How-To simplify your digital life

by andrewodom on February 11, 2011 · 7 comments


I am all for decluttering. I don’t like a crowded kitchen, a crowded closet, or even a crowded desk. So why then would I want a crowded digital world? And because my laptop is both my office and my recreation, cleanliness is next to cyber-godliness.

It all made sense to me when my dear friend Naomi Seldin of the Simpler Living blog sent out a link on her Facebook. The link was from the New York Times and was an article called True Confessions of a Digital Hoarder by Jenna Wortham.

Her story begins,

“Walk into my apartment and you’d most likely be hard-pressed to find a book or dish towel out of place. This is, in part, because I live in a studio in New York but also the residual ripples of growing up the youngest of five girls, which ingrained in me an obsessive compulsive disdain for clutter.

My online life, however, tells a completely different story.”

I stopped reading there. I had to control my knee-jerk reaction to grab my external hard drive and begin backing up immediately before deleting anything that I felt was lingering. Between work files, sub-contracting files, and personal files, I have no less than 4 email addresses, 13 social networking profiles, 3 external hard drives, a cloud backup system, and a shoebox of burned DVDs. This is what I could think of right off though. I am sure there are more. As I continued to read her article I began comparing myself to the situation Ms. Wortham found herself in and I didn’t feel quite as bad.

I had only 2 unread emails at the time. Older readers may remember that I once suggested reading email only three times a day for a set period of time; just as you would another task like a smoke break or a trip to the coffee pot. Because I have adhered to this I have within my 4 email accounts some 38 folders (some of which has sub-folders), exclamation points for emails that are highly important or timely, highlighted titles for those that should never be deleted, and only 2 unanswered emails.

I read on.

“Twitter, Facebook and Formspring are clogged with a backlog of unanswered messages, at-replies and notes, all begging for a reply. At the current moment, the text-message inbox on my smartphone says I have 14 unread messages (and in my book, that’s a good day).”

I toggled my browser over to Facebook stopping only for my Flickr account. Nope. No unread messages. No unreturned messages. No requests left hanging. And no Tweets left untweeted. My phone appeared to be working yet I had no voicemails, no text messages, and even the picture folder was cleared out. I was beginning to think that I was beyond organized; I was borderline neurotic.

Ms. Wortham began to get to her point though. She was not trying to bring light to a difficult issue just for the sake of it but rather to show that even digital clutter can begin to overwhelm you to the point of incapacitation and temporary paralysis; mentally and emotionally.

“…it’s starting to ruin my life.

I’ve missed important e-mails about family health matters, queries from editors and pings from sources. Earlier this week, I just happened to be staring into the abyss of my bloated e-mail inbox when a note floated in about last-minute drinks with a good friend who happened to be in town for the night. Had I not been looking at Gmail at that exact moment, there’s a good chance I never would have seen it.”

I remember the days where I was as overwhelmed, exacerbated, and, well, disheveled as she. As the Internet has grown and our lives have expanded more and more toward the digital there have been moments when I felt the infinity of the world wide web and its capacity to hold all of my data was a plausible reason to just let it accumulate. Like chotchkies on a side table I had emails, pictures, text messages, requests, unfinished docs, and half watched movies just floating around my digital world. But I have overcome such and I want to offer you 5 steps to bringing simple living back to your digital life!

  • Declutter and Streamline Your RSS Reader Feeds
  • RSS feeds can begin innocently enough. You find a blog. You like it. You click on that bright orange button and you follow it. You may not always read the post but at least you know there is activity. Then you add another. Maybe you add a news site too just to stay on top of world events. Before you know it you have subject folders, dozens of feeds, and a growing number of unread posts. I recommend catching up with the How-To Geek and his method to streamline and declutter his reader inbox. It covers deleting, foldering, and filing.

  • Clean Up Your Contacts
  • Oh, autofill, how we love thee. NOT! Once your contact box gets a bit robust you will find that every time you compose an email and begin to type in the address people show up automatically. Where did they come from? Who are they exactly? Whether you are on a Mac or a Windows box the best way I have found to keep accurate contacts is to first delete the ones you can’t remember in 3 -2 – 1. DELETE! Then I apologetically send out a mass email, an identical FB message, and sometimes a TXT message asking people to send their accurate contact information within 3 days so that I may update my lists. I then use those responses to make any changes, insertions, or deletions accordingly.

  • Clean Out Your Hard Drive
  • Please tell me why you still have the Limewire app on your computer’s hard drive? Limewire died by supreme court months ago. Let it rest in peace. Remove it and all associated files. Dig your way through your hard drive. You will be surprised at how much clutter you have amassed without realizing it. For me the most surprising folder is the ‘Mail Downloads’ folder. It is almost overwhelming in and of itself. I suggest either cleaning and defragging your Windows box or using a free third-party app like Disk Space Fan. If you run a Mac you may want to use Mac Cleaner as it cleans your Mac with one click of the mouse. I have used it for a year now and am quite pleased.

  • Free Up Space in Gmail
  • Most of us – 93.4% according to Google – have gmail accounts. Whether we use them as primary email or not a lot of people use them for email redirection, account setup, etc. And like me I am sure that when you created that free account you never thought you’d use up all those free gigabytes. Well, perhaps you have or are coming awfully close. Gina at LifeHacker has a great seven-step-clean-out for Gmail. I walked through it yesterday and am feeling quite spiffy about my new ‘G’ look.

  • Use Dropbox…A lot!
  • I just came across Dropbox thanks to a Twitter friend. Where has this cloud app been all my computing life? The file syncing service Dropbox does one thing very well, and that is give you access to a certain amount of file space (2 GB in free accounts) on any computer you use, as well as on smartphones. I use it to sync all my passwords, as extra storage, to share files with another computer user, and to….well, the list may very well be limitless.

But what about you? What are you doing to keep the clutter out? How do you defrag, declutter, and decompress? Is there an app you use or do you just have a stand-up method?

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  • http://www.FabulouslyBroke.com FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com

    I don’t really feel like I have digital clutter. I have a lot of data that’s true, but I am never overwhelmed by emails or requests or replies I can’t handle.

    I simply say NO if I can’t or don’t want to do it.

    • anotherkindofdrew

      I could write a post on “How-To say no.” It would go something like:

      Say no. Do it. Now. Say it louder. NO. That’s right. It’s easy, right? Good. Now practice saying it to others.

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Easier said than done, huh?

  • 50thomas50

    Try C Cleaner for WIndows.
    I would not be happy if everyone sent out mass requests that I get back with contact info. I feel its up to me to keep a neat address book. Don’t delete the ones you can’t remember – delete the ones you don’t need or can’t easily find again.

  • Tracy G

    My digital life is pretty dang simple. I have:

    • two e-mail accounts: a personal address that I use for business and a home address that I share with my husband (I’ve never had a Gmail account)

    • one social profile on LinkedIn, which is currently private (I’ve never joined Facebook or Twitter)

    • no RSS feeds, just a couple dozen blogs and news sites that I visit by whim (and I don’t keep a blog of my own)

    • one external hard drive

    Yup, I’m a minimalist. Or a paranoid loony. For privacy, I use Ixquick instead of Google. I reset the browser every time I close it. And I use Flush for Mac to delete Flash cookies so marketers can’t track my movements so easily.

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