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Why You Need to Get Rid of the Digital Crap that Weighs You Down

in Joan's Posts, Rants

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:

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!

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Monja February 21, 2013 at 9:38 AM

Joan,
Your post just comes in time. Just this morning I looked at my download folder and felt definitely overwhelmed by all its content I saved for “later”. At this point it felt as if I could have done whatever but would never get through the folder and all the tasks associated with it. In the end I quit and all the junk is still there. Looks like I have to clean up not just my home but also my computer. Thanks for the article!

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Monja, I hear you – it can be VERY overwhelming, especially because there are almost an infinite number of spaces for things to pile up!

But you can do it – and I hope you’ll break it into chunks and tackle it a little at a time, and let me know how it goes!

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Sapna February 21, 2013 at 9:47 AM

HI Joan,

As a programmer I have always felt that there are certain programs which I need to keep and for the last 10 yrs I have been keeping the backup of the backups of the backup so on and so forth. With the technology changing so rapidy I really don’t know whether I will be using those or whether they will be really helpful hmmmm….

I think I need to delete all the unwarranted data of so many yrs.

Thanks for the share

Sapna

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 12:03 PM

Sapna, I can understand that! I usually keep ONE backup of most things, but I admit there are one or two things I have double backups of. What I try to do is remember to get rid of two backups ago when I make a new one, but even that is hard to keep up with.

But you can do it – and you will more easily be able to find the best one when you do!

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Joe@Igotouttadebt.com February 21, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Great Post! As a digital hoarder “I may want to listen to that again… someday….” with the ease of just buying a 1TB external drive to avoid pruning my stuff, this one hits home.

Now just the baby-steps needed to clean some of this stuff up :)

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 12:04 PM

I think that is half the problem – it is AMAZINGLY easy to pile this stuff up. Much more so than it is to fill up your house. Most of us have probably filled the equivalent of five houses worth of stuff in the digital sense!!

So you’re not alone – and I know you can come up with a plan in doable chunks to tackle this! Keep us posted on how it goes!

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Bert Botta February 21, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Hey Joan, just after I read your post on getting rid of digital clutter and was shaking my head, “Yes” in agreement, I looked down at the next email in my inbox and it was from Evernote, telling me how to “Save anything from the Web with our Web Clipper!!”

How’s that for reinforcing the need to follow your advice.

It’s a strange and wonderful world we have created for ourselves.

I think I’ll save your email so I can read it again later….

Thanks for the reminder to “get rid of our crap…”

Bert

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 12:05 PM

Bert, I LITERALLY laughed out loud. I guess I owe Evernote a note of thanks for their good timing, as I am sure many of our readers are on both lists!!

Oh, the irony… or the pain… And yes, please file my emails, all of them! Or, uh, don’t… ;-)

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Amy Hagerup February 21, 2013 at 12:04 PM

I know I need to get off of certain people’s “lists” because their webinars are so tempting for me s0 that I am in a perpetual learning mode rather than implementing mode. Thanks for the encouragement today to do it!

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 12:05 PM

Amy, that’s a great example of something that takes up your mental energy as well as fills your inbox!! I hope you keep the ones that truly add value and encourage you to action and can prune the rest – let us know how it goes!

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Gerri February 21, 2013 at 12:41 PM

Oh Joan what a timely post! All the stuff I save for later, because it might “just” be useful, but later never comes! So this afternoon I took action – Used the delete button like never before – and it feels great!

Many thanks for your encouragement

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 2:50 PM

Gerri, WHOA!! Good for you and your new best friend the delete button!! :) You rock!

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Caroline Kipps February 21, 2013 at 12:41 PM

I so, so agree with this. I am older — 47 — so maybe not growing up with all the digital gear and learning to pass things on has helped me, but I am diligent about cleaning up — house, email, telephone. Bottom line? I treasure and value my relationships with people so much more than any other stuff, however defined, that this is where I devote my time.

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Caroline, that’s EXCELLENT – and you have nailed it, knowing what you DO value makes it so much easier to keep things from piling up outside that, whether digitally or otherwise!

