As a trend, decluttering has probably never been more popular. Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has been translated into 30 languages and even spawned a Netflix series. And Kondo is only one of the dozens of decluttering and minimalist gurus who have acquired new celebrity status.
While a life of rigid minimalism may feel too austere, most of us accept that having fewer possessions can help us be more organized while also freeing up mental energy.
The same can be said for our digital data.
Although they don’t take up much physical space, the hundreds of unread emails in our inboxes, the thousands of overlapping Word docs on our hard drives and the zillions of unorganized farm and family photos carry an emotional load.
We have to be able to find what we’re looking for when we need it, and to do that, it must be accessible, says Angela Crocker, author of Declutter Your Data — Take Charge of Your Data and Organize Your Digital Life. It isn’t always as easy as we could hope. Even if you do sort your files into some navigable system, if family photos or business files are saved in an out-of-date format, you may not be able to open them.
Crocker, a communications and technology specialist, wrote her step-by-step guide to tackling digital clutter after doing her own cleanup, and right up front, she warns that “a digital trip down memory lane can be emotionally charged.” Old photos may bring up sad memories; old arguments in emails may provoke feelings of anger. If this happens, Crocker advises seeking appropriate emotional support.
Next, Crocker suggests considering the full extent of your digital footprint. The photos, emails, and files you have on your computer may come readily to mind. However, Crocker says what many people don’t think of is the many online accounts they have such as shopping accounts, gaming sites, event ticket purchasing sites, and social media accounts.
Crocker explains that one of the potential problems with the many logins we’ve created for these various accounts is that many people have a bad habit of using the same password for multiple uses.
If one of these accounts gets hacked, the hacker can now try that password for other accounts.
Crocker warns that doing a digital cleanup can be a big job. She spent three years decluttering her own data so she emphasizes the importance of setting priorities. Is it cleaning out old emails? Is it organizing the family photos and deleting unwanted multiple copies? Is it archiving financial records?
Although most digital clutter is out of sight on hard drives and storages, there is a physical component to tech clutter. Crocker suggests rounding up all of your digital devices and tech paraphernalia in one place.
Most of us also have enough old cables, phones, tablets, laptops and floppy disks stashed in drawers and cupboards to fill a large box, she says. Determine what is still useful and whether any old phones or tablets could be refurbished. Recycle what no longer has usefulness.
While there is no doubt that smartphones and apps can make our lives much easier, without some thought around how we use this technology, it can also ramp up our stress levels.
Crocker has several tips for how to manage our devices for optimum benefit.
1. Manage your email inbox
The topic Crocker gets asked about most often is email. Her advice is to revisit how you use email. Think twice before using the “cc” and “reply all” functions. “This is an inbox nightmare,” she says. “Ask yourself if you really need to copy it to five people.”
There are better tools such as Slack and Facebook Messenger Group Chats for having group conversations.
Avoid contacting people via multiple channels such as voice mail, text, email, and Facebook Messenger, which creates more digital clutter.
If your inbox is too full, Crocker suggests you declare email bankruptcy. Either delete the emails or move them to an archive if you are not comfortable deleting the emails, she says. Put a system in place to keep up with new emails.
Be systematic about how you deal with your email. Read and delete, or read and move to a folder where you can search it at a later date, or read and move it to a to-do list, calendar or journal.
When you receive an email, acknowledge that you’ve received it so the sender isn’t left wondering and then wasting time sending a followup email.
Don’t read email unless you actually have time to deal with it, emphasizes Crocker, who also finds it useful to get into the practice of reviewing your email once a week to ensure you haven’t missed something. All of us can think of times when we wish we had done such a check.
2. Have dedicated devices
Technology has blurred the lines between work and relaxation. It can be difficult to get away from work-related text messages and emails, and as a result we don’t get a much-needed break. Setting boundaries on our tech can help.
One way to set boundaries is to use different devices for different activities. Crocker uses her smartphone for calls, emails and texts, her tablet for videos, e-books and podcasts, and her laptop for work.
It’s a strategy that works for her. When she is watching Netflix on her tablet, she can relax and not be interrupted by a stressful message.
Likewise, when she is on her laptop, she automatically shifts into work mode and isn’t distracted by messages, social media, etc.
3. Go on an app diet
There are thousands of apps available, many for free. It can be tempting to load our smartphones with too many apps. Crocker’s advice is to go on an app diet and keep only the ones you use on your phone. If you’re trying out a new app and don’t find it useful, she recommends deleting it.
“You can always re-install it if you miss it,” she says.
Another plus is that older smartphones will run faster when not bogged down with too many apps.
4. Just say no
Every time we are interrupted by a notification that we have received an email, text message, or get tagged on Facebook, it interrupts our train of thought and reduces our productivity.
Crocker recommends turning off unnecessary notifications and checking for messages three or four times a day instead. This reduces stress and protects our time and energy for tasks requiring deep concentration.
5. Take a digital vacation
While FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps many people glued to their social media feeds, Crocker says JOMO (joy of missing out) will actually create the necessary mental space to problem solve, day dream and ponder next steps.
6. Back up your data
It’s essential to back up your data and bring it forward with new storage technology and formats, says Crocker. Cloud storage like Google Drive can be used for data that isn’t sensitive.
7. Analog still has a place
Crocker is not one of those tech pundits who thinks we must do everything digitally. Once again, she emphasizes the importance of finding a system that works for you. Crocker still likes to play with pen and paper when she wants to unleash her creativity and likes print books so she can write notes in the margins, noting that reading print books gives her eyes a rest from screens.
The goal is to make conscious choices around how we integrate technology into our lives, says Crocker.
“It’s a personal journey,” she says. “There’s no right or wrong.”
Declutter Your Data — Take Charge of Your Data and Organize Your Digital Life by Angela Crocker
(Self-Counsel Press, 2018)