Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Angela Horn of Mostly Mindful.
In 2008 I convinced my wife, Sporty, that we should sell 90% of our belongings. I gave a TEDx talk called: The less you own, the more you have. And I brag about how little we now own every chance I get. If there was a secret club for minimalists, I’d probably join it.
But recently I realized—or rather, finally admitted to myself—that while my outer world may accurately reflect my ‘less is more’ lifestyle, my online life paints a somewhat more cluttered picture.
The Weight of Clutter
Anyone who has ever spent time decluttering will attest to the light feeling that arrives almost immediately after cleaning out the garage, hall closet, kids’ toy room, or whatever. There’s a sense of freedom that comes from getting rid of the junk and tidying up. It’s like you can breathe again.
What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that all clutter weighs on you—even if it’s not taking up physical space. If your email inbox is a mess, it’s going to take up residence in the back of your mind until you do something about it.
The Many Forms of Digital Clutter
At least with physical stuff you have tangible reference points. You can no longer park your car in the garage, you risk life and limb every time you open the hall closet or you’re continually tripping over your kids’ toys. Digital clutter however, is both sneaky and insidious. The evidence is hidden on your laptop and various other devices, so nobody but you is privy to the mess.
In my first ever office job, we used floppy disks to store our work. Each disk had a sum total of 1.2 megabytes of space available. Our hard drives were also pathetically small, so we had no choice but to be discerning about what we saved. The advent of the Cloud means storage space is now infinite.
From your email inbox and photos to bookmarked websites, eBooks and newsletters, the extent to which you’re able to hoard in virtual space is scary.
Right, now that I’ve outed myself as a digital hoarder (and given away my age), let’s look at the different kinds of online clutter and what we can do to lighten the virtual load. (I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one with this problem?)
Emails are the new paper trail; they’re the evidence we need to prove we contacted that client, placed that order or deleted that account. But somehow we’ve lost the ability to discern what’s important and what’s not. It’s almost easier to just keep everything. You know, just in case.
The other morning, I received this email from a friend I haven’t seen in a long time.
Subject: Cleaning up the inbox.
The note was short and to the point: “I am doing an inbox clean up and wanted to check if this was still your address?”
Wow, I thought, how clever to do that at the beginning of the year. Then I glanced down and saw that she’d replied to an email I’d sent her in September of 2014! (She was working her way through 8000+ emails, I kid you not!)
I’m in no position to judge though. I still have emails from a client I haven’t worked with in more than two years. They’re all neatly filed in properly labeled folders, so of course I felt justified to just leave them there.
Note to self: Organizing is not the same as decluttering!
Action: Empty ‘trash’, delete all ‘sent items’ older than six months and get rid of all of those, umm, ‘organized’ emails.
Subscriptions (newsletters, RSS feeds, etc.)
I have an annoying habit of subscribing to every vaguely interesting blog I come across. Either they’re offering some cool freebie or I want to see what sort of content they share with their subscribers. But then the emails arrive and I ignore them.
I signed up for Feedly because I wanted a central place to read the latest posts of all the blogs I follow. But the problem with Feedly (or any other RSS feed) is that if you ignore it, it’ll quickly turn into the virtual equivalent of that deadly hall closet.
Action: Unsubscribe from any newsletter you ignore for more than two days. Schedule a reminder to log in at least once a week to see what’s going on in the blogosphere. Assess what you’re reading and what you’re not, and make the necessary changes. Make a point of not following more than five blogs at a time. Quality over quantity.
Downloadables (eBooks, PDFS, photos, misc. Files, etc.)
I haven’t looked at the gazillion photographs I have stored in Dropbox in years. A lot of people would argue that photos are important, a link to the past if you will. If you’re someone who actually looks at the photos you’ve taken, then it makes sense to keep them. That’s not me.
I love reading. I’m a grabby piglet when it comes to books. I still take books out at the library, but the majority of my reading happens online. There’s a problem with having instant access to millions of books though. Right now I have 151 books on my Kindle and I’ve read only 80 of them.
I also have a bunch of writing-related Word docs as well as PDFs and eBooks (remember the newsletters I signed up for?) on Google Drive and DropBox. Again, just in case.
Action: Delete all old photos. Read all unread books on your Kindle before you buy more. Read all PDFs, eBooks, etc. by the end of the month and then delete the lot. Sort writing documents into a system that makes sense. Delete anything old or half-baked.
Bookmarking (Save for later services)
I used to bookmark the old school way, but then I discovered Pocket. I added the Chrome extension, downloaded the app to my phone and immediately set about saving absolutely everything. Over the holidays I spent a couple of hours categorising the 100+ articles I’d pocketed. Seriously?
Action: Commit to reading any new articles saved within a week. Do a blanket clean out once a week so you can begin the new week with a clean slate (or in this case, an empty pocket).
Cloud storage is one area where Sporty beats me at hoarding.
(It’s not just me!)
She has two Dropbox accounts and two Google Drive accounts (one for business and one personal). She also has an iCloud account, two project management tools that give her the option to store files and finally, she has finance software that she uses to store invoices.
Granted, a lot of these are for work, but still. I see plenty of room here for amalgamation and simplification. Or maybe I’m just deflecting?
Action: Declutter my own digital space before pointing a finger at someone else’s.
There are plenty of opportunities out there for creating digital clutter. I’ve included the ones that I’m guilty of, but I’m sure there are plenty of others that I haven’t thought of. What about you, how cluttered is your digital life? What can you do to streamline your cyberspace?
Angela lives in Cape Town. She enjoys spending her time drinking coffee and writing about her urban hippie adventures on Mostly Mindful.