In the same way that physical clutter can negatively impact your life, digital clutter can do the same thing unless you remove it.
Our digital lives have changed drastically over the past 20 years. Having a digital camera, an email address, and a home computer were all novelties. Now smartphones, multiple email addresses and social profiles, and laptops are the staple of our lives.
As we get more devices and features, the digital “stuff” we acquire grows, but we don’t notice it because it’s all contained within a device.
When we talk about digital minimalism, there are a lot of different opinions on it, and even ideas about what exactly it means. I’m not talking about limiting internet use or the number of devices you own – that’s all part of it. The aspect of digital minimalism I’ll talk about is all the media, files, and apps we’ve accumulated – the digital clutter packed in our phones and computers.
What is Digital Clutter, and what’s wrong with it?
Digital clutter is the hoarding of digital files and the lack of organization. It’s dozens of files spread across your computer desktop screen. It’s tons of bad blurry photos that you have to scroll through on your phone to find the good ones. It’s pages and pages of apps on your phone. It’s searching through hundreds of emails trying to find that one you forgot to respond to. It’s constantly getting messages that your computer or phone is out of space whenever you need to save something important.
What’s wrong with that?
It wastes time, mental space, and takes away from real life. Finding the files you need to work on takes more time, reducing productivity. Trying to remember which emails you responded to and which you didn’t is a waste of mental energy. Scrolling through your photos trying to find the one you want to show is a distraction from life (not to mention annoyingly boring of the person waiting for you to find that photo).
Minimalism Principles Applied to the Digital World
Minimalism is about only the essentials and an organization of those essentials. It’s not about trying to get rid of everything you enjoy, or trying to see how little you can own. And we’re not confusing it with minimalist design, which is about aesthetics.
Minimalism is getting rid of the unnecessary so that we can focus on the necessary. It’s simply making space for what’s important.
In the digital world, like in the physical world, there is a literal “space.” Your computer or phone has a certain amount of gigabytes that it can hold. If you have too much digital stuff, there will be no more space to hold it.
But there’s also a mental space. Things that you physically own take up mental space every time you see it. Things that you digitally own also occupy mental space. They take focus away from the things you want to see and think about.
So digital minimalism is about eliminating digital clutter so you can focus your energy on finding and interacting with the things that are important. And ultimately, everything digital should only exist and be used to enhance your real life.
So what does this actually look like in practice?
One of the problems I encounter most on my phone and laptop is running out of space. Of course, the solution is to delete stuff. But when most of us reach that point, our digital content is pretty disorganized and we don’t really know what to delete. We’re afraid of losing something we may want or need later. Perhaps that’s already accidentally happened.
When you back everything up, there’s no fear of deleting stuff to make space. If you need something you deleted, you can always get it back whenever you want. And if you can automate the process of backing up, you don’t even have to think about it.
For your phone, the easiest setup is to backup to each company’s cloud service – that’s Apple iCloud for iPhones and Google Sync for Androids.
For computers, you can back up to physical external hard drives or cloud storage; or you can do both, which is what I do. I backup to an external hard drive – all I have to do is plug it in and it starts backing up. For all my “working” files, I have them synced to Google Drive (Dropbox is a similar solution). And finally, I have my entire computer backed up to a cloud service called Backblaze that just backs up anytime my laptop is turned on and connected to wifi. iDrive and Carbonite are similar alternatives.
Backing up a computer to 3 places might sound like overkill, but I’ve had hard drive failures or accidental file deletions that caused a lot of headache in the past. This gives me complete peace of mind.
The first problem of email is we get too much of it. The other problem is that messages all have different levels of importance, but usually get the same amount of attention.
We all get dozens if not hundreds of emails a day. Most of them are complete junk. Some are mildly interesting or important. Only a handful are critical. Yet they all come in the same stream that requires us to give each one equal attention in a very quick glance. This causes us to sometimes open dumb emails or breeze by important ones. Going back to find emails becomes a never-ending quest.
Let’s deal with junk email. If you find yourself on a million newsletter subscriptions and they send you more than you can keep up with, try Unroll.me. It’s a service that identifies all your emails that come from subscriptions (not from individuals) and let you unsubscribe from them on one page. It can reroute the email you do want to keep and send them to you in a single email. Clean Email and Cleanfox are alternative options.
For important emails I simply mark certain senders as “VIPs” so their emails standout, and I can go to them in a single folder/tab. This helps me avoid missing important messages.
Then to deal with all email, I use the “Inbox Zero” process. This method isn’t for everyone, but I personally thrive off of it. It ensures that every single email is dealt with, but in a quick and organized manner. Inbox Zero was developed over 10 years ago, but here’s my version of it.
When you receive an email there are 4 options you have:
- Delete it – if you don’t need to reference it later, just delete it. If its spam, mark it as spam so your email client applies that rule in the future.
