Physical clutter manifests as real stress in our lives. But what about digital clutter? You may have Konmari-ed your wardrobe and narrowed down your book collection, but you’re not done if you haven’t looked through all the stuff you keep on your phone and computer.
With essentially unlimited storage space, it might seem silly to monitor how much you’re using. But the problem isn’t limited digital space; it’s that we have limited space in our brains to keep track of it all. Hanging onto things whether they are physical or digital takes up some of your memory and awareness, and depending what exactly it is, it can cause you more stress than you realize.
Here are the areas I suggest looking at, with the intention of drastically reducing what you choose to keep:
Docs and notes
I once created a very in-depth folder system, with subfolders inside subfolders. The system was very logical and I could usually find what I was looking for. It worked passably for a few years, until I ran out of space on my laptop and moved the whole folder system onto an external hard drive.
And I didn’t look at it again for years.
What was in it? Useless documents called things like “24 things to do before age 24” or “Tuesday to-do list” or “Potential jobs to get Sept 2012”.
Mostly these notes were useful to me at the time, as a “brain dump” exercise where I just wrote down a bunch of ideas to help better sort them in my mind.
Before the age of everything-digital, people used to brainstorm on real paper. And then crumple it up and throw it in the trash when they were done. But with digital files, we always CTRL + S just in case we might need to refer to it again later. And thus, what was once disposable brain clutter becomes immortalized digital clutter.
These days, I still constantly write digital notes, but I have only a few at a time. Instead of multiple to-do lists, I have one, which I keep adding to and checking off as I complete things. Any separate notes I try and take care of asap so I can delete the whole thing and move on. I hang on to work-related documents only until that project is over. And anything uploaded online to a blog or shared workspace doesn’t need a second copy on my hard drive.
Photos are something we tend to have literally hundreds if not thousands of. First, figure out where you’re going to store them, and keep them contained to that place. Are you going to keep them on your computer’s hard drive such as in iPhoto, or online in something like Google Photos? In your phone’s photo gallery or on Instagram? You only need to store one copy of any given photo. (Do keep the original version of the few photos you care most about, so that you have the highest resolution if you ever want to print them out to be framed.)
Next, get rid of any obvious ones like exact duplicates or ones that are blurry or where someone’s eyes are closed. These will be easy to delete and will give you a feeling of momentum.
Now you’re left with all pretty good photos, but you only need one from each set. I’ve found that when a photo set is recent, I can’t decide which photo is the best one. In one the lighting is better, but I prefer my smile in the other one. When this happens I have to just give up and come back later. It’s amazing how looking at a photo with fresh eyes gives you such a better perspective.
Specifically, vacation photos
This is another beast entirely. You might have a bunch of photos of buildings you saw, fountains, lakes, beaches…
I hate to break it to you but there are already hundreds of photos of that exact landmark, and dozens of them are way better than yours. If you really want a photo to remember how beautiful Lake Tahoe was, find one off Google taken by a professional landscape photographer and look at that when you feel like reminiscing. You don’t need your own photo collection to prove you were there.
Instead, keep the photos of people. The selfie you and your partner took in front of the beach or with the crazy cab driver photobombing you will likely illicit much fonder memories than a photo of the place itself. The people are what make a photo rare or special, not the place.
Emails + email labels
There are easy ways to bulk-delete email, so have no fear! You’re likely subscribed to a ton of mailing lists you no longer care about. Go to your inbox and open one. In Gmail there’s a little “Unsubscribe” link you can click so you don’t have to find the option inside the email content itself.
This only works for certain automated email lists however, so this option wont be there for all of them and you will have to manually delete the rest. Thankfully, you can delete multiple emails at once so the process goes pretty quickly.
Email is another one of those places where we tend to organize subfolders into subfolders, often called Labels. I used to have a label called “Shopping” where I kept all my automated promotion emails from various stores. (There are so many embarrassing aspects of that sentence, but this was years ago.) If you’re in that boat now, delete the label and delete everything inside it.
You downloaded that app and still haven’t opened it? Uninstall. You find that you only waste time using that app and it doesn’t bring anything constructive to your life? Uninstall. You already have another app that has the same function? You don’t need more than one.
I like to have only two screens of apps on my phone. On the home screen I have my daily used apps, like email, Spotify, text messages, and Google Keep. Swipe to the second screen and you’ll find my photo gallery, some social media apps, and a language learning app. I intentionally don’t put any “distracting” apps (Facebook, Instagram) on my home screen, because I don’t want to find myself opening them by default or because I saw a notification bubble.
All my other random apps aren’t used even close to daily, so they don’t need to take up space on my home screens. I can still access them in the Apps folder when I need them.
I dislike seeing texts that no longer serve me. Whenever I get a text with a confirmation code or automated alert (such as when resetting a password or opening a new account) I promptly delete the text conversation when I’m done. If someone random texts me with the wrong number, etc, I’ll delete it. I’ll also delete group text conversations if it’s not a group of people who talk on an ongoing basis.
Having fewer texts makes it easier to scroll through and find the conversations that actually matter to me, with people and groups I plan on talking with again in the future.
Accounts you follow
You have been using social media for years and have years worth of people you’ve followed on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. You likely don’t care about a lot of the same things you cared about five years ago, so why are you still following so many of those accounts?
It is okay to unfollow people that no longer interest you, whether that’s hiding people from your Facebook news feed, unfriending them altogether, or unsubscribing to Youtube channels. If you feel badly about yourself when you look at a certain account, do your self-esteem a major favor and unfollow it. Clear your Instagram feed from the boring photos you quickly scroll through, so everything you have to see is better.
Enjoying your newfound brain space
Clearing out the digital clutter can give you a surprising amount of peace. When you look back through the things you have chosen to keep, you will find that you have only stored joy and happiness. What wonderful things to hang on to.
What area have you digitally decluttered that has made the biggest impact on your happiness?
Decluttering my life has brought me peace of mind and relief from the world around me. There’s nothing like walking into the space you created and knowing you have nothing more than what you need. I write articles to help others create that same feeling for themselves.