My sister Heather, a fourth-grade special education teacher, maintains a hyper-organized system on her work computer. All students have their own folders, labeled with their initials and neatly filed away. So pristine is Heather’s desktop that aside from a handful of icons, all that you see is her screen background — a shot of her current class, every smiling face clearly visible.
Her personal computer, however, is a different story. When I visited her home a few weeks ago, she showed me her desktop; it was teeming with pop-up reminders, mysteriously labeled files, photos and electronic sticky notes. The visual chaos reminded me of a scratch-off lottery card. “It stresses me out just to log on,” she said.
While digital clutter may not be physical, like the “doom piles” and junk drawers in your home, the anxiety and distress it induces is real, said Kerry Lakey, a lecturer in psychology at Northumbria University in England, who studies behavior around digital data. Just as clutter in your home can cause stress, erode productivity and have a negative effect on your sense of well-being, digital clutter, she said, can bring up similar feelings.
Yet data storage continues to expand, making it easy to become “cloud complacent,” which delays the urgency to purge even as discomfort grows. And many of us have been “socialized into saving documents to have a confirmation or a record of something,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A. Having hundreds of photos on your phone, he added, “is normal, accepted, expected.”
If you aren’t particularly bothered by electronic clutter, you probably don’t need to pare it down, though a purge can improve how your devices operate, said Alex Brzozowski, chief executive at Be Organizing, a San Diego-based company that specializes in digital decluttering.
But if mindless accumulation is making you twitch, then it may be time for a cleanup. And it’s worth noting that in rare cases people experience digital hoarding, which is not defined by a specific amount of digital clutter but by the emotions that it produces, Dr. Maidenberg said. “There’s a difference between a preference to save and an urge,” he explained. “When it becomes an urge, it means ‘I have to do it,’ and it’s a red flag.”
Many of us, however, fall somewhere between “inbox zero” and outright hoarding. How, then, to prune an overflowing email account, a phone that’s running out of photo storage, a desktop bursting with files? I consulted experts for their best tips.
Look at the data.
First, glance at the storage on your devices to see how many files, emails and photos you actually have (and how much free space remains). The figures may surprise you. Or horrify you. Or both.
In a 2019 study of digital hoarding in the workplace, Dr. Lakey and her colleagues had subjects look up the amount of data they had saved. Most, she told me, were stunned. “I was shocked myself when I looked at my email account after I started doing this research,” she said. Dr. Lakey had over 10,000 emails, none of which were important, “but I had kept them just in case I needed them in the future — which I never have. I thought, I need to delete this.”
Those ballooning figures, she said, can spur you to act. I assumed I had a few hundred emails saved on my computer; when I checked, it was nearly 2,000. Some were messages from my daughter’s preschool. She is 13.
If your phone, desktop and email are all competing for attention, Brzozowski suggested starting with whatever stresses you out the least.
Declutter in bursts.
Deleting files, apps and emails can be daunting, so do it in manageable spurts, said KC Davis, a therapist and author of the book “How to Keep House While Drowning.” “I recommend a short time span to digitally declutter every day, like five minutes, and small goals like unsubscribing to two marketing spam emails every day,” she said.
Start with a few easy purges that will motivate you to keep going, Brzozowski said. “Like screenshots on your phone or photos of sunsets,” she explained. “I ask clients, ‘Do you even remember where these sunset pictures were taken?’”
For me, the easiest place to start was with my list of bookmarked websites. Most formed a dispiriting museum of projects I never started and places I never visited.
Purge, then organize.
When decluttering your phone, you can start by pruning apps, putting the ones you use most frequently on your home screen, Brzozowski said. (This seemed like basic advice until I realized that my home screen was filled with apps I hadn’t used in years.) Two sneaky bits of phone clutter, she added, are unwanted apps that have been preinstalled, and podcasts that have been downloaded without your knowledge.
You can also expunge unwanted text messages, she said, and set your phone to delete old emails automatically rather than to archive them, which can eat up storage space.
On your desktop, you might start your deleting jamboree with the Downloads folder, which is often brimming with irrelevant PDF files, Brzozowski said. If you have a MacBook, the CleanMyMac app harvests and discards junk files and downloads and is available in both free and paid versions.
And, yes, even in the digital world, you can ask yourself if a file sparks joy, said Marie Kondo, author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and founder of KonMari Media. “A rule of thumb I follow is, if you haven’t opened a document in three or so years and reading the file doesn’t spark joy, then it is time to let go with gratitude,” she said.
After you’ve vanquished old files, Brzozowski said, create folders for the remaining ones in broad categories — car, medical, dog, house. (You can organize your inbox by category, too, Kondo added.)
Look for ways to delete in bulk.
When I tackled the 2,000 emails on my computer, I found it helpful to start with the oldest ones, which were especially outdated and redundant, and work my way to the present.
Another easy method of deleting emails, Brzozowski added, is to type a persistent notification into your search bar (in my case, Amazon) and hit “delete.” “That can make your numbers go down significantly right away, and you’ll immediately feel that relief,” she said.
If you are plagued by unwanted marketing emails, both Brzozowski and Davis recommended the free app, Unroll.me, to unsubscribe from email lists in bulk. (Or pay a kid to do it, Brzozowski suggested.)
Consider offloading photos.
When tidying digitally, added Kondo, “photos should be saved for last, as they are filled with life’s memories and can be more difficult to store away.” After deleting the stragglers, consider archiving them in a cloud storage space, she said.
Schedule time for upkeep.
Once you’ve gotten your digital clutter somewhat under control, schedule regular maintenance purges, said Kondo. She puts her inbox in order a few times a month, “which I find to be a therapeutic Sunday activity,” she said.
If you, like me, need a little prodding, try “temptation bundling,” in which you pair a less-pleasant task with something more enjoyable — say, folding your email cleanse into your Thursday-night TV binge. Last Sunday, I did some digital paring while waiting for cinnamon orange rolls to bake.
I’ve been funneling all these tips to my sister Heather, who has whittled down her emails from thousands to hundreds, and has streamlined her desktop over the last few weeks. “When I open my computer,” she told me, “I no longer feel like screaming.”
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