Downsize Your Digital Life

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Matt Madeiro of Three New Leaves. It is also an answer to one of your Frequently Asked Questions.

You’ve cleaned your closet. You’ve decluttered your attic, your garage, every drawer in the kitchen, and can now count the items you own on about five or six hands. That’s great!

How’s your computer looking?

Minimalists we might be, but the hard drive tends to get the short end of the stick. Here’s the thing: clutter is clutter, whether it’s digital or not, and there’s absolutely no reason to skip your computer during your next scheduled cleanup. You might not see the immediate benefits of emptying out the My Documents folder, but a clean, well-organized computer can do wonders for both your ease of mind and workflow.

Here’s a few tips to get you started:

1. Dump the junk software!

It’s not easy. It’s not fun, either, but it’s absolutely necessary if you have dozens of programs littered across your desktop. Take a good look at the applications you use on a daily basis. You’ll find, in most cases, that it’s only a handful, which raises serious questions about the rest still clogging up your task bar.

Do you need multiple music players? What about three or four productivity programs? Probably not. But remember — deleting the icon off your desktop does not mean you’ve uninstalled it. If you’re using Windows, you’ll need to go through the Control Panel to properly uninstall a program. Mac users can simply delete it from the “Applications” folder.

Start uninstalling the junk. It’s usually a slow and tedious process, so split it up over as many days as you can. Every time you start up the computer in the morning, why not uninstall a few useless programs? Your C:\ drive will appreciate the new space, and you’ll have far fewer applications slowing down your startup process too.

2. Clean your desktop!

It might seem unimportant, but a cluttered digital desktop can weigh you down just as well as a physical one. Why would you want to stare at a huge mess of icons every time you turn on your computer?

The best solution is to clean it by hand, deleting files or moving them to their respective folders. If that’s too much work, however, a Windows user can put those icons out of sight by right clicking on the desktop, selecting ‘Arrange Icons By’ and then clicking ‘Uncheck Show Desktop Icons.’ The icons will still be there, but at least they’ll be made invisible. Mac users can check the Preferences for any Finder window and unselect all the options underneath “Show Items on Desktop.” That’ll still leave folders and applications, though you can just move those where you like and enjoy an unobstructed view of your wallpaper.

3. Let Hazel do the work!

I’m not a big fan of background applications, as they tend to hog resources and slow down your computer. I make an exception, however, for Hazel (Mac OSX) and Belvedere (Windows), incredible programs that act like digital housekeepers for your hard drive.

You start by telling Hazel which folders to monitor. The program keeps tabs on my Downloads folder, currently, and runs a set of rules every time I add something new to it (in this case, downloading something from the Internet). Hazel automatically moves pictures, documents, and music to their respective folders, and even auto-trashes files that have been sitting in my downloads folder for more than a week.

Hazel’s power just grows from there. If you’re already stuck with a cluttered computer, why not set it do a sweep through the hard drive itself? Give it a decent set of rules and it can do an incredible amount of work for you, organizing files based on their type and generally making your life that much easier.

I have it set to empty out my trash can once a week, too. Hazel can be set to interact with your files in whichever way you want, making it incredibly easy — and incredibly simple — to keep your hard drive in great shape before regular use starts to clutter it up. The biggest benefit, I think, is in time saved — Hazel works in the background to keep your hard drive well-organized, saving you from doing most of the grunt work yourself.

4. Prune your RSS reader!

RSS readers are a great way to stay updated on your favorite sites, but they come with a price: the infamous “Unread” count, which grows higher and higher if you don’t keep up with your feeds. For that reason, I’ve implemented a pretty strict set of rules for my RSS reader to follow.

I subscribe to less than 10 blogs at any time, and only those that I legitimately care to read on a daily basis. Likewise, I avoid sites that update frequently throughout the day, which normally includes news sites and most commercial blogs. My RSS reader is pretty sparse as a result, but anyone with an Unread count in the hundreds knows how heavy that can weigh on your mind. It’s not clutter in any physical sense, but an unregulated RSS reader can be every bit as stressful.

