This is an edited version of a a published piece from IBM Design’s Internal Magazine, Variable, Volume 4: Consume
A tiny blue book sits neatly positioned on upwards of 5 million bookshelves worldwide, gently reminding all who walk past to keep things tidy. In bright red font, the spine reads: The Life‑Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The palm-sized bible of home organization is written by Marie Kondo, a woman steadfast in her mission to help humanity live clutter-free through the use of her wildly celebrated KonMari Method. Since her book hit shelves in 2011, she’s become a #1 New York Times best-selling author and created a cult-like following of organizers that credit her work with enlightening them to a minimalist lifestyle. There’s no arguing that Kondo has made a big impact on sock drawers around the globe, but something else looms over us that’s in desperate need of her organizational prowess: our constant consumption of digital media.
Digital clutter is impossible to get a grip on — which is precisely why it gets out of hand so easily. There is a plethora of digital content that we consume on a daily, or even hourly, basis that is objectively difficult to grasp. Articles we’ve bookmarked don’t drop out of our laptops, our phones don’t grow larger every time we like a friend’s status and for every odd CD found under the passenger seat and put in the donate box, there’s a hundred more downloaded albums stuck in hard drive limbo. Though it’s easy to forget about them, it’s reassuring to remember that they’re always there, patiently waiting to be useful again. They didn’t cross your mind when you enrolled in a monthly subscription service that streams anything you like whenever you want, but they are what drove you to buy extra cloud storage to hold all your old files, just in case. It’s all too easy to justify holding onto our digital clutter even when there’s absolutely no reason to because it doesn’t physically block our doorways or make us embarrassed to invite people over.
Although our ownership of digital media may feel temporary and without consequence, the way we devour modern media reveals that it often ends up digesting us rather than the other way around. Everything we consume is instant, temporary, and not our responsibility. We enjoy car rides without owning a car, getting groceries without making trips to the store, and streaming endless entertainment without being tethered to antiquated cable packages. With more options at our fingertips and less ownership than ever before, our appetite for input has outgrown our mental capacity. The onslaught of information we constantly carry with us goes largely unnoticed, occupies an increasing amount of our time, and has fundamentally changed the way we digest and store data.
The brain does it’s best to compartmentalize the data it’s provided with, but we often take in more content than can possibly be sorted. We endlessly swipe and scroll without thinking, teaching the algorithms what we’ll keep looking for so they can continue the cycle. We click, they produce, we click again — the more we consume the more we get fed. It’s not surprising that it all adds up over time, but the true weight of our cognitive load is seldom addressed. When we’re constantly trying to process new information, the mental capacity to discern relevance is significantly lowered, and the doors are opened to invite more meaningless input. Much like a subtle crack on your iPhone screen protector, it can be difficult to see at first but entirely too easy to spot once you’ve become aware of the problem.
They say that the first step to solving a personal problem is admitting you have one. But how do you approach something as unfathomably messy as your relationship with digital media? Marie Kondo’s simple philosophy on tidying is a good place to start. Her KonMari Method is largely based on the modern Japanese culture around Minimalism, an outgrowth of Zen Buddhism that suggests we must question whether or not our possessions add value to our lives and abandon everything that does not. The idea is that when unnecessary distractions are removed from our path, we can make more room for the most important aspects of life, like health, relationships, and growth. The bottom line of both KonMari and Minimalism is simply this: stuff does not equal happiness.
While Minimalism is all about simplicity — living life austerely and shedding most (if not all) of one’s Earthly possessions to prioritize experiences — KonMari acknowledges that there’s always space for things that bring enjoyment, with a caveat. Kondo advises her readers that the feelings we have around our possessions tend to come from memories tied to the object rather than the objects themselves — we keep books we’ve read a million times or a pair of blue jeans worn past the point of decency simply because they remind us being happy. Recognizing the emotional ties we make to the world around us, KonMari prioritizes positive intention in deciding which possessions you decide to keep over discarding what you no longer need. KonMari has effectively rebranded contemporary Minimalism to meet the needs and expectations of several generations born and raised on capitalism by simply begging the question, “Does it spark joy?”
“The important thing in tidying is not deciding what to discard, but rather what you want to keep.” — Marie Kondo
Applying Marie Kondo’s wisdom to your digital space, much like your home, isn’t about cutting all ties to unnecessary media, but instead examining what’s taking up space and prioritizing what provides more long term value. But when there’s so much to watch, listen to, and make memes about, how can anyone possibly decide what is best to keep in their life? Classifying everything you waste time on as an unworthy distraction is neither realistic nor required. While some modern media we engage with is healthy in the right context, it has the potential to do more harm than good. Following the news is essential to staying informed, unless constantly refreshing your feed starts to dominate your life. Spending time on social media can help you connect with loved ones but it can also fill too many hours of the day with cute animal videos that your great aunt shares. It ultimately comes down to personal appraisal.
