In the offline world, I own too much stuff, and keep even more of it around. Long after these things are no longer serving me, I still lovingly store them and keep them out of guilt, fear, or obligation.
In the digital world, I don’t seem to have this problem. I find it easy to delete files and organize my virtual space, but I realize that this isn’t the case for most people. One of the most organized people I know has one of the “messiest” computers I’ve ever seen. Thousands of emails in her inbox. Files from the last ten projects stacked on the desktop.
Yet in real life, she has drawers, folders, whole rooms meticulously categorized and labeled. They stay perpetually neat as her computer becomes a virtual junk yard.
I was inspired to write this article by my recent foray into minimalism, and my aspirations to downsize my life and live more simply.
I read an article by the minimalists, where they recommended that you actually pack everything up in boxes; all of your possessions put away as if you’re going to move. You even put sheets covering your furniture. Then over the course of the next week, you unpack things only as you need them.
The exercise is supposed to show you how little of your stuff you actually need, and inspire you to be willing to get rid of it. More on this later.
Are you a digital hoarder?
In the wonderful book Clutter Busting, Brooks Palmer explains how the physical clutter in your real life carries real psychological weight. You can feel it when you’re in your home when you look at that shirt your grandmother bought you that you never wear, or that nice chair you got from your mother but don’t really have room for.
Just because your digital stuff doesn’t take up any real space doesn’t mean that this clutter is innocuous. On the contrary, your digital clutter is distracting you, causing your computer to slow down, and preventing you from getting things done that really matter.
The exercise described by the minimalists of packing everything up translates over to the digital world really well. And just like in real life, I think most people hold on to digital things long after those things are serving them.
In the rare times when my email or desktop does get out of control, I use a similar methodology.
Let’s give it a try:
Open your inbox.
Is there more than one page of messages? Honestly how often to do you go to page 2? How does it make you feel every time you see that you have more than one page of messages?
Are there messages older than 2 weeks? If they really needed you, they’d email you again.
It’s time to hit the reset button.
If you’re feeling adventurous, I encourage you to move all those extra things to your archive. But, if you’d like to take a more stepped approach:
- Create a new folder named “temp”
- Move the contents of your inbox into the temp folder.
- Take a deep breath and smile when you look at your inbox zero.
What about the messages you actually needed? Over the course of the next week, go into your temp folder and move items back to the inbox as necessary. After a week though, you should simply move all those messages to your archive, or the trash.
You can do the same kind of exercise on your desktop by moving all the files that are on it to a temporary folder. After a week, everything that’s left should be filed away or trashed.
[Note: For times when there is so much stuff you don’t even know how/where to being, I highly recommend checking out Productive Flourishing’s own Email Triage program.]
Creation from Destruction
By emptying your inbox, desktop, and other places of digital clutter, you free your resources up to write new messages, create new documents, find new music. There is almost always a net gain, not a net loss.
The process of decluttering your computer can be time consuming, and it can be emotionally painful. But once you’re done, there will be a new feeling of lightness you didn’t have before. You’ll be really happy you made the effort.