I’m a huge fan of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up; it motivated me to discard about a third of my possessions, and I’m still not done. But I noticed a glaring omission: there was no mention of digital clutter. As a web developer / computer geek, I thought it might be helpful to apply the KonMari Method to digital clutter.
Digital Clutter: the Good and the Bad
The illusion of unlimited storage. Unlike the physical constraints of our homes, there are almost no constraints for digital hoarding. The average email size is ~75kb. A free Gmail account comes with 15GB of storage, enough to save over 200,000 emails. On top of that, many people pay for upgraded cloud storage plans or a bigger hard drive just so they can avoid ever having to delete anything.
Just because you can keep every file ever created forever, doesn’t mean you need to. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to minimize what we’re saving.
Another opposing factor is we can’t fully visualize our digital possessions. Nothing falls on you when you open the lid of your laptop (hopefully). You don’t have to wrestle with 2 unrelated documents to retrieve a document stuck in between them. But the clutter on your computer obscures the valuable content, can slow down performance, and your cloud clutter consumes environment-harming physical resources.
Lastly, many items will appear to have some functional and informational purpose and thus feel harder to delete.
Digital clutter is much easier to discard. No garbage bags, boxes, or trips to Goodwill are required.
It’s easier to quantify your progress. You can note the “free space” on your hard drive and cloud storage accounts before you start and again after you finish to see how much digital clutter you’ve eliminated.
There’s a very helpful “last modified” or “last accessed” timestamp attached to every file. That takes the guess work out of wondering how frequently or infrequently you use a digital item. This is such a helpful tool that I urge you to use throughout this process.
Many of the KonMari rules easily apply.
- Sort by category, not location.
I know it’s tempting to tackle your Desktop first; it’s probably a mess and it’s usually the first thing you see when you log in to your computer. But that’s not how KonMari works, that’s the equivalent of cleaning by location. If you move through each category your Desktop should naturally be de-cluttered by the end.
- Designate a folder for each category of file.
For example, I have folders titled “Documents”, “Music”, “Photos”, “Videos”, and “Applications”.
- Keep your folder organization simple.
The more complicated the rules, the less likely you are to move items to those locations on a regular basis, i.e., keep things tidy.
- Don’t scatter your storage locations.
Most cloud backup services allow you to specify which folders are synced, you don’t have to use the default “Dropbox” or “Google Drive” folders that get created when you first install the programs.
- Move everything in a particular category to a single folder before you start deleting.
Check for files attached to emails, on your Desktop, in your browser’s “Downloads” folder, etc.
- Keep things out of the bath = keep things off your Desktop.
This is hard habit to break, but in my opinion it’s the equivalent of throwing something in a junk drawer. It’s hard to find anything and most likely you’ll forget it’s there.
- Empty your pockets when you get home = process new data immediately.
Wait to connect your camera and upload your new photos until you’re ready to review them all and move only the ones you want to keep to your Photos folder. Don’t throw them on your Desktop with the intention of going through them “later”. As we well know, “later” means never.
Before You Begin
Since you’ll be moving a lot of files around, I suggest pausing any backup services you have running, like Dropbox, Google Drive, Time Machine, SpiderOak, etc. Otherwise they’ll try to sync the entire time and there’s no point until you’re finished.
As mentioned above, to get that “Look how much I discarded!” KonMari gratification, it helps to have some starting metrics. Make a note of your hard drive usage before you begin, as well as any cloud storage accounts you use. It also helps to empty your Trash/Recycle Bin before you start; it’s like starting with an empty garbage bag. You can look at it when you’re done and see the collective result of your efforts.
Enough talk. Here are the categories, get to it.
Keeping with KonMari’s method of starting with the easy stuff:
- Media files
- Programs / Applications
- Web browser
- Digital komono
- Social media
Depending on your age, your collection of music files (most likely MP3s) may vary. I grew up with CDs and later amassed a large collection of MP3s because I ripped every CD so I’d have a digital backup. Now that I’m a Spotify user I can’t remember the last time I played a CD or an MP3. Similar to KonMari’s rule with paper: the default action is to delete everything; save only what sparks joy.
Let’s revisit the “but what if..?” argument again. What if you suddenly think of a song or audiobook you want to listen to but no longer have? In almost every instance you can either stream it online, borrow a copy from your local library, or, worst case scenario, purchase it again. But most likely you won’t miss these files.
Video files are exponentially worse in terms of storage space. How many raw files have you uploaded from your camera or GoPro that you plan on editing “later”? We know what “later” means. Unless you’re a video professional, it’s time to be real with yourself and admit whether that editing is ever going to happen. If not, delete.
Gather all your Word documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, etc. All of them, in a single folder.
Just like physical possessions, look at each item individually and decide whether it sparks joy, has current informational value, or if it’s something you’ve kept “just because”. If you think something has informational value but you’re not totally sure, sort the files by “last modified” or “last accessed” timestamp and see how long it’s been since you’ve accessed that file. You’ll be surprised how many stale items are there.
In the spirit of KonMari, it helps to keep the mindset of taking stock of what’s there and consciously choosing what to keep.
Programs / Applications
Programs are a lot like clothes, we tend to get new ones and never get rid of the ones we stopped using as a result. We tend to keep programs on our computers “just because”. There’s plenty of room on the hard drive and we may want to use it “someday”, so why not?
Look through your list of Programs. How many of those are NEVER used? I’m not suggesting you delete system files, please don’t do that. I’m talking about the programs you specifically installed, like games, tax software, etc.
