It was sometime early pandemic when a chance clearing out a few duplicate photographs and contacts on my phone sent a wave of inexplicable relief and satisfaction through me. Through the anxiety of the covid years, I wanted to keep replicating this feeling: thus began my journey to keeping my digital belongings almost obsessively clutter-free and organised.
Over the years, studies by various universities—including those by researchers in the University of New Mexico, University of North Carolina, the University of Toronto, and with students in Cornell University—as well as the success of globally popular personalities like Marie Kondo have only reiterated the idea that clutter leads to anxiety, a feeling of helplessness, low subjective well-being, and even affects your ability to process visual cues and emotions of people around you.
The same applies to digital clutter too, especially since most of us spend a large chunk of our days inhabiting the universes of our gadgets, looking into their screens. In a recent issue of the journal ‘Information and Management’ (Volume 59, Issue 8, 2022), a study titled Modern-day Hoarding: A model For Understanding And Measuring Digital Hoarding by Darshana Sedera, Sachithra Lokuge, and Varun Grover argues that “(w)ith the cost of data storage approaching near zero, an individual can acquire, share, and store digital content (i.e., emails, images, videos, and documents) more than ever before.” This, coupled with the proliferation of smart devices and the “intensification of digitized business and/or personal interactions” has resulted in “an increased propensity to acquire and accumulate...digital content”. Their survey has “confirmatory evidence on digital hoarding and its association to anxiety.”
After that first instance of deleting a few duplicated photos, I felt the need weed out duplicates from a library of 15,000-odd photos and organise everything by place and year. After a one-time use of both Foto Cleaner Lite and Gemini 2: The Duplicate Finder, I put everything back in the cloud, and deleted these apps from my laptop. This arduous but satisfying exercise made me more mindful of the photos or screenshots that I’ve snapped or stored in my phone since.
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This shift in my relationship with camera and photo library apps has only re-established in my mind the veracity of three principles of digital minimalism that author Cal Newport lists in his 2019 book Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World. The first is that clutter is costly; the second, that optimisation is important; and the third, intentionality is satisfying.
My other big clutter-magnet has been my email. I’ve since used Gmail’s handy filters (in Settings) to have some emails skip my inbox entirely and go into designated folders labelled for friends and family. Newsletters have their own folders based on the area of interest. I read and reply, delete, or sort into relevant folders all other sundry emails almost every two days or so. I apply all of this to my work email, too, with one additional rule: a liberal use of coloured flags on Apple’s native mail app—one colour for emails that demand something from me, another for those that I am expecting something from.
This means that on most days, I have close to no emails in my inbox. On a terribly busy day, I might only end up with about 10-15 unsorted emails left in my inbox. Not only does this leave me feeling more accomplished at “eod”, it has also mitigated the dread I used to feel on opening my email the next day. I now have a fresh and clear new start in terms of my actionables and expectables. A mostly-empty inbox only helps me with visual and mental space to process newer communication and demands.
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While these are the biggest ways by which my digital life has improved, here are five other hacks to keep your virtual spaces clutter-free—some of these have other important upsides, too.
iOS devices have a nifty feature to help manage duplicate contact cards. Open the Contacts app, or the Phone app on your iOS device and switch to the names tab. Quickly pull down to see if there are any alerts on top about duplicate cards. If yes, the process is easy and intuitive, and is done in one or two taps at most. Android phones have a similar feature too, where the smartphone will let you know if there are any duplicate contacts in your list.
Memes and screenshots
Our photo galleries and camera rolls don’t only have photographs now—they are a dump yard for every meme we’ve saved thinking it’s the funniest and most relatable bit of internet literature we’ve seen. Files by Google app has a great smart-feature that can sift out just memes and help you select and clear out things you don’t find funny anymore. For screenshots, the iOS ecosystem is especially good with pulling a screenshot into a temporary screen. Here, you can edit, markup and scribble on the screenshot. This temporary screen area also offers share and delete options without the image never needing to occupy a spot in your Photos or Files app. Most Android phones now have a similar feature too.
Clearing Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections
Your Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connection list on either a phone or a laptop double up as an innocuous nostalgia-list, making it seem unnecessary to clear out. But doing so with a reset of network settings is one of the easiest ways to help set right various connectivity glitches and bugs.
Google Drive is one of the most common spaces to collaborate on documents, sheets, and photos. The free 15GB storage space that it comes with, however, is precious real estate, extending to email, too. Not only does regularly clearing shared Drive files keep you from paying for more storage, it also helps you stay in control of the data you’re sharing. Take time to re-assess the accesses you were given or have granted. Most issues occur over shared work documents— A Kaspersky study in 2017 had found that “more than a third (33%) of people claim to still have access to files from a previous workplace.” You can even look for heavy files, and then delete them, on your Gmail—used by millions across the world —by using this simple search term in your inbox “larger:10M” (replacing number based on context).
Delete unused apps
It’s as simple as tapping to delete or in some cases also clearing cache. This can help you guard against unwanted or redundant apps that silently continue. The Kaspersky study even found that “people never use at least a third (30%) of applications installed on their computers over a six-month period…only a third (32%) of respondents read agreements carefully and are able to decline installation of the app on their smartphone if they are not satisfied.” This is concerning, especially since our phones know mostly everything about us—whether personal, professional, or financial matters.
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