These days, many of us operate in parallel with a digital “self.” Be it through avatars, productivity apps, fitness trackers, entertainment systems, or other gadgetry, we each maintain our own little digital microcosm.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us can get tripped up with so many platforms and devices. In fact, according to a survey by Summit Hosting, the average American has about 83 bookmarked websites, 7 tabs or browsers open, 582 saved cellphone photos, and 13 unused apps!
Cue digital decluttering, an exercise for those of us who want to ask ourselves: how am I relating to my technology?
While the answer may seem self-explanatory, you can easily clutter up your browser with the myriad different recommendations for to declutter and/or achieve digital minimalism. The basic idea, however, is that digital decluttering—like other kinds of decluttering—allows us the opportunity to clean up our lives, re-evaluate our habits, and achieve greater focus.
Here are three “modes” for pursuing that opportunity.
Casual Declutter Mode: Spring Cleaning
First, let’s take a look at the simplest kind of digital decluttering. As Natalia Kudryavtseva of CCM put it, this is basically taking the Marie Kondo principle of discarding possessions that don’t spark joy and applying it to your technology. The process may include:
- Deleting old accounts
- Deleting unnecessary software
- Unsubscribing from newsletters
- Uninstalling unnecessary browser extensions
- Deleting unnecessary phone apps
- Updating software on your computer and other smart devices
But what if you want to take this up a notch?
Well, the easiest next step would be to insert some self-reflection into the activity. Ask yourself:
- What is your ideal relationship to your computer and other devices?
- What is getting in the way of that relationship?
- What is absolutely necessary about your digital setup and what aspects could you do without?
For example, are there any newsletters, social media, or gaming platforms that you know aren’t doing you any favors?
To sum it up, the writer and content strategist Elaine Meyer suggests we think of digital decluttering as a kind of life audit:
A digital declutter is an audit of one’s entire digital life, followed by removing or reorganizing everything into a simpler, more secure, and more backed up system.
She continues on to say that being patient with yourself is important during this process. When it comes to learning how to declutter our digital lives, success isn’t all about freeing up a couple gigabytes of space: it’s also about having a philosophy and structure guiding your digital “reset.”
Serious Declutter Mode: Deep Clean
Keeping Meyer’s advice in mind, let’s see what a more in-depth list of digital cleaning would look like. Consider this:
- Before you do anything else, back up your data to a hard drive or a Cloud syncing service.
- Decide on a file naming convention so all your files and folders have a standardized format and can be located easily.
- Work your way through your computer’s various folders, starting with your computer’s Desktop and Downloads folders. (In Meyer’s words: “Saving files to your computer’s desktop is the equivalent of scattering a pile of papers over your physical desk, making it harder to find what you need when you need it. Move files off the desktop to a folder or delete them. Motivate yourself to keep your desktop clean by adding a cool wallpaper, like a photo of a place you love or family or friends.”)
- Organize your photos into albums.
- Whether it’s your own music or a streaming service, organize music into playlists.
- Move files off of your smart devices and onto your main computer or central hard drive.
- Organize your passwords using a password manager service (it will use a master password, which many people recommend writing down on a physical piece of paper for your records).
- Scale your apps down to ensure that each app you have serves only one purpose (Meyer: “The average number of apps used per business increased by 43% in the last four years alone, according to a report by Okta. At the same time, people have a glut of apps. On computers at least 30% of apps installed were never used, according to a study by Kaspersky.”)
Note that some apps are better than others. Consider checking out these, which are all recommended by Sarah Mueller of the Decluttering School:
- Pomodoro (for helping set self-imposed limits on your doomscrolling and other digital time-wasters)
- Evernote (for organizing and maintaining a personal journal, notebook, todo list, and/or reminders)
- Google Drive (for free and easy Cloud storage)
- Asana (for multi-user project management with step-by-step planning and helpful milestones)
Once you make it through the list above, you can congratulate yourself on a successful digital declutter! Unless, of course, you want to take the exercise even deeper…
Intense Declutter Mode: Digital Minimalism
Taking digital decluttering seriously warrants taking a look at what professor of computer science Cal Newport has termed “digital minimalism.” Less a tactic and more an attitude, Newport defines digital minimalism as a “philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
What this means is that the intention behind our technology use is far more important than the actual habits themselves. It’s where we all should start if we really want to shift our digital lives. As Edisana Stephen of Reader’s Digest puts it:
Digital minimalists transform technology from a source of distraction into instruments to support a life well lived by working backwards from their inner values to their technology choices.
To become a digital minimalist, Newport suggests a more involved but more rewarding digital declutter process. To begin, take 30 days to detox from all “optional” technologies in your life. These should be any and all platforms and devices that don’t have any direct connection to your job, living arrangement, or other life necessities.
From here, spend those 30 days finding new hobbies, habits, and interests! The idea here is to substitute the time you would be on your phone or computer with other activities, like going to the gym or just getting some unstructured play time in.
After those 30 days pass, it’s time to re-evaluate. Take inventory of all the technologies you cut out and ask yourself which ones are providing you value, in what way, and how you will specifically reincorporate them in order to maintain that value. In Edisana Stephen’s words:
This lifestyle experiment, much like decluttering your home, provides a digital reset by removing distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviors, optimized in true minimalist fashion to support rather than subvert your values.
P.S. — If you’re curious to learn more about digital organization, digital minimalism, the attention economy, and how to stay sane in our high-tech world, consider checking out:
- Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
- Jenny O’Dell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
- Syend Brinkmann’s The Joy of Missing Out: The Art of Self-Restraint in the Age of Excess
By Gabe Kahan for Mission to Learn