If you have more than one anti-virus program installed, pick one. There’s no reason to have multiple ones installed, just be sure to keep the one you choose up-to-date, along with any operating system security updates.
It may seem odd for this to be its own category, but there are a lot of pieces to it and it’s probably your most often used program, so it’s important to cover everything.
First, look at how many browsers you have installed. If you’re a Windows user, you have Internet Explorer by default, Mac users have Safari. But I bet you also have Chrome installed and/or Firefox. Unless you’re a web developer and need to test on multiple platforms, I’m guessing you don’t actually use all those browsers. If you didn’t uninstall the unused one(s) in the previous step, now is the time to do so.
Next let’s focus on the browser you actually use. It has its own list of sub-categories: add-ons, toolbars added by add-ons, bookmarks, themes, etc. Make sure to go through all of these items.
If you have add-ons installed but they’re disabled, they’re probably safe to delete.
All that stuff in your bookmarks toolbar, do you use all of it? If not, delete! Enjoy the spaciousness and mute the visual noise.
Bookmarks are a beast in themselves. Personally, I think they’re like books: we save so many links for “later” which actually means never. Delete, delete, delete!
Digital Komono, aka System “Cruft”
Cruft: unwanted code or software.
These category items come in the form of system update remnants, leftover installation files, cache directories, etc. They’re hard to track down unless you know exactly where to look and what to look for, but often take up a significant amount of space.
For this category I highly recommend using an app that specifically cleans up these types of files. For Mac there’s MacClean (free alternative to CleanMyMac), for Windows either CCleaner or Glary Utilities are good options, and for Ubuntu I would go with Ubuntu Tweak’s Janitor tool.
A clean Inbox is a goal many of us try to achieve (in the tech community, we call this “Inbox Zero”), and it’s a lot easier to do if you KonMari your Inbox first. Much has been written about how to take control of your email, but the rules are generally similar. The difference here is that we’re doing it the KonMari way: all at once.
Pick one of these options for every email:
Ideally your default choice.
- Quick reply
Five sentences or less and then delete.
- Keep in Inbox
If some action is required, like a long reply. For “long reply” items, be honest with yourself about whether a reply is truly needed and if you’re really going to do it. If you have 50 emails from six months ago that you’re going to reply to “someday”, remember “someday” means never. And that’s fine, chances are whoever sent the email has long forgotten about it and won’t even notice. If you’re really overloaded with emails that “need” replies, you may want to consider “email bankruptcy”.
Only choose this option if it sparks joy or you may need it later. Remember, just because you can save every email you’ve ever received, doesn’t mean you need to. Be honest about whether you’ll really need to find this later, or whether you’re just afraid of the delete button.
Emails with attachments
Are you keeping an email just because of the attachment? If so, save the file to its appropriate folder and then delete the email.
Do you actually read them or are they just noise you always delete? The “Unsubscribe” link is your friend. There are also free tools to aggregate and/or cut down your newsletter subscriptions like unroll.me.
Once you’ve KM’d your Inbox, it will be much easier to keep it tidy. For the post-KM phase, I highly recommend Leo Babauta’s post, particularly the “New Emails” and “Stop the Flood” sections.
This is one of the last categories because as with physical photos, there’s often sentimental attachment involved. Hopefully by the time you complete the previous categories you’ll be enjoying your newly tidied computer, where only your favorite and essential files remain, and you’ll be honest with yourself about what you really need to save.
Another nagging reminder: just because you can take and save a seemingly infinite amount of photos doesn’t mean you need to!
This is probably the most time consuming category, depending on your uploading and [lack of] deleting habits. Before you dig in, it may help to visualize what your Photos folder would look like if it were filled with only your favorite moments and you didn’t have to scroll through thousands of blurry and boring photos to find the ones you really care about.
You know the drill: gather ALL the photos you have saved into a single folder. Follow the same KonMari rules for physical photos: save the few that truly capture whatever event in which they were taken and delete the rest.
When it comes to “written communication noise”, social media definitely takes the cake. Focus on the connections you want to keep. Un-friend and un-follow the rest and your social media experience will be greatly improved.
Starting with Facebook: look at your Friends list. Who sparks joy in your life? Who do you truly want to be connected to and who are you just “friends” with because you felt obligated to accept their request? Next, look at the Pages you follow (go to https://www.facebook.com/pages/feed and click the “View All” link in the right sidebar). Are you still interested in all those things or are their updates just noise you scroll past to get to the updates you care about?
Same steps with Twitter: look at your “Following” list (twitter.com/insertyourusername/following). Do the accounts spark joy or bring value to your life? Or is it just noise you sift through?
After you’ve decluttered your social media accounts, you could go even further and clean up the actual interface of these sites with various browser add-ons like uBlock and PrivacyBadger. Blocking advertisements means less visual noise to process (not to mention the privacy benefits).
Admire Your Work
Re-enable any cloud syncing apps you paused in the beginning and make a note of your updated hard drive and cloud storage usage. Take a look at your Trash/Recycle Bin and marvel at how long it takes to scroll through everything. This is your digital garbage bag, so click “Empty” and enjoy your KonMari’d digital clutter!
This is a work in progress and I’m sure there are things I’ve overlooked or didn’t explain well enough. I’d love to hear what you think, what worked / didn’t work for you, what should be added, etc. I’d also love to hear how much digital clutter you’ve KonMari’d! :)