5. You only need one password!

Passwords are messy business. With more and more sites requiring registration, it’s difficult to keep track of which password goes where, resulting in the same basic set of characters being used all across the web. Password managers like 1Password (Mac OSX) and Roboform (Windows) work wonders, however, by generating — and remembering — complex, secure passwords for each site you login to.

Both programs ask you to set a “master password” that you’ll use to unlock the vault, and from there a simple key combination will auto-fill your login information with ease. The change is a welcome one, and probably the best way to streamline and simplify the dozens of accounts we juggle at any given time.

6. Don’t forget the Internet!

This might be the most important trick of all.

Hard drives aren’t getting any smaller. Just because you can store millions of files, however, doesn’t mean you should. Your computer will thank you for keeping it in clean, organized form, and you already have the most valuable tool for doing so at your disposal: the Internet.

It has everything. Manuals, music, photos and books — they’re all accessible via a quick Google search, eliminating the need to make backups of your favorite content for storage on your hard drive. The most important files, sure, will benefit from a local copy, especially if you don’t have the most consistent of connections. The majority of content you’ll interact with on the Internet, however, never needs to leave the “cloud” and start cluttering up your hard drive.

The “I might need it someday” mentality can be especially strong here, but don’t fall prey to the promise of future functionality. You don’t need it. And if you do, somewhere down the line, a simple web search will provide everything you need.

That’s the real lesson here: even as computers are built bigger, faster, and stronger, the same principles of minimalism — of simplicity and mindfulness — have become more important than ever before. So why not treat your digital desktop with the same respect you afford the real one?

***

Matt Madeiro is a minimalist/traveler/health geek who likes computers more than he probably should. He writes about all of those things and more at Three New Leaves. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    Minimizing the digital world is very important and I agree with everything here. However I would recommend LastPass over 1password/roboform as it is completely platform and browser independent. Also, while only remembering one password is continent, it is a single point of failure. Make sure the password is extremely strong, ideally remember the output of a random password generator.

    • says

      Single password systems are also bad because they are computer-centric. Good luck if you use multiple computers.

      Me, I use a different password FOR EVERY SINGLE WEBSITE that requires one. Dozens, at least. I use a mnemonic system where every password is different; and I use different base sets depending on the type of site, e.g. financial, social, etc.

      • says

        Hey, guys!

        Thanks for bringing up LastPass. I’ve grown fond of 1Password myself (especially now that it’s multi-platform), but LastPass does seem like an easier solution when you’re attempting to access your information from your non-home computer. 1Password has that functionality too, but I’m not sure it’s as easy (nor out-of-the-box) as it is for LastPass.

        A single password can completely backfire if someone were to figure it out, but I’m assuming most people would make it as strong as possible to compensate. And, for the average user, I’d argue that it’s still a good alternative to using one (weak) password across multiple sites or trying to keep them all in memory (though that’s a pretty impressive system, Ari!).

  2. says

    Downsizing your digital life would mean having a less cluttered life, but the most important thing in order to simplify your life is to create/upgrade your own filing system, so that you manage every part of the information you download into your computer! an efficient digital filing system can be a bliss for your computing and for your day in general :) really nice article by the way, lovely

    David

  3. says

    I need to clean up my data, but it’s hard to delete things that I do use on occasion in the future, seeing as I don’t have the hardcopies any longer…

    That being said, I do tend to keep my desktop and digital clutter organized and clean, it’s just a question of space and priorities now for deletion and not buying more hard drives

  4. says

    I typically format and reinstall the OS on my home computer every six months. This keeps it running quick and also forces me to organize my important data in a way that allows these frequent formats.

    In addition I have started using Portable Apps (http://portableapps.com/). These are small applications that handle 90% of what you do on your computer, but leave zero footprint on your C:\ drive. Everything can be stored on a small USB drive and allow you to take them with you everywhere. Hmmm sounds like a good topic for my Blog.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful blog.

  5. Cynthia says

    For password managers, I recommend Password Gorilla. It works on both Mac and Windows. I keep my password file on a jump drive, and I can access my file both at work (WIndows) and home (Mac OS X).

