Minimalism and Your Digital Life

by Nov 11, 20218 comments

Rather than unconsciously allowing social media a place in your life, make a conscious decision about how and why you want to use it.

S.J.Scott, The 10 Minute Declutter

Digital Decluttering

Minimalism is Not Just About Physical Possessions

As we have seen, owning fewer material things allows you to focus on what’s most important in your life.  With less to maintain, you have few tasks to complete so spend less time on maintaining a calm, organized environment.  When you clear physical clutter, you can feel an enhanced calm.  Being intentional about what you choose to have in your life can replace overwhelm and stress with more peace and a greater sense of control.  The same thing applies to digital clutter.  Although it might not be as immediately obvious, it can cause you the same kind of anxiety resulting from the need to search unnecessarily and to take extra time to find things you need.

Defining Digital Clutter

Digital clutter refers to collections of items you store on your electronic devices, especially things collected in holding places like downloads. This can include email, documents, photos, downloaded music, appas and unused desktop icons.

Digital Clutter also includes the online activities that distract you from real-life interactions and tasks that you need to complete.   Distractions like social media, RSS subscriptions and online games all fall into this category.

Because we do not have space restrictions in the same way as we have with physical space, it can be even easier to build up huge collections of digital clutter.  Unfortunately, it is also easier to ignore so it continues to increase.  This creates unnecessary chaos that takes up room on your devices, causes inefficiencies in your work, and wastes extensive amounts of time.

Impacts of Digital Clutter

Storing some items digitally makes sense.  Having books on e-readers and documents in electronic format means less printing and reduced space on bookshelves and filing cabinets.  However, digital clutter can quickly get out of control and lead to many of the same challenges as does physical clutter.  And it can be just as detrimental to your health, productivity, concentration, and emotions.  When your devices are full of unnecessary documents, programs, and apps, they slow down and make it difficult to find things that you need for work or projects.  Consequently, digital clutter can contribute to overwhelm and anxiety just as physical clutter does.  It’s a distraction. 

The same is true for the time you spend online.  How often have you lost track of time on unnecessary searches and links until you found yourself frustrated and frazzled?  With too much online time, you can lose your sense of balance and be pulled in too many directions.  At its worse, this type of time sink can cause you to miss out on real-life opportunities and commitments.


Take Control of Digital Clutter

Take some time to organize your digital clutter and make it possible to find things more easily and quickly.

Tame your Inbox

Create a system to manage incoming emails.  Decide what works best for you.  Some people don’t mind having lots of emails left in their box while others aim to have no unopened messages at the end of the day.  Most of us fall in the middle.  These ideas might help reduce to an acceptable level.

  • Immediately delete junk mail, advertising, and any messages that do not apply to you
  • Delete anything before a certain date (6 months is usually enough) unless it is associated with an ongoing project.  Messages associated with a project should be in the project folder.
  • Unsubscribe from all unwanted lists – and delete the previous messages from those lists
  • If a message needs action that can be done in 5 minutes or less, do it and delete the message
  • If action is required that will take more time, flag the message or put it in an ACTION folder – and add a reminder and/or note in your calendar
  • Create filters to send incoming mail to an active folder

Create a naming system

All documents and photos should be named with names that tell you what is in the document.  Names like IMG6543 or Document 32 or iCloud86 are useless and frustrating.  Instead, creating a filing system that gives you the information you – or someone else – will need to find a document.  Do whatever works for you but be consistent. 

For example, you might use a pattern like 20201112_HolidayCampaign_SocialMedia or Birthday_Family_Susan_2020  The system should reflect how you will look for something.   If you would find it more natural to search for Family Christmas than for 2021-12-25, you might want to use Christmas_Family_2021 to group all pictures by Christmas rather than by year. 

  • Write out your naming guidelines -or ones from your organization – and keep it near your workspace.
  • Name all new as you create them
  • Rename existing files that are not clearly identified.  Do not expect to do this all at once. 
  • Do a little at a time.  15 minute sessions every week day can soon make a noticeable difference.
  • Consider adding tags or categories. 

Organize Your Documents

  • Move everything from Downloads to appropriate folders or delete
  • Delete ‘freebies’ and samples that you downloaded more than 6 months ago and have never opened
  •  Archive older files that you need to keep but be selective about this
  • Review and revise your filing system and folder structure

Curate your media

  • Name pictures in batches as soon as possible after you take them
  • Remove duplicates, blurry or too busy images immediately.  Keep only the best of a group
  • If you have lots of pictures to organize, start with newest first and work backwards – that makes it easier to capture more detail
  • Do similar culling with video and music assets

Reduce your social media

  • Leave any FB groups that you no longer visit
  • Unsub from YouTube channels that you don’t watch
  • Cut back your time on Social Media.  It can be helpful to track the actual time you spend on all networks for one week to get a sense of how much time you are really on line.   You might be surprised how much it isand it might be the motivation that you need to cut back. It will give you a baseline for comparison as you cut back.  You can do the same thing every month or every few months and track progress.
  • Take one day away from social media each week

Keep Digital Clutter at Bay

Managing your digital clutter is an ongoing process.  You are very likely going to continue to have online activities for business, home and personal purposes.  To keep the digital clutter under control, you need to implement some regular routines.  It might be helpful to create a checklist and have reminders.

  • Make a plan to keep your digital clutter in check
  • Take control get what you have in order and be selective about what you add
  • Have a recurring to-do or reminder  to declutter digital devices
  • Eliminate unused apps and software – and be selective about what you install
  • Use folders to organize your documents, images, apps and other assets
  • Have a regularly scheduled online backup
  • Minimize time on Social Media and find offline alternatives – Spend more time offline and outdoors
  • Turn off notifications to reduce distractions
  • Check your email only at certain limited times of day (like once in the morning and once in the afternoon)
  • Unsubscribe from any email lists that you do not use regularly and be selective about ones  you join
  • Limit screen time
  • Disconnect at least one day a week
  • Do not bring your phone in your bedroom when you go to bed

Take Action

Hopefully, these strategies will give you some ideas to kick-start a digital declutter and experience more balance in your digital life. This is merely an introduction to the concept of digital clutter. Hopefully, it will help you to begin to tackle the things that are taking up too much space on your devices and in your mind.

Challenge Questions for Day 10

What kind of digital clutter causes you the most stress?  What one thing can you do today to make a start on that area?

How will you implement change to manage digital clutter.  Identify one strategy that you will start immediately.

Declutter Challenge for Day 11

Digital Declutter 1: Saved Email

Delete all junk mail, advertisements, unwanted newsletters, messages older than 6 months