When you hear the word “clutter,” your mind may jump to several things. Whether it’s mismatched socks bursting from a drawer or stacks of unopened mail on the counter, master organizers like Marie Kondo have brought the perils of physical clutter to popular attention.
But what about digital clutter?
Digital clutter is the excess data we accumulate in our lives. While it may not take up much space in our physical world, it can still weigh on our well-being byte by byte.
According to the World Economic Forum, we produce roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. (A quintillion has 18 zeroes, by the way!) Now picture a 1TB hard drive. According to an academic paper, we create over 150,000 TBs of new digital data every 90 minutes!
Data accumulates exponentially as technology creeps into more facets of our lives. Instead of collecting books, CDs, and photo albums, we rack up their digital counterparts. Rather than writing letters or communicating in person, many of our interactions occur in the virtual sphere. Every text message, DM, and like creates data.
Nowadays, we can fill devices to the brim without pausing to consider the consequences. Rather than decluttering an entire device to create space as we would with a stuffed drawer, we buy another hard drive or upgrade cloud storage. By clicking, dragging, and dropping data into clever hiding places, digital clutter doesn’t pile up the same way physical objects do.
Although stored data is less of an eyesore than a garden gnome collection, there’s a case to be made for decluttering. First, it helps to start by understanding the concept of digital minimalism.
Dive Into Digital Minimalism
Digital minimalism is not some Futurist cult manifesto. It isn’t rocket science either. It simply applies a “less is more” philosophy to the digital world.
In “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” author Cal Newport describes it as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviours surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”
While Newport believes in reducing low-value digital noise and optimizing digital tools that add value, digital minimalism can look different for each of us. Author and psychologist Nick Wignall’s approach offers three basic principles:
- Technology use should be intentional, not habitual.
- Technology is for creating, not feeling better.
- Technology should come secondary to people.
Sound about right? Then perhaps it’s time to declutter your digital world and adopt the habits of a digital minimalist.
Declutter Your Digital World
Stop and think about all of the digital data you’ve accumulated since the advent of the internet.
Yes, that includes every saved .doc, .mp3, and .jpg.
You might not stub your toe on stored data, but it can still affect your well-being.
Imagine working in a haphazard office. You’re more likely to be overwhelmed, distracted, and inefficient. A disastrous office can kill your mood too. Though we may not think of digital clutter in the same way, it can have the same effects as a tangible mess.
Digital clutter bogs down your devices and ultimately prolongs the time you spend staring at a screen. Screen time causes side effects like eye strain, headaches, and neck and backaches. It is also linked to depression, anxiety, reduced sleep quality, and low self-esteem.
On top of that, technology rewires our brains and reinforces addictive behaviours. Repeated stimulation grows new neural pathways.
Meanwhile, underused pathways—like those used when you calculate tips in your head—disintegrate.
It’s not your fault. Developers are experts at designing technology that is irresistible and addictive. Former Google Ethistict Tristan Harris explains how technology is designed to hijack your mind and become something we depend on and crave. We can’t control what designers do, but we can control the way we use their products.
Decluttering your digital footprint is a decisive first step in showing the cyberworld who’s boss. One significant benefit is reduced screen time, which boosts productivity and minimizes adverse physical side effects.
There’s also something to be said for the simple act of letting go, which can generate feelings of release and calm. Speaking for myself, my first digital declutter provided the same sweet satisfaction as colour-coding my closet.
Whether you take a marathon-style approach or tackle digital clutter one device at a time, here’s a checklist to guide you through the process.
Digital Declutter Checklist
- Computer: Clear your Downloads and Trash folders. Transform your desktop into something Marie Kondo would be proud of. Label files logically, then organize them into nested folders. Uninstall unused programs and old versions of them. You may also wish to enlist a third-party cleaning program to delete clutter and clean your registry. For Mac, try CleanMyMax X, Smart Mac Care, or CCleaner. For PC, try Advanced System Optimizer, CCleaner, or System Mechanic.
- Browser: Declutter your bookmarks and reorganize your bookmarks bar. Delete old extensions. Keep the number of open tabs to a minimum and use apps like Pocket or Instapaper to keep reading material organized.
