A computer screen with green images of data streaming

Digital decluttering basics

If your devices have turned into black holes that suck information into the depths of their operating systems, it may be time to do some decluttering and reorganizing.

Digital clutter is the worst kind. Bits and bytes of data hide in folders and refuse to come into the light. Storage fills up - but why? Do you really have so many files that your fancy-pants computer can’t maintain them all? 

Are you hoarding information, assigning the same importance to family newsletters you wrote in the ‘90s and last year’s tax returns?

I won’t lie, getting this space cleared out and tidied up is not a quick task. But it can be done! And much of it can be done while you’re also watching The Great British Baking Show. I.e., only some of this requires a lot of brainpower.

Here’s what you need to do:

Create (or refine) your filing system

Ideally, this looks exactly like your paper filing strategy. (Don’t have one of those? It’s time to start!)

This means that finances will be in one place, and recipes in another. I recommend starting with big buckets (family, house, money, education, etc.) and creating subfolders as necessary. 

The number of folders or categories is up to you, but if you find you’ve got lots of nested folders with only one or two documents in them you’re probably getting way too detailed. Better to have too much in a folder than too little. Logic will determine when it’s time to separate.

Empty your downloads folder

Let me tell you a tale of a massive folder with every kind of file inside, lacking any and all organization. That, my friend, was my downloads folder mere months ago. 

I don’t know if it was laziness or lack of interest that allowed me to download hundreds of files and just abandon them in that musty digital warehouse, but there they sat.

It took a while to sort through them, but I was able to delete a huge proportion of what was in there and file the things that were worth holding on to. This is a temporary space, not a home. Treat it accordingly. 

This brings us to:

Purge

I know, I know, this can be hard. But digital hoarding isn’t helping you. In fact, it’s increasing your carbon footprint, and I know you don’t want that.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when sorting through files:

  1. Is this available somewhere else? For example, I create a lot of images in Canva for use on my website. I don’t need them on my laptop because they live on Canva’s site, up in the cloud. 

For those few that I use repeatedly, like my logo, I’ve got a folder on my desktop. All the others get trashed, because someone else is kindly storing them for me.

2. Is this a duplicate or almost a duplicate? Hugely useful for photos! But also for documents. Do you have many versions of the same thing? Would one suffice? Are you keeping drafts? 

I used to work in an office with an enormous shared drive. My team’s section was rife with files labeled “Final draft” and “Final final” and “Use this one”. We had so many versions of each thing that it was hard to know which one was accurate or up to date.

Sometimes it’s useful to have an archive, but more often than not you can keep the current draft and let the others go

3. Am I keeping this merely out of nostalgia? 

Do you have all the newsletters you wrote in the 2000’s? Bless your heart. But don’t do that.

It’s time to let go of the past. You don’t have to own a copy of something to know that you put your blood, sweat and tears into it. If there’s a document you’re never going to refer to again, do yourself a favor and move it to the trash.

Photos

*Sigh* I could talk about this for hours. This really belongs in the PURGE section, but photo collections are their own kind of hell. Follow the steps listed above and for heaven’s sake start with screenshots!

Deal with your inbox

I’m not going to suggest you get down to inbox zero, unless that’s a goal that’s meaningful to you. But please let go of the junk that’s clogging up your mailbox. It’s using power that could be more usefully directed elsewhere. It’s eating up storage on your device. And it’s just generally a bad habit!

Unsubscribing from newsletters and mailing lists is a great start. The less that comes in, the less you have to worry about. 

I think a lot of people are holding on to a bunch of email because they think they’re going to get back to it at some point. Such a lovely sentiment! But seriously unlikely. 

Digital decluttering starts and ends with getting real with yourself. What’s the likelihood that you’re ever going to look at that flier from Zappos again? Or get back to your favorite knitter’s blog post? 

The vast majority of email is about something that’s happening immediately. If there’s a sale, you have a day or two to take advantage. If that email slides down into the pit of the unread, you’ve lost out. Ditto news articles - that event is way past relevant in about 10 hours.

Try this: every time you open your email, delete 25 items you don’t need and find one mailing list from which to unsubscribe. Deleting things as soon as you’re done reading them is a great habit to get into.

Bookmarks

There are so many helpful and interesting websites! And you want to remember them all! But if you’re hitting that little star unceasingly it’s likely that you’ve got a huge list of links that’s not very useful.

Here’s the best way to keep up with your bookmarks:

  1. Use folders! They exist for a reason. Pro tip: use the same filing system for your bookmarks that you use for your documents. Consistency across platforms makes it way easier to remember where to find things.
  2. Go through them occasionally. The truth is, keeping your digital clutter managed takes diligence. If you set aside a little time every few months, you can get through this task pretty quickly while you’re watching your favorite junk tv. 

It turns out we think a lot of things are interesting, we bookmark them, and then we never visit again. If nothing else, running through the list will remind you to check out some of those things you found so fascinating!

Digital decluttering isn’t rocket science. It takes time, and often falls to the bottom of the to-do list. But you’re going to end up saving time (and money) by purging the excess and organizing the stuff that’s necessary. 

I recommend setting a timer for 20 minutes and getting as much done as possible before it dings. You may feel like this is a boring task, but do it anyway! Your future self will thank you.