Determining the usefulness of any given experience depends entirely on circumstance, which can turn tidying your digital media intake into a philosophical debate. It’s difficult to truly become a media minimalist in today’s political landscape because we’re forced each day to consider what doesn’t “spark joy” while also evaluating what cannot be ignored. In facing a digital existential crisis as such, what we choose to keep on our feeds effectively shapes how we define ourselves and the world around us. As our friend Marie Kondo eloquently boils it down, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
Before you jump head-first into your digital clutter, remember that your mind is not unlike the average sock drawer: likely in desperate need of organization, but also incredibly capable of structure, given space to improve. Regardless to what’s being tidied, the most important thing to remember about the KonMari Method is its ultimate goal: freedom from clutter through the intentional placement of what you decide has earned its place.
To tackle your messy relationship with digital media, consider this reframing of Marie Kondo’s six rules of tidying to help guide you along the way:
1. Commit yourself to tidying all at once
Kondo is a stickler about dedicating time to organize one’s space all in one go. To see the benefits and have them last, you must emotionally commit to the act of organization. KonMari recommends deciding on a determined amount of time to accomplish your goals. Whether it’s 3 hours or a full day, it’s important that you go all in when deciding to tidy up your everyday media.
2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle
To prevent relapsing into old habits, remember why you decided to tidy in the first place. Take a moment to imagine your ideal interaction with digital media. Are you staying up until 3 a.m. with your eyes glued to your phone, crafting a response to a friend’s post about climate change? Or are you taking ten minutes before bed to listen to a podcast about green lifestyles? Consider your life as it is now with the media you engage with on a daily basis, and be honest with yourself — is it truly bringing you value, is it giving you space to grow and think? Then, consider what practices might give you that space and imagine what your life might be like if you had more time for them.
3. Tidy by category, not location
Another hard and fast rule of KonMari is that organization should be done by category rather than location. At home, this means organizing all the books in your home at one time, rather than tidying the bedroom before getting to the kitchen. Though going one room at a time may seem easier, Kondo believes it discourages further tidying and enables distraction. Once one room is “done,” we have the tendency to reward ourselves by putting off organizing elsewhere. The same concept applies to our digital spaces. Instead of tidying one space at a time, like your laptop, tablet, or email inbox, take a moment to categorize your media consumption and address each one systematically. An example of this might be categorizing your media its focus (i.e. entertainment, social networking, or news) and starting with the one that occupies most of your time.
4. Ask yourself if it sparks joy
Interpreting this gets tricky in the digital world, as some of things we feel obligated to consume are not necessarily joyful, like news on political updates or natural disasters. Define joy for each category: media in the “entertainment” category should bring you enjoyment and not just occupy time, while media in the “social” category should serve a purpose that makes you happy and brings value into your life. An example of this is setting personal boundaries: Instead of deleting your Facebook account altogether, go through your friends list and followed pages, and ask yourself if what you’re seeing from them is personally meaningful. If it’s not, unsubscribe.
5. Find a home for everything you keep
Kondo says that an important aspect of remaining organized is having a designated space for every possession. While your digital media might not always take up physical space, it will always occupy an area of your mind. One way to find the room for your everyday media is to only consume particular types of content at different times in your routine. This could mean deciding that news is for the morning over coffee, or in the evening with your partner to unpack what it all means. Another method is setting a certain amount of time to what you decide to keep, like limiting your daily Netflix intake to one episode or giving yourself a maximum of one hour to browse Medium articles. Short and simple rules are easier to commit to and remember. The more you make exceptions, the more you invite clutter to gather.
6. Finish discarding everything before moving on
Once you have thoroughly tidied your first category, make sure you really dispose of the things you don’t need anymore. The intangible nature of the media we consume is both a blessing and a curse, in that it feels easy to get rid of and it is just as easy to get back. Media creators and distributors don’t want you to unsubscribe, and it’s almost guaranteed that old interactions will come back to haunt you. Take all the necessary actions to make sure the media you don’t need is as out of the picture for good, and note that you’ve taken that action with purpose. Evaluate how the extra mental space you’ve just created feels, and use that as momentum to get to the next category. Repeat.
“The inside of a decluttered space has much in common with a Shinto shrine… it’s a place where there are no unnecessary things, and our thoughts can finally become clear” — Marie Kondo