- Archive it – for messages you want to keep for reference, such as important threads, but don’t need to do anything with. This saves it, but moves it out of the inbox.
- Act on it – if you can respond to the email or perform a requested task within a minute or 2, then just do it right there. After that, archive it.
- Defer it – for messages that require longer responses or have bigger tasks. You can leave it in your inbox or flag it for action.
The purpose here is to go into your email inbox only 2-3 times a day and do this quick audit run-through. Then you schedule time to deal with the emails that need a response.
If everything is dealt with, you should have zero messages in your inbox. It’s switching your perspective so that your inbox is just that – an inbox for new items only, and not a library of all your emails. Anything left in your inbox is sort of a to-do list – it’s the items you still need to act on.
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t obsess about getting your inbox down to zero. The principle here is to spend less time in email by having a checklist of actions to take and making sure you don’t let important emails fall through the cracks.
As we use our devices over time, we accumulate apps. Some are important and used on a regular basis. Most were downloaded for a one-time use and have been sitting there ever since, taking up space.
iPhones and Androids have the ability to see your unused apps and delete them. If you’re backing up, the data is retained so you can re-download and use the app again if you ever need to.
For computers, I like using Clean My Mac (Clean My PC for Windows). It lets you sort your apps by the largest size or the least used, and uninstall them in bulk. What’s great about this software is that it can also look through files that your computer creates as it’s being used, but doesn’t need to keep, and can delete them for you as well. It’s a great way of quickly freeing up space on your computer.
Photos & Videos
Ever since we all got smartphones, we’ve been taking pictures and videos without a second thought. The good, the mediocre, and the bad – we keep them all. For many of us, we have tens of thousands of pictures. The problem with this is that not only does it take up space, but we don’t actually get to enjoy those photos.
The purpose of having photos and videos is to be able to reflect back on moments in our lives that were enjoyable and significant. It’s not as easy when you have to scroll through hundreds or thousands of photos, and you’re less likely to actually go back and look. You also don’t need 20 photos of the same pose with slightly different expressions.
The secret here is to delete, delete, and delete. Here’s my process.
After an event where I take a ton of photos, such as a family gathering, hangout with friends, or a single day on a vacation, I review my photos at night. This is also nice to reflect back on your day. I then select a handful of photos that are great and capture the essence of that day – those are the ones I keep. I delete everything else. It usually ends up being 10-20% of the photos I keep.
So what do I delete? Multiple versions. If there’s a bunch of group shots or portrait shots, I pick one to keep and delete the rest. One photo is enough to remember that moment. Anything that is slightly out of focus or blurry, or has bad lighting, or is just a bad photo, I delete. I delete almost all my scenic photos that don’t have anyone in them unless one is stellar. The basic rule is I just need 1-2 photos of each “scene.”
I use Google Photos, which automatically backs up all photos from my phone. It stores unlimited photos, but just compresses them to a smaller size. This helps eliminate the worry of deleting a photo I might want later – I can always go to Google Photos and search for it if I really want it.
When you only have a few select photos and videos that are good, you’re more likely to go back and look at them, which adds more value to them.
Files & Folders
This is probably one of the harder things to tackle. Over the years, we work on a lot of different projects. The way we organize stuff also evolves, so there’s no single filing system we use. This makes finding files difficult, as well as trying to figuring out what we actually need and what we can delete.
How you organize your computer folder structure is very personal and specific to how you work, so I won’t have a guide for that. But what I do suggest is to clear your desktop and your downloads folder – the 2 places where all our files tend to pile up. Move your files into your primary documents folder.
Then treat it somewhat like an email inbox. Create an “Inbox” folder where all your new files go that aren’t sorted yet. Create an “Active” folder where all the stuff you’re currently working on goes. Create an “Archive” folder for stuff you want to keep, but you won’t be working on anymore, or won’t be working on anytime soon. Create a “Miscellaneous” folder for everything else that you don’t know what to do with. These main folders or buckets will at least clean up your file structure a little bit and make it a little easier to find stuff while you organize them further.
In terms of clearing up space, the previously mentioned Clean My Mac / Clean My PC programs work great for this too. It can identify your largest files or your oldest files, and allow you to review them and delete multiple files at once.
If you have the first step of backups in place, you shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally deleting something you need.
Digital clutter isn’t often noticeable because it doesn’t take up physical space. We don’t realize it’s a problem because it’s integrated with how we use tech and has grown as our tech has evolved.
But as we spend more time with our devices and they become foundational to our lives, digital minimalism is an essential practice to ensure our technology doesn’t rob us of our time, energy, and life.
One of the more noticeable ways that we see our digital lives encroaching on our physical lives is the addiction that we have to smartphones. You may know someone, or be that person, who’s always annoyingly on their phone.
Take a look at this article on practical steps to to break that addiction: