Simplify and Organize Your Digital Life
These days, our digital lives can collect clutter just as quickly as our real lives. That digital clutter has the same impact on our mental well-being as the physical clutter that accumulates around our homes. Simplifying and organizing our digital lives helps us feel less overwhelmed, so that we can make our technology work for us, instead of feeling controlled by it.
I am the furthest thing from a tech expert, so I am not going to try to give you technological advice. Instead I’ll outline some simple, relatively quick steps that you can take to organize and regain control over your digital life.
1. Tackle Your Inbox
If you’re anything like me, your email inbox becomes a catch-all for things you have to do, things you have to remember, emails you think you need to save, and emails you want to hold on to. Before you know it, you have hundreds of emails, and feel like you’ll never get caught up.
a. Delete and File
Tackle your inbox the same way you tackle physical clutter – work your way through every email, deciding if you want to keep or delete. Delete what you can. If it’s something you want or need to keep, file it. If you don’t have a filing system already, create one. It could be by sender, by date, by deadline, by topic, or whatever works for you. If you already have a filing system, file your emails in the appropriate folder. Clear out your inbox as much as possible.
I did this last night at about 10:00 PM. In addition to cleaning up my main inbox, I deleted more than 5,000 emails from the Social and Promotions tabs (yeah, it had been a while…). By the time I opened my email again at 9:30 this morning, I had 51 new messages. 51 messages! In less than 12 hours, when most of us were supposed to be asleep.
This is the kind of digital noise that makes it so difficult to live in the moment. Even if I don’t read them, those emails are lighting up my phone with notifications, and sitting in my inbox needing to be dealt with. They’re adding no value to my life, and are distracting me from what’s really important. Which brings me to my next step….
This morning, I took the next step and unsubscribed from almost every promotional email I get. For the most part, those emails were going straight to the trash. Why waste time deleting them, and allowing them to steal my attention for a couple of seconds every day? I’m still signed up for a few, for places I shop at frequently (although I wish I could adjust my settings so that Gap would only email me when their sale is 40% off or more…), but am going to be much more aware of what I’m signing up for in the future, and much quicker to unsubscribe if it’s not adding value to my life.
2. Manage Your Apps
How many apps do you have on your phone? How many do you actually use?
Go through your apps critically. If you haven’t used it in a month, do you need it? Delete what you can.
Once you’re down to apps you actually use, organize them. Create folders, and file similar apps together. Move your frequently used apps to your home screen, so you can access them quickly instead of scrolling through multiple pages.
3. Clean Up Your Desktop
Is your desktop a mess of screenshots and random files that you “need easy access to”? Yeah, mine was too, until I cleared it off.
Delete the files you no longer need. For those you want to keep, create a filing system that works for you, and use it. It’s just as easy to access a file through the Finder or your Documents folder as it is to locate it in a mess of icons on your desktop. Use a consistent system to name your files and folders so you can easily locate them later. Remember that if all else fails, you can always use the search function.
4. Sort Through Your Downloads Folder
Ok, this is embarrassing. Until recently, this was not even on my radar as something I should be doing. I had documents in my downloads folder dating back to 2015.
Sort through the folder using the same keep or delete method. Be ruthless – if it’s a file from 2015 and I didn’t know it even existed, chances are I don’t need it! For files that you want to keep, name them appropriately and move them to a permanent home.
Related: 191+ Things to Throw Away
5. Simplify Your Social Media
a. Turn Off Notifications
Do you need all your social media notifications popping up on your phone? If not, change your settings. Consider turning them off altogether, or adjusting them so that they don’t show up on your lock screen.
When you comment on a Facebook post, do you want to be notified whenever somebody else comments on the same post? If not, click those three little dots on the top right of the post, and select “Turn off notifications for this post”.
You can do the same for Facebook groups. I’m in a lot of Facebook groups, but have many of them set so that I don’t receive any notifications – I have to go into the group to see any activity. You can do this in the Facebook app, by going into the group, then clicking the “Info” button. This will bring you to a screen where you can adjust your notifications settings.
If there are people on your social media feeds who are doing nothing but dragging you down, unfriend or unfollow them. Life is too short for unnecessary negativity.
6. Organize Your Photos
I debated whether or not to include this. For many of us this is an incredibly daunting task. However, if it’s a daunting task it’s probably also a source of great frustration and stress, which means tackling it is going to have a huge impact.
I’m a big advocate of cloud storage, and automating what I can. I never want to be faced with losing my phone or having my computer crash and losing irreplaceable photos of my kids. I personally use iCloud, and cough up a small fee each month for the storage costs. It syncs automatically across all of my devices, and I never have to think about it. There are a number of other cloud-based options, like Google Photos, Flickr, Dropbox, Prime Photo, and I’m sure many more that I’m not aware of, that allow you to do the same thing. Choose a service and get your photos stored securely.
Once you’ve chosen your storage provider, it’s time to organize your photos in a way that’s useable for you. I recently made my way through all 16,000+ of my photos and organized them using the following system:
- First, I organized them by month. Prior to 2012 my photos were organized by event, which made them hard to find and difficult to arrange chronologically. I did my best on the older ones, using the date on the image file, when available and accurate, and my best guess when it wasn’t. Then, I created folders for each year, and filed each monthly album in the appropriate year.
- Next, I deleted. There were so many useless screenshots, blurry photos, and duplicates. You know how you take 20 pictures of your kids trying to get a good shot with everyone looking at the camera and smiling? You don’t need to save all of them. Be as ruthless as you can – pick the best photo or two and delete the rest.
- Finally, I flagged my favourites. This is easy to do in Photos, and it makes it easier for me to find the best photos when I come back to them later to print or create a photo book.
I’ll be honest with you – organizing my photos was a massive undertaking. But I felt so much better when it was done. If you’d rather chip away at it slowly, that approach works too. Start with 2018 (easy!) and work your way backwards. Or start from your oldest pictures, which might be the easiest to delete.
Once you’ve got your photos organized, the key is to keep on top of it. I spend an hour or two once a month making sure I’ve imported all of my photos from my DSLR, then sorting through the previous month’s photos using the method above. This keeps it from getting out of control and overwhelming.
Finally, if you really want to simplify your digital life, unplug. Turn your phone onto silent, and put it away. Focus on living your life, rather than documenting it.
I struggle with this constantly, and diving into the blogging world has only made it worse. But my family and friends deserve my full attention, and I want to model healthy technology habits for my kids. For now, my best solution is to designate technology-free times, and put my phone out of sight.
What strategies do you use to unplug and disengage from technology?