- Phone / Tablet: Delete apps that aren’t necessary on a regular basis, including Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Tinder (apparently all the action is on Hinge now anyway). You can also uninstall the built-in Windows and Apple apps you never use (who needs a compass, anyways!) Nest similar apps inside folders and use labels like ‘Work,’ ‘Social Media,’ ‘Distractions.’ Keep the most frequently used apps on your home screen, secondary apps on the second page, and distracting apps at the back. Go into your storage settings to determine what’s taking up the most space and start decluttering there. This often leads to sorting through your camera roll – start doing this regularly, like the first Monday of every month!
- Email: Go through your inbox to archive important emails and delete the rest—label folders in an organized fashion. Stay on top of your emails, keep your inbox tidy, or set up an automated inbox organizer like SaneBox, AquaMail, or Mailbox.
- Social Media: Social media began as a platform for human connection. Evaluate your relationship with social media and consider how you can steer your way back to its root function. Review your feed and unfollow accounts that don’t bring value. Deactivate untouched accounts. Disable the push notifications that lure you to scroll aimlessly through your feeds.
- Subscriptions: Spend the next month unsubscribing from any newsletters you receive but no longer read. Take a glance at your credit card bill to determine how many free trials you forgot about and cancel them! Carve out time to finish that MasterClass or opt-out before the auto-renewal.
- Music, Podcasts, Photos: Make a day of exploring your music collection, curate an epic throwback playlist, and delete the rest of the songs you don’t listen to anymore. Dive deep into your photo archives and drag blurry images, doubles, and incriminating evidence into the trash. Do a sweep through your podcast app too!
- Other: You might have a drawer of old devices, chargers, wires, and odds and ends. It’s time to say adios! Be sure to keep Mother Nature in mind and recycle old electronics properly.
Sifting through a lifetime of digital clutter is no easy feat. Make your hard work count by adopting habits that keep digital clutter at bay!
Adopt the Habits of a Digital Minimalist
There’s no single path to becoming a digital minimalist. On the contrary, there are many ways to practice this philosophy. Here are some habits to minimize digital clutter and restore balance to your relationship with technology.
- Be honest and accountable: Confront the smudged reflection in your locked phone screen and examine your relationship with technology. Use built-in or third-party usage trackers to get an accurate picture. Use apps like Self Control to restrict yourself, if need be. It’s essential to set realistic goals and be accountable. If you’re stuck, share your goals with someone; chances are they could benefit too.
- Be discerning: You have the power to be picky about what you save, download, and subscribe to. Be decisive about what you need and let go of what might come in handy later. In general, hit ‘delete’ more than ‘save.’
- Detach and set boundaries: Whether you leave your device in the car while running errands, flip it upside down while working, or keep it away from the dinner table, spend more time with your gadgets beyond arm’s reach. Get outdoors and engage in activities that keep your device out of your hand. Detachment is not about returning to the dark ages; it’s about maintaining a level of independence from our devices by setting healthy boundaries that prevent burnout.
- Use technology with intention: Re-evaluate technology’s role and purpose in your life. Decide when to turn to your devices instead of being called to them (start by turning off push notifications and the “raise to wake” feature, which illuminates your phone and calls your attention each time you lift it). Remember that technology was intended to support you, not overwhelm or control you.
- Use technology to your advantage: Invest in software that sweeps, backs up, and declutters your files. Set up applications that manage your inbox, organize your reading material, or manage and protect your passwords (try Bit Warden or LastPass). Use features to silence or unfollow accounts that don’t bring value to your feed. When you need to focus, turn your phone to black & white; you’ll be less inclined to scroll through Instagram absent-mindedly.
- Return to analog: Choose to read paperback books, print magazines and newspapers. Experiment with film photography. Handwrite to-do lists and love notes. Dedicate a weeknight to board games, card games, or fishbowl. Use your hands for something more nuanced than scrolling, whether it’s drawing, knitting, or finger painting.
- Make minimalism routine: Taking any of these actions is fantastic but making them part of your routine is the best way to make a long-term change. One great example is shutting down all apps and tabs at the end of each day to give yourself a fresh start the following morning.
Digital minimalism is not about rejecting technology or returning to the stone age. It’s about restoring mindfulness to your relationship with technology.
Though data will continue to accumulate with or without your input, the role technology plays in your life is entirely up to you. Perhaps it’s time to take a break from scrolling and discover what a digital declutter can do.