  6. says

    This is very good advice. I like to keep a nice nature scene as my desktop, and if it has icons halfway across the page, I don’t get the full effect.
    I use alot of pictures for my blog, and I have been bad to save all into one overflowing pics folder. I need to sort them by category and also consider just putting them onto photobucket.
    Thanks for the tips, I am going to clear some icons right now!
    Bernice
    http://bernicewood.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/a-season-of-change-for-me-and-for-my-blog/

  7. says

    Great advice. I know that I’m not the most organized person in the world so my computer is one hot mess right now. I have definitely changed my habits for the better, but I’ve got plenty of hours of computer decluttering to do. The task just seems so monumental and I’d hate to accidentally delete some sentimental photos (which I’ve done before).

  8. Russ says

    I’d love to see more argument/evidence/reasoning in minimalism articles and less bare assertion. How, exactly, is it possible that having some shortcuts on my computer desktop can “weigh me down” just like piles of clutter on a physical desk?

    How does hiding my desktop icons help? So I can “enjoy an unobstructed view of [my] wallpaper”? Seriously? People sit and stare at their computer wallpaper? if so, that’s kind of sad, not exactly an attractive aspect of a minimalist lifestyle.

    “The majority of content you’ll interact with on the Internet, however, never needs to leave the “cloud” and start cluttering up your hard drive.” Sites shutdown. Free content goes behind paywalls. If it’s something you are likely to need, it’s best to put it in Evernote or a similar program. What makes a search of evernote so much less “minimalist” than a google seach of the internet (especially now that one google search on chrome will give results from both?) The important part is being able to discern that which is ephemeral and that which is important, which is (I think) what minimalism is all about.

    • says

      Hi, Russ!

      I agree with your definition of minimalism, but for the sake of this article I opted to focus on the latter part: what’s important. For many people, a clean, well-organized computer can be important to their workflow, so taking steps to reduce digital clutter doesn’t seem “un-minimalist” in that sense.

      The desktop icon dilemma is a great example. No one (that I know!) stares at their wallpaper for hours on end, sure, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in being able to see it in the first place. Some people – myself included – just enjoy having their wallpaper visible at all times, and usually associate a huge screen of icons with clutter or disorganization. If minimalism, to me, is focusing on what’s important in life, than a well-organized machine can fit right within that. Clearing desktop clutter might not seem like a great big change, but if it helps a normal user feel like they’ve taken positive step toward cleaning their computer, then I’m not sure I see the issue.

      Evernote, likewise, is a great program. I use SimpleNote for the same purpose. But a lot of the content that the average user encounters isn’t always worth saving, and the whole idea of keeping it within the cloud is to encourage users to take advantage of the Internet. Sure, sites go down, but there are usually alternatives that host the same data. Free content might go behind a paywall, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that same information was available somewhere else. There’s nothing more “minimalist” about a Google search than an Evernote search, which is why you didn’t find that in the article. If Evernote is a program you can’t live without, then great! It’s important to you, so all the better. But the main idea of the article is to downsize digital clutter wherever possible, and I think taking steps to reduce what you download is one way to do that.

      Thanks for your honesty, Russ. If Joshua is kind enough to ever bring me back in for another post, hopefully that one will be more to your liking. :)

  9. says

    While it is true having a clean desktop remove clutter. But it doesn’t mean you have to hide or move all your desktop item to a folder. You need to know what you want to do with your desktop. If I have a assignment or work that requires me to open each time I log into computer, doesn’t it make it faster by leaving them on the desktop?

    Some users doesn’t understand how the computer works (And they don’t need to know). But trimming down the unnecessary software is a great boost to your notebook performance. And try not to run too much background program, unless you really need it.

    So declutter is not same by throwing everything out of your sight.

    • says

      I agree! I think the thing to remember is that these are just tips in the general sense — they may or may not ever apply to you. They’re just suggestions, after all, on ways to reduce digital clutter on your computer, and keeping certain icons on your desktop for easy access doesn’t really sound like digital clutter at all. :)

      So sure, decluttering is not the same as throwing everything in the trash. But I think the majority of users probably have far more icons and clutter on their desktop than they actually need, so I’d say they could probably benefit from doing a little cleaning. It all depends on your personal needs, in the end, and these tips are no different. Take what you need, ignore the rest. ;)

      Thanks for reading, Sayz!

  10. says

    I’ve got a Hazel rule that cleans up every file and folder on my desktop that hasn’t been opened in two days into a folder called Cleanup. I almost never have to go into the Cleanup folder to find anything.

  11. says

    I do a periodic Google Reader clean out and it always fills me with relief. I also declare “Reader bankruptcy” from time to time and just mark everything as read.

    Thanks for the tip about Hazel, I’ll give her a whirl.

  12. says

    I was just thinking about this very idea…how our computers create clutter as well. Luckily (in a weird way) my laptop has been reformatted more than a couple of times within the past month or so, therefore my programs are quite minimal. It’s sort of like a forced clean up.

    But I definitely know what you’re talking about in the Google Reader department. After not having said computer working for a while, my reader started adding up and definitely caused me stress. I think it’s time to start pruning! Thanks for this post! :)
    -Vanessa

  13. ming fai says

    guess what I write down all my password on a piece of paper, so that I never lost it, and does not need to buy anything like 1password to organzie my password

  14. MissMinimal! says

    I love your blog and your advice! I have been practicing to be more minimal and I passed by this blog. I just love the simple design :)

    I deleted a lot of my digital clutter and I can say I have NOT missed a single kilobyte of it, and I have not needed anything I deleted. It started out when a friend and I decided to burn DVDs and keep movies. I kept a ton of movie files in my external hard drive which held around 700GB. I also saved a ton of pictures, wallpapers, random images, ebooks, computer games, music, videos, programs, and the list goes on!

    After realizing my hard drive was nearly stuffed with so much stuff, I was wondering to myself, *what happens if the hard drive fails and all this stuff gets deleted?* God forbid it fails! But, I slowly started to delete things I did not need. I deleted the movies and then music and cleared the hard drive nearly 70%. Now, after they were gone, I did not miss them and if I kept them and my hard drive failed, I would think I wasted my time downloading all this stuff and lost it. But now, I do not even worry that my hard work is gone! I live and learn :) I then deleted a ton of downloaded fonts, Photoshop brushes, random images, my entire game library, and programs I do not even need. I barely use 5GB on the external hard drive now and can actually fit everything on a flash drive!

    Basically, I only save my important documents and memories. I also keep backups on two other flash drives too.

    I also have very few programs installed on my laptop because I hate programs that are there for no reason or take up space for nothing. I am down to an image editing program, a PDF reader, a chat client, anti-virus program, media player, DVD burning program, and Microsoft Office!

  15. chee ming says

    I store all my password and id in a text file, and drop in dropbox, I think as a true minimalist, we should not depend on too much software, on my mac I only have one system and 2 two programs, they are photoshop and illustrator, I used to use final cut pro, but after I lost all my video clients in a sudden, now I focus on design and photography.

  16. says

    Any article that diminishes the importance of regular personal backups is spectacularly flawed.

    It might mean adding an external hard drive to your laptop bag, but even then you’ve only solved half the problem. You still need something off-site (what if your house burns down? or your laptop bag is stolen?), and you can do that easily and in the background with a site like BackBlaze.

    As we become more dependent on technology and do away with tangible collection of music, photos, movies, books, and more, it’s more important than every to keep a strict, defined backup regimen in place. Otherwise, everything can be gone in a single poof of smoke.

  17. Linda says

    I read these posts with great interest. My external hard-drive is in the process of being slowly de-cluttered and re-organised. My main problem is with duplicate copies. However I feel that posts like these fail to take into account people like me who have thousands of files which we have created (in my case powerpoints, and documents for my job – teaching) and which are not available anywhere else. These need to be organised but just because I have not used a file in the last 2 years doesn’t mean I won’t need it again in the future if I move to another school where I am teaching different topics.

  18. says

    Having more icons in the desktop for Windows is bad for two important reasons. By normal habit its not just icons but also large files folders that we tend to keep in the desktop for ease of access.

