We live in an age where video streaming giants like YouTube, Netflix and Hulu dominate your living room. More often than not, the likes of Pandora, iTunes Radio and Spotify can be heard streaming from the internet to Bluetooth wireless speakers and headsets. All of your Word documents and spreadsheets are conveniently up in the cloud on Google+ and Dropbox, ready to view or edit from your laptop, tablet or smartphone. And, with a few mouse clicks, you’re enjoying your digital media du jour with very little fuss. It’s wonderful! But it wasn’t always that way.

Not too long ago, as I’m sure many of you remember, CDs and DVDs were the preferred media types and “The Cloud” wasn’t all the rage. You had to physically store, display and digitally archive files on your desktop external hard drives with back-ups on – you guessed it – burned CDs and DVDs (Ok – not all of you. But the audiophiles and videophiles in the house know what’s up).

You had to be organized, and there wasn’t an HTML5 based user interface with rating systems and suggestion algorithms ready to serve you a menu of delicious media. Don’t get me wrong, I love that these things exist today, because they make being entertained as well as productive easier. But with assistance so easily accessible, I’ve noticed how digitally lazy I’ve let myself become.

For example, I take a lot of photos. Over the years, I’ve ignored the fact that my photo collection is on multiple computers, with different photo applications organizing them in whatever (at times) backward ways they want to. Even more often, the files are loosely dropped in a folder somewhere, with a folder name like DCXXX-XXXX.  And it’s on the desktop, or in the default “Pictures” folder, or buried somewhere that makes no sense at all. And when you do this over just a few years, you’ve got a mess that’s hard to handle.

You’re probably thinking, “But Jerome, that’s what Flickr is for.” And sure, there are plenty of new services around that can help. But take enough photos, and you’ll have to pony up for more and more storage space. What if you don’t have the quickest internet connection to transfer your files? And what about your fancy Digital RAW files from your 16+ megapixel DSLR that are gigantic and likely not supported by most web based services? These caveats may be photo specific, but the same similar problems exists across all medias and services.

What I decided to do is go back to a more traditional file organizing scheme that takes advantage of newer technology and makes it easy to manage and organize files the same way web-based services tend to do—but without file restriction and the extra subscription fees. I wanted a centralized, network attached digital storage space that could store and serve my media and work files. Easy access was required no matter what computer, OS, or smart device used. So to do so, I needed to get my equipment out of the 2000s and into the 2010s. And all of this without breaking the bank (the holiday season did just pass, you know).

Some of you savvy readers are probably thinking NAS (networked attached storage). A NAS device can be a great solution for this since they are basically miniature, energy efficient computers with expandable storage and data backup. But again, there are a few caveats to consider. A NAS can get really expensive if you want more hard drive bays. You’re also locked to the software that’s built into the NAS chosen. Even worse, more consumer friendly NAS devices like the Western Digital My Cloud are not expandable. Fill it up and you’ll need a newer, bigger personal cloud drive that will also fill up sooner or later.

The other thing to consider is the speed of your home network. All the storage space in the world doesn’t mean a thing if transferring files is agonizingly slow. An easy way to see if your router could use an upgrade is if you can download files off the internet faster than transferring files across your local network. It should at least beat that!

To solve my file organization problem with these caveats known, I decided that I would prioritize my router over everything. The winning box was the Netgear Nighthawk. It’s a fast, feature-packed router with great reviews across the board. File transfers over wireless (wired is usually fastest) from device to device is very nimble, especially compared to my old hardware. But the real kicker for me is that it has a USB 3.0 port that allows you to attach ANY external hard drive (ideally a USB 3.0 device to max that transfer speed) to it and basically gives you the NAS features without having to buy another NAS device. You can even access it away from home, just like a cloud drive!

So with that, I decided to forego the expensive NAS solution and go with a traditional external 3TB hard drive attached directly to the new router. So bam! I’m ready to clean! To kick-off the new year I’m file searching, transferring, and freeing up hard drive space left and right. Soon enough, looking for pictures and video from past vacations will be easily found and accessible by most, if not all, devices. I even have Crashplan, a great cloud service backing up my network drive to the cloud so if the drive fails, I can easily get my files back. I can’t even begin to tell you how anxious I am for having my work files backed-up.

For now, I have everything in place to get my digital life clean. Being organized and mindful about where you put things physically and digitally is a skill that can easily be lost in a world that sprouts new services to make things “easier” for your digital life. There may be a time where digital organization is completely automated and optimized without needing to think about it—but don’t neglect the ability to organize. It pays dividends for your mind, professional life, and personal life. Stay sharp. Remember how many phone numbers you remembered before your smart phone stored them all for you? Not that I want to remember random strings of numbers, but it’s interesting to think of what skills you lose without practice.