Updated on August 12, 2016
I’ve been online since around 1994. I have a Bachelors & Masters degree in Computer Science so I tend to spend a lot of my time on a computer & using the internet. In that time I’ve acquired terabytes of files and other clutter across various computers & devices.
When I started my minimalism journey I completely overlooked my digital life. I just thought that having files on a computer took up very little physical storage space. Surely that means digital files aren’t an issue?
I was wrong. When I started to look into digital clutter I found the problem went far beyond files. I’ve categorised forms of digital clutter into several key areas:-
- Files such as Word documents and PDF’s (work)
- Files such as photos and videos (personal)
- Photos & videos used for work
- Music in the form of my MP3 collection
- TV Shows & films
- General trash such as saved memes and random junk files
- Out of date or no longer used programs & apps
- Duplicate content duplicated across devices
- Digital services & accounts such as social media and website accounts
- Email newsletter subscriptions
- Smartphone apps & notifications
The list will vary for everyone. You may find some are more of an issue than others, but it’s important to identify your digital clutter. Start with one group & clear one at a time.
De-cluttering email inboxes
Perhaps the easiest one to deal with is your inbox. I know a lot of people advocate inbox zero, but I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. My inbox has business emails, personal emails, academic emails and promotional mail. Some are ongoing discussions, others are kept as a record of a conversation. If you only use a personal email account you can try inbox zero. If you use Gmail, you can try the Inbox app for that.
My first task was to go through each & every email in my inbox and delete any useless mail. I had mail going back as far as 2008, so I decided to purge anything before 2012 without even checking. I then started going through emails and deleting all old promotional emails, out of date or irrelevant email and junk mail.
I didn’t unsubscribe from anything at this point. When I had finished I had gone from 14,000 emails in my mailboxes to less than 200. Any emails that I was keeping where archived in a local folder on my iMac mail account to get them off the server.
Over the coming weeks I watched for promotional email coming in and unsubscribed from almost all of those emails. I also dealt with enquiries in batches and deleted completed email conversations which didn’t need archiving. This became a habit because I didn’t want to have to sort through bulk emails in the future.
My inbox is now much more manageable & the amount of email I receive is probably about 80% less since unsubscribing from promotions.
Files & folders
Having spent years in university my digital file clutter was quite bad. Being a computer geek I’ve always had a good naming & folder structure, but the sheer volume was crazy. I had work from 10 years ago which is well out of date & I haven’t re-read since it was first assessed. These files where all placed into a folder & zipped into a single archive just in case I ever need reference. This essentially turned thousands of files into a single archive. if I don’t access that archive within the next 12 months I’ll probably delete it altogether.
I also had lots of web development files & website/server backups, along with a lot of reading material in the form of PDFs which I’d forgotten I’d stored. I kept a few of the more useful ones but I probably deleted over 10,000 articles and files I had saved up. I only kept the most recent backups and deleted a load of in progress and unused web development files.
In total I probably deleted or archived over 20,000 files. Most of which I never access. My documents folder is now pretty empty and mostly consists of a few backups and current work. Most of my written work is saved on my various blogs for the world to see, so I really don’t need to hold onto the drafts and planning materials.
Photos & videos
My photo & video collection was vast. For years I’ve used iPhoto on OSX to manage my photos. We got a digital camera as soon as they came out. That camera was less than 1 megapixel & only held 16 photos. Before that we took a lot of photos on film & had huge tins of photographs. As cameras & storage progressed we took more & more photos & never felt the need to curate them.
With the introduction of smartphones, we started taking pictures of everything & saving random pictures from the internet to text or tweet to friends. The big issue came when Apple introduced photostream. Photostream essentially syncs all of our photos across all devices. We have two ipads, two desktops & two iPhones all syncing to the same photostream. Our photo collections ballooned & within a few years it was out of control.
When I started curating our photo collection in iPhoto, we had over 35,000 images. We also had around 300 videos of varying quality, mostly stupid quick films shot to share online.
To address our photo addiction I first downloaded an application called iPhoto Duplicate Cleaner. This app searches your library for duplicates & similar photos. After running the duplicate cleaner & automatically removing over 4000 duplicates it was time to start manually deleting photos. This meant deleting countless selfies, pictures of food & drink and general low quality images. Our photo collection is an ongoing project but it is now down to around 10,000 images. We keep returning to this to whittle them down even more.
Unused apps and programs
This one is fairly easy. Open up your smart phone, tablet or computer & take a look at the installed apps or programs. Start by deleting anything you haven’t used in a while or don’t remember installing. Next delete anything which is rarely used.
Finally, the hard one is to delete anything which takes up too much of your time & attention. For me, that meant deleting Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook & a plethora of other social media apps. I was finding they took up too much of my time, so I now try to only use Instagram & Twitter on the go. By limiting myself to a single social media platform for photos and for discussion, I find I spend far less time looking down at my phone. I’m also less likely to flick between the apps refreshing feeds for no reason.
These distractions on your smart phone can kill productivity & can also make you miss out on large chunks of your day. I also found that smartphones give me major attention deficit. I flit between apps and don’t complete any meaningful tasks.
I will do a full post on Smartphones in a later post.
I reckon this one will be hard for most people today. Smartphones have become the norm, but with an infinite source of information in your pocket, sometimes you miss out on all the things your senses can pick up from your surroundings. I challenge you to slim down your installed apps & even turn off your phone next time you go out with a friend or loved one. It is life changing.
I have smart phone free time daily now. I leave it outside of the bedroom at night and always put it on charge in the kitchen when I’m at home. If I go out walking I leave it switched off at home or in the glove box of my car. If you want to take photos while you walk, take a camera. It saves you getting distracted by the rest of the online world when you should be in a world of your own. Don’t instagram a picture of your walk while you are doing it, save that for later & just enjoy that moment.
Finally, turn off notifications. The only notifications I have left active are those for texts & calls. I have disabled the vibrate function on my iPhone so now the silence switch truly does mean silent. By not having constant interruptions, you will regain so much more productivity & you will become more present & connected with those around you. I challenge you to try it.
Old social media accounts & website accounts
This one will need you to do some thinking. I decided to close down unused social media, forum & website accounts. The first accounts I closed where Deviant Art, Myspace, Google plus along with various old forum accounts, three old email accounts, my old dropbox account and various online shop accounts.
It may be hard to remember where you have accounts, so keep an eye out for emails from these companies. If you do get one, login & close the account. Some accounts are really easy to delete such as Dropbox & deviant art. Others, such as online shops, may need you to email them requesting account closure.
This is great from a clutter point of view. Less to worry about & one less username & password to remember. I’m in the process of streamlining my online presence. As mentioned earlier, I primarily use Twitter & Instagram now. My Google Plus account was deleted, my Facebook account has been wiped clean and other accounts have been closed.
A second benefit of closing accounts comes from a security standpoint. The less sites that save your details, the less chance of your details being leaked or released following a database hack. My Skype account was recently hacked & I suspect that happened because of the Talk Talk data breach. I had an old account with TalkTalk that hadn’t been deleted & I used the same email address & password for both, purely by accident. So cleaning up accounts can also save you headaches. Bonus!
I could write at great length about digital clutter. My journey into minimalism initially ignored digital clutter, but as soon as I started looking into my own clutter it was obvious that this area is important & often overlooked. Digital Clutter has the same effect on our brains as physical clutter. It can be overwhelming and can kill productivity & creativity. For most, digital de cluttering will be a massive undertaking, but I really do urge you to address it. Just do a little bit every day.
Have you addressed your digital clutter? Share any tips or advice in the comments section below.