worked well for us at the time, but since then the bank changed hands at least a couple of times, and ended up as part of one of the UK’s least loved and worst performing banks. This bank has shut down many of its branches, and because the online banking element of our account was specific to the original account type, the acquiring bank has done almost nothing to update it in the intervening years. If I say the interface would look at home in a 1990s Netscape Navigator window, that will give you some idea. It’s incredibly slow and difficult to use, and there is very little you can actually do with it anyway. You can’t export your transaction data (they send a paper statement every month), and most other kinds of transactions need to be done by calling the bank.

We decided that enough was enough. I looked around and chose Starling Bank from the new crop of online-only ‘challenger’ banks. After so many years with our old bank, opening an account with Starling was like being transported by time machine into a shiny new future. Everything was done through the phone app: you do the security checks by taking a photo of a form of photo ID (passport or driving licence), record a short video of yourself reading out a statement, then wait an hour or two for them to process and check your info. And that’s more or less it! Once your account is verified, you immediately have access to a virtual bank card which you can add to your Apple Wallet to use for contactless or online payments, and your physical card is ordered. You can generate a statement for any time range as a PDF, and you can export your transactions as a CSV file so that you can analyse your spending however you want. The app itself does some simple categorisation (which is pretty good by default, but also customisable), and the interface shows you what you have spent today and this month, and a list of transactions, to which you can add your own notes if the description added by the merchant is a bit obscure. You can even pay in cheques by taking a photo of the front and back of the cheque and uploading it, which saves the hassle of having to go to a bank and deposit them.

Setting up our joint account was even more delightful: you have to each have a personal account first, then you request a joint account through the app, sit close together with the app open on each of your phones, and once you have both agreed on your own phone to open the account, everything is set up without needing further ID checks. We actually only use our personal accounts to pay in birthday gifts and so on, and use the joint account for everything else, as we did with our old one. This certainly keeps us honest with each other about our spending, as the app sends a notification by default when either one of us spends on the account!

I’m really impressed with Starling Bank. After years of living with such a creaky old system, the app feels like magic, and I feel much more in control of our account. We have still left some money in the old account for now, as I ended up transferring over old standing orders and so on manually. It doesn’t hurt to have your eggs in two baskets either, but doing all our day-to-day banking from Starling is so much easier.

Johnny.Decimal filing system

I think it was probably Jack Baty (the chief enticer-down-rabbit-holes on who pointed me towards John Noble’s Johnny.Decimal system. This is a deceptively simple, but surprisingly powerful system for naming folders in areas, categories and items with decimal numbers (a bit like the Dewey Decimal system, but less complicated). You can read about the system on the site, but the broad idea is that you divide up what you want to file into at most 10 different areas, and each of those areas into at most 10 different categories, and then place folders sequentially numbered with ID numbers within each category. So, following on from the Banking examples above, I might have a ‘Finance’ area from 20-29, within that a ‘Banking’ category as 21, and within that a folder named ‘21.02 Starling bank statements’.

The beauty of the system is that it is systematically organised, so once you have settled on a system that works for your brain, you know where everything should go, and everything within this filing system is only 3 folders deep. It is also suprising (particularly to me, as I find it hard to remember numbers), that you quickly get used to the numbers used for items you deal with frequently. It also gets around ’now what did I name that folder?’ moments, as if you have an idea of the number range it should fall under. If you use something like Alfred or Launchbar, you can start typing the numbers to get a list of candidates. You can then either spot what you are looking for, or continue to type to filter the list down further. The beauty of having the ’two digits dot two digits’ code at the start of each of the items is that this will uniquely identify that item, whereas I may have several files and folders containing the word ‘banking’, for example. In Alfred, if I start by typing 21. and then pause, Alfred will list all the folders under my Banking folder, and I can easily continue with 02 to find the Starling bank statements folder.

So far, I have only implemented the Johnny.Decimal system for my personal files on my home computer1. I had thought that this was going to be the easier option, but I hadn’t realised what an absolute mess my files were in. Things were scattered all over the place, randomly distributed among badly-named folders, and often duplicated. It took my several days of chipping away at it in spare moments to get it all organised, but I feel immensely better for it. I found some files I thought I had lost, and everything now has its own well-defined place to go. Searching for files is much easier than it used to be, and I plan to also build myself a few helper tools to make creating new item folders more fool-proof (though this is something that John Noble is also working on).

Now that I know it works so well, I will also make the time to organise my work files as well. I know that I will need to use the PRO.AC.ID multiple projects variant for work, so that I can accommodate projects like grants, grant applications and taught modules which will likely grow beyond the bounds of 10 discrete units over time (or have already done so). It will be a bit more complicated, but I have already figured out how I will divide up the system, so I am hoping it will just require a bit of time to rename and shift some files around.

  1. Though given that I am still working from home, all my computers (work and personal) are at home all the time. You know what I mean though… ↩︎