Digital clutter, just like physical clutter, can make life more complicated and stressful. Whether it’s a desktop that feels more like a junk drawer, a phone full of rarely used apps, or an email inbox you’ll never see the bottom of, digital disorganization doesn’t just slow your computer down—it slows you down.
Clutter is linked to stress and distraction, and it becomes easy to trade physical clutter for digital clutter when your gadgets are overloaded with things you don’t need. Think about it: Spending a large portion of the day staring down a virtual stack of unread emails and unfiled documents or toggling between Internet tabs with chat windows pinging can be just a frustrating and time-consuming as sifting through a jam-packed closet.
What’s in your space (and on your screen) reflects what’s in your head—and clearing it out can have a big impact on your focus and stress levels. These guidelines will help you streamline your virtual life, once and for all:
1. If you don’t use it, lose it.
Unlike “real” stuff, there’s virtually no limit on the amount of digital stuff, and therefore clutter, you can accumulate. Just as fear drives us to hang onto things we don’t need, deleting documents can feel frighteningly permanent—after all, you never know when you might need them, so it feels easier to save. This might be true for items like tax files (which should be retained for seven years) and medical records (which you should keep indefinitely). Beyond that, though, do the six-month check: Have you referred to the document in the past six months? If not and it pertains to work, file it in the cloud or on an external backup drive, and then delete it on your hard drive. If not and if it pertains to a personal project—say, an old newsletter from your child’s school—delete it. The same is true for apps on your phone and old emails, too. You don’t save clothes that don’t fit, so you shouldn’t save files that no longer fit your life, either.
2. Separate work and home.
Maintain your work files on your work computer, and retain your personal items exclusively on a home laptop. Email files to yourself if necessary, for saving on the appropriate device during down time. Not only does this keep tasks compartmentalized, it also keeps workplace stress from trickling into your home life.
3. Get your inbox under control.
Experts often recommend tackling emails at the beginning and end of the day to start and end with a fresh slate. That’s great, except when your email is rife with almost-spam: sale messages from stores you shop at occasionally, subscription offers, bank reminders, etc. Create an email account devoted solely to messages that you might want to see but don’t need to check or respond to daily.
Then, develop a plan to deal with incoming emails you do need to check and respond to: Every week, take a few minutes to clean up your inbox. It’s best to do this around the same time each week. Categorize emails by action, such as “to-do,” “follow up,” and “flagged for future reference” and spend some time each day making your way through these lists. You’ll reduce stress while staying more focused and up-to-date.
4. Slim down your social feeds.
Go through your social media accounts and phone and cull your contact lists. Decide which matter based on three buckets: career, hobbies, and friends. Bucket the accounts that you need for work—say, from news media or businesses that you rely on to stay current in your field. Lump pages that apply to your down time, whether it’s home design or skiing, into another bucket. Finally, put your friends into another list. Unsubscribe, delete, or unfollow the rest.
5. (Don’t) keep tabs.
Instead of keeping multiple tabs open on your browser—which makes your computer sluggish and simply feels overwhelming to look at—delete them. Then, use bookmark folders for important sites: regularly visited media, articles to read later, important industry websites, personal vendors, banking information, and so on. Determine the categories that work for you, and make a 10-minute date with yourself at the end of every week (set a reminder, if you need to) for organizing them and clearing your Internet cache.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist who writes about food, health, well-being, and lifestyle for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Women’s Health, and AARP’s Life Reimagined. She’s also the author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know” (Random House). Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin