Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.
You know that we’re big fans at Man Vs. Debt of getting rid of the junk in your life. We talk about selling your crap and paying off your debt – two huge things that work together to get your finances and your physical space in order.
Lately, though, I’ve been talking to a lot of people whose physical stuff isn’t too much of a problem any more. Their money is starting to work FOR them instead of against them. But they’re daunted by something that is becoming a huge problem: Digital clutter.
What does digital clutter “look” like? It’s not invisible, contrary to popular belief.
- Your inbox has 2,542 unread messages and 12,253 total messages. Oh, and 87 labels or folders.
- Your memory card still has 2010′s Christmas photos on it – so for Christmas 2012, you just bought a new memory card. And you’ll get those old ones off the other card – as soon as you can decide whether you want to put them on the laptop or the external hard drive or your iPad. And don’t get me started on the photos on your phone…
- Your computer’s desktop has more files and folders than an office-supply store, and you’re not even sure what that program icon launches, but you don’t want to delete it in case it’s important.
- Your browser has so many tabs across the top that you can only see one letter of the tab title on each, so you gave up and opened another instance of your browser, or a different browser.
- Your phone has a row of unread notifications across the top – apps that need to be updated, messages from Facebook and Twitter that you haven’t read, text messages saved from three boyfriends ago, birthday reminders for your 837 closest “friends.”
- Your contacts list has 200 people listed approximately 3 times each – and rather than merge them, you’ve learned to tap the middle “Mom” to get her cell phone and the bottom one to email her.
Beware of digital storage sheds
One of the worst things about the 20th century, in my opinion, was the advent of self-storage. As Baker talks about in his TEDx talk, we have a multi-million-dollar industry that exists entirely to let people put the stuff they no longer want into a box so that they can fill their main living space with NEW stuff without actually getting rid of any stuff.
Then, when they get tired of that stuff, they can box it up somewhere else, for the low fee of $29.99 a month, and get NEW NEW stuff.
What scares me the most right now is that I’m seeing an entire business model spring up around the idea of “digital storage sheds.” I don’t mean that 4-terabyte external hard drives to back up all your files are a bad idea. I’m more upset about the need for these things:
- Browser extensions to help you organize dozens and dozens of tabs.
- User-interface design that helps you “minimize desktop clutter” by hiding your documents and applications out of sight but making it hard to remove anything.
- A service that will save ALL your text messages for you, called, I kid you not, Treasure My Text.
Don’t bring physical excuses into the digital world
I’m an inbox zero fiend. If I’m not cleared out by the end of the day – across all platforms – I get a little itchy. It’s OK, you can call me anal retentive or OCD. I don’t necessarily disagree.
But I’m at my most productive when I’m not barraged with information I don’t need. And whether, for you, that looks like inbox zero or inbox 500 (I have hives typing that, just so you know), the point isn’t the number, just like having 417 things total (or 50, or 100, or whatever) isn’t the point of being a minimalist. It’s about knowing what’s important.
So many people today are afraid to make choices. We keep stuff because we’re scared to say, “No, this really isn’t important.” We keep emails for the same reason. Deleting them seems so… final. So decisive. So certain.
So we label those emails. We don’t pull photos off memory cards. We don’t remove unused apps. We save floppy disks from the 1990s with emails on them we might want to print, even though we don’t have a computer that reads floppy disks. (Yes, those are my husband’s actual floppies in the photo in this post – saved for that very reason.)
And we use the same excuses in the digital world that we do in the “physical stuff” realm.
- “I might need that someday!”
- “I could use that again if I started doing such-and-such.”
- “It’s worth so much money, I can’t just get rid of it.”
- “But so-and-so gave that to me, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
- “That’s what I have to remember so-and-so by!”
- “I like it, I just don’t have a place to put it yet. But when I move…”
These excuses appear on shows like Hoarders, but they appear in the digital realm, too. You paid for that app, so you hate to delete it. You might need that email someday, or that 2007 copy of your resume, or those 8 photos where your great-uncle has his eyes closed. Your wife saves all the text messages you’ve sent her, so you hate to delete that “I love you” she sent you last night (or the six nights before that), because it might hurt her feelings.
We don’t know what our priorities are, so everything becomes “important” – and consequently, the truly valuable stuff is lost in the shuffle.
What to do about it
Believe it or not, this post isn’t about WHAT to do about your digital clutter. There are a ton of great resources out there that’ll walk you through tips and step-by-step ideas. My focus today is on opening your eyes.
I want you to do two things: Stop making excuses for your digital clutter, and take action to clear it out, in whatever form it takes.
That said, here are a few great resources to help you take those next steps:
- PCMag’s Get Organized series offers a lot of tips on how to reduce digital clutter (and not just for PC users).
- On Becoming Minimalist, Joshua Becker shares 25 areas of digital clutter to minimalize.
- A great Unclutterer article talks about how to clean up your digital clutter.
- The Minimalists’ Joshua Fields Millburn explains why digital clutter is different.
- Hitting the reset button on digital clutter gets super-simple thanks to a post on Productive Flourishing.
- Leo Babauta’s email zen post from 2007 is probably the most simple, revolutionary look at your inbox.
Technology doesn’t have to control you. Very much like money, it is simply a tool – one that you can and should control, not one that should rule you.
What excuses are you making for your digital clutter? Where do you most need to take action – or where have you been most successful at doing so?
Comment and tell us!