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Leah February 21, 2013 at 2:56 PM

I get itchy when I don’t clean out my email too. I do not like a jam packed in box. I keep folders for to do now, to do in a week, etc. I think clearing out folders on the desktop and in the email feels pretty good too! And decluttering the bookmarks and photos, etc. It’s just as liberating as decluttering physical stuff! Nice post!

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 7:16 PM

Leah, I very much agree with you that I feel the same sense of accomplishment clearing out extra photos, bookmarks, emails, etc. It is a great feeling!

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Ed February 21, 2013 at 4:15 PM

This post is great timing for me! I need to do just that, thanx!

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 7:27 PM

Ed, glad to help – and hope you’ll check in and let us know how it goes!

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Rebecca February 21, 2013 at 4:33 PM

Yup still have some of those ah hem floppies that you pictured above but, I have been getting rid of them (even though my husband the pack rat wants to hang on to them). As for most of my other digital clutter. My MP3′s have been put onto my mp3 player and are mostly off of my computer and not backed up either so if my mp3 player meets a tragic end then so do the songs.
My pictures are still on my computer but, they are baby and wedding pictures along with now toddler pictures. My phone still has my pictures as well but, I have a memory card and do not plan on filling it up all the way since it would take me years to do that.

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 7:30 PM

Rebecca, there’s definitely a difference between not having digital clutter and having no backups – I would DEFINITELY recommend you have backups of things that are important! Memory cards and phones are some of the hardest places to keep photos, though, just because of how often they fail or are corrupted. So I’d definitely encourage you to find a way to pull them off of there at the very least!

You rock for knowing where things are, by the way – that’s a step ahead of many people!

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Ivan February 21, 2013 at 4:38 PM

Joan,

I can totally relate to being an inbox zero fiend! I’m the only one I know who does that. Some people actually think I’m weird for doing so. Not surprisingly, these are the same people who have thousands of messages in their inboxes.

It’s nice to know we are not alone. =)

Digital hoarding is the worst for me when it comes to movies and music. I keep telling myself “I may want to re-watch / re-listen to this someday”. Of course, I don’t and I wonder why I have to keep buying new hard-drives.

One of the strategies I find that works against digital hoarding is this: create a folder on your computer desktop and move all old files into it. Then label said folder with an expiration date a year from now. Don’t touch it until the expiration date. At which point, just delete the whole thing.

DO NOT check what’s inside the folder at ANY TIME. If you hadn’t need the files all this time, chances are you’ve probably completely forgotten about them. So you’re not missing much.

A nice side benefit to this? A few hundreds bucks saved and one less hard-drive to clutter your room.

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 7:28 PM

Ivan, great idea! I’ve heard the same for emails (drop them all into a folder, and only pull out stuff if you actually use it in that year/six months/whatever time frame). Excellent security and also a good tangible reminder of how little of this stuff we actually use!

Thanks for being part of the Inbox Zero Club with me!

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Ivan February 25, 2013 at 12:49 AM

Joan,

I thought you may enjoy this article from Leo and his “10 Essential Email Habits”…

http://zenhabits.net/e/

I’m a big fan of batch processing my email so I only have to check it once or twice a day. This also forces me to be effective and efficient with my messages. No email chats. Just get your point across.

After all, the best way to avoid email clutter is to not create (or invite) it in the first place.

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Dona Collins February 21, 2013 at 9:29 PM

I have so much *junk* saved for another day; old projects saved in case I have to recreate something; files I hope to one day get to. I should definitely clean out, but I’m afraid I’ll accidentally delete the one file I need later on. I think I have a problem!

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Joan February 21, 2013 at 10:02 PM

Dona, I hear you! That is everyone’s biggest fear, I think – what if I delete that thing that I will actually need!

The question is, what are you losing out on in place of that? And what is the worst thing that would happen if you DID need something you no longer had? I figure if you can get a birth certificate or social security card or car title reissued if you lose it, there can’t be much on your computer that you can’t find a way to get again if needed, right? (Or at least, that’s how I convince myself it’s OK to let it go!)

Good luck – you CAN tackle it, I know!!

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KC @ genxfinance February 22, 2013 at 6:22 AM

Just like the rest of the folks here, I can totally relate. Important emails from 2-3 years ago are still in my inbox. I still keep some files in my external hard drives of photos taken years ago.. Wow, I really need to declutter too.

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 10:52 PM

KC, I hope you’ll take some action this week and keep us posted on how it goes! :)

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Martha February 22, 2013 at 2:29 PM

I’m like you – If my inbox is jam packed I find that I can’t find anything… I forget things I need to do, and I just can’t work that way. The same as I can’t work if my desk is piled high with papers, or my kitchen counter is cluttered with stuff. I need a clear space to work, so I move the essential stuff I need to save into folders, delete anything I’ve finished with and every so often I go into those folders and delete old stuff.

In the past few weeks, I’ve also started trying to deal with keeping stuff out of my inbox to begin with. I’ve started unsubscribing from alot of emails (now why do I need to get “this week’s sales” from every store I’ve ever shopped in?), removing myself from online groups that really aren’t all that important to me and stopped following those blogs that I never really find the time to read anyway (not Man vs Debt, of course!).

Those are really all distractions, they take time and energy which could be better used elsewhere.

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 10:56 PM

Martha, that’s such a great point – if you can keep the stuff from coming in in the first place, you can much easier keep control of what’s left!

Good for you for having a great system in place! That rocks!

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Pam February 22, 2013 at 9:42 PM

I have the same problem. I end up with a bunch of old emails that just clutter up my inbox. Then I create folders for some of them but fail to clean those up and delete empty ones. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the clutter and it really does feel good when I take the time to remove it. Thanks for writing the article as it’s good motivation to get at simplifying my life at least in a small way.

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 10:58 PM

Pam, thanks for the kind words – I think you’ll find that making these small changes will really add up to a big difference; as you said, it feels so good when you go through and clear out.

Keep us posted on how it’s going!

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Scott McKenzie February 23, 2013 at 7:36 AM

Inbox Zero is a reality when you combine a gmail account with Gqueues. This makes for a digital version of Getting Things Done (GTD) which is the final word in prioritising everything (and I mean everything) you have to do in your life – personal, work, family etc etc. Everything in your life has a relative priority to everything else so you’d better have a system where you can arrange it all in priority. And that system has to be comprehensive so nothing is left to you remembering it. Gqueues combined with gmail is that system.

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 11:43 PM

Scott, I’ve seen that and have some friends who use it as well. I admit I’m pretty partial to my task-management system (which mostly consists of paper lists – gasp!) but ties in Trello for collaborative projects. That said, I have some freelance clients who I’ve recommended Gqueues for, because they were just not “getting things done” in the non-official sense! :)

I’m so glad you have such a well-thought-out digital system!

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Linda February 23, 2013 at 9:37 AM

Timely for me, this advice. It’s taken me around ten years to reduce my physical possessions to a level at which I feel comforable. I just hope it is quicker with my digital clutter!…..meanwhile I will add this post to my zillion bookmarks, you know, in case I need to refer to it in the future :=)

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 11:05 PM

Linda, I’m going to pretend you said “My neatly sorted list of less than 40 bookmarks.” I know that’s what you said. :)

And it’ll come with time – it didn’t build up overnight either!

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Mike February 23, 2013 at 2:56 PM

This post was inadvertently funny to me because I was just thinking about this moments before I visited your site! I have a Drobo that is filled with terabytes of stuff– pictures, videos, work files, random things, etc.– and it is so daunting to even try to wade through it. Plus I’m afraid that I’ll erase something important, like a home movie. So, it all sits there, backed up on my Drobo, and I hope that I’ll have time someday to work through it all!

Maybe these tips will motivate me to suck it up and begin to work through my files!

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 10:59 PM

Mike, I hope so – and I hope you’ll check in and let us know how it’s going! I know the daunting feeling… but I also know it’ll go faster than you think it will once you get some momentum.

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Pauline February 23, 2013 at 9:48 PM

Interesting. But I think I failed as I emailed it to myself to read again later!!!