    Windows runs slower if the Desktop is cluttered, even on and 8GB system, try using the Desktop as your movie dump and you will see what its means over a few days. The other thing is that if you tend to use these system default folders the user profile size increases, this makes auto backup and other tasks a time and space hog.

    The other thing is security and worst case scenario accessibility. If your account gets corrupted or a malware attack compromises your machine, you could just remove your hard disk and copy the files that are on the disk that are not in these system folders. The security could be a shortcoming in these situations. I use a separate folder in the C:| drive (or a different root drive) and create a master folder that contains encrypted containers of truecrypt and axcrypt. I also use token files for their security. System folders are relatively kept sparse and thus my computer runs the best it can in this context. Not splitting the root drive has its own benefits as the access times are shortened and not reset for each drive. This actually mainitains your hard drive better. So in this case any emergency would mean a simple folder copy paste for later decryption, while the drive itself can be forensically disinfected or simply formatted.

    The psychological aspects of having a disorganized and cluttered system are as real as the real physical thing. Its not about the intangibility, its about the visual reminder and the subconcious backburner that things are not set as you want them. They distract you mind and weigh you down without you continually realizing about it. Its like the gamers equivalent of living in a virtual domain, things get real enough once you are involved for a set amount of time. Keeping things neatly organized into folders like MUSIC, SOFT, ENTERTAINMENT, READS and master labels like that immediately rearrange your massive collection to a handful of labels that can be monitored with ease. So now you know where your movies, music, software and readables are. I keep the backups in portable drives for posterity, and use duplicate remover to remove redundant files on the 4-5 drives that I keep data on. I also use cloud services to store encrypted containers of important data. 5GB of free space on 2 service providers over 2 accounts results in 20 GB free space, that is more than enough for most important documents, photos and other software for me. The bulk of the space goes on movies and music ostendibly with large software taking the 3rd lead. These can be spread over optical disks and back up of backups using extra hard drives if the reasons are good enough to warrant such measures (good foreign movie collection etc). This logically keeps my drives full of space and my mind full of peace. Things can always go wrong but you still do your best and then we deal with it when it happens.

    Ideally using the software you need is a practice that comes with experience. Its like anything else, you always need the latest and the greatest all the time. As I think a skilled assasin can do more damage with a knife than a generic sniper with his Dragunove rifle. It boils down to streamlining and efficient use of your resources. As a security researcher, musician and beginning blogger, I think audio production software, reverse engineering +programming tools and word processors are all that I use. Now each of the above sub-domains could diverge to a litany of toolkits. However, I learnt very early on that its not the tools but rather what you do with it that defines you. So now my music production kit is precise and the best that I can afford (not including hardware). My reverse engineering and software development tools occupy a large space, but the essentials are a handful and I use them most of the time. For writing , I use Word/Notepad++ and Live writer.

    Another productivity configuration I use is shorcuts. Not the links variety, but what you get after right-clicking the executable icons and set the keyboard modifier shortcuts. For starting Reason I use CTRL+R anytime I want to invoke it.

    My most used software toolset –

    Reason
    Ableton
    Word
    IDAPro
    OllyDbg
    WinDbg
    Chrome/Tor
    Photoshop

    Virtualization (Vmware/Vbox) is another saver when it comes to productivity and space saving-

    I configured XP and Win7 systems with all my software set and preconfigured and with backup options in hardrives to just copy and paste my usual configurations when required.

    The images I use are for – Malware Research (XP/W7/Linux
    Web Browsing (Win7)

    Audio Production does not really go well on virtualized systems so I stick that on my real one. And does writing really need a virtualized system?

    So my setup is all streamlined and it gets all the work done for me consisting of not more than 6-8 essential tools.

    Keeping the plugins and settings file separate for immediate use and backup also saves the day. Keeping the set of plugins minimum to the most used and effective also keeps the config time small.

    Using portable software helps a lot as well.

    Working professionally in these disciplines means to maintain quality output over minimum amount of time alloted. Productivity is on max the whole time and certainly my Windows desktop shortcuts dont create a problem :)

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