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Joan February 23, 2013 at 10:58 PM

Pauline, I forgive you. Um, mostly. :)

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Matt February 24, 2013 at 12:32 PM

I somewhat agree, and somewhat don’t. I agree with getting rid of physical stuff for sure (my house might not reflect that now, but it’s a work in progress). Where I don’t agree is stuff like emails. I’ve had Gmail for about 9-10 years now, and there have been tons of times I’ve found myself going back multiple years for that address (email or physical), phone number, place name, etc. For your resume example – I also have looked at my old resumes, because some employers want a ridiculous amount of employment history information for background checks etc. Also, I’ve found myself applying to jobs where some bit of experience from 8 years ago was actually relevant – and it was nice to have a blurb already written up about that. So… I’m very glad I’ve kept some of my “clutter” around. Now this doesn’t mean I save EVERY email, text, document, etc. I try to delete as many emails as possible after I’ve read them (advertisements, news, minimal-content conversations from people I know) – only save those that I think I might reasonably need. But I do see value in keeping a lot of things digitally, even those you might not think at the time could be handy later.

I have worked with people who delete pretty much everything… and in my experience, what happens is that inevitably I get an email 4 months later saying, “Did anyone happen to keep that email about X?” At which point I find it and send it to them…

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 12:31 AM

I think I agree with the stuff you’re keeping, Matt – I just have a different way of keeping it. I have ONE resume – with everything I could possibly need in it – and when I need to send a shorter version to someone, I do, but I keep a single document. (Usually I’ll keep the specific copy I sent until that position or job is dealt with, just so I know what info they have) – but I don’t have a 2007 version, a 2008 version, a 2009 version, etc. The same with contact info. I absolutely save it – in my contacts, where half that information already is, especially if you haven’t turned off the auto-add setting in Gmail. I only manually add contacts, but I am fastidious about putting the info there.

So I guess you could say it doesn’t matter where it is, but to me, then I’m not using email for something it’s not meant for, which is contact storage. I’m using contact storage for that.

And, for what it’s worth, while people joke about that “did you keep the email about X,” in my 13 years working full-time at our newspaper (an organization WELL-known for overkeepage), I think I had to ask 3 times if someone else had something I should’ve kept. I still work there part-time, and in 13 years, my entire inbox with labels in Gmail has 52 messages at this point. That’s probably WAY more drastic than most people would do, but it works, and again, it’s not that I don’t keep information – but I don’t keep it in my email, which is not, in my way of working, a filing cabinet or a how-to manual. We have staff wikis with instructions, etc., and so anything like “how to” do something goes there where everyone can use it rather than being stored 50 times in individual emails!

Again, I think the point is to keep what you need to keep – and if you’re analyzing and making decisions, that’s great! It just has to work for you and your team!

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Jenny March 17, 2013 at 8:10 AM

Joan, this one really hit home for me. I won’t go into full details here, but I will say a few things:

Yes, it’s hoarding – but I imported all of my old hotmail emails to gmail before closing my hotmail account; and to my Mac Mail client. And you know what? I’m glad I did. Because two weeks ago, I stumbled upon an email from my father I had completely forgotten about – an encouraging word. My father died over five years ago. Actually – I also had a friend copy my Dad’s hard drive onto THIS laptop – so we could salvage pictures. Yes, it’s hoarding. No, I haven’t sorted through it. Sure, it’s a security blanket. But in this case – I’m glad of it.

Honestly I believe much of our need to cling to things stems from grief and fear. And we need to work through those things. But if at the end of the day, we feel a little relief, instead of overwhelmed, then maybe that part isn’t so bad.

It is the portions that overwhelm us that are harmful.

This is a big reason I refuse to own a tablet, or a smart phone – my laptop, cameras and external hard drives are enough to keep track of. The browser tabs – oh my goodness that hit home.

Honestly at the end of the day; I don’t think there’s a big difference between physical and digital clutter – except that perhaps we’re more permissive of the digital than the physical – at the end of the day – it’s still about what we aren’t letting go of.

Case in point – this email sat in my inbox unread until just now.

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Joan April 4, 2013 at 5:09 PM

Jenny, I JUST saw this comment – and wow. I am glad you read this post when you did, and glad that you found that email from your dad. If my dad had been alive when there was email, I wouldn’t have traded one from him for all the “organization” in the world.

You’re exactly right, too. You have to know the limit of when you’re overwhelmed, when you have to say, “OK, that’s it, here’s where I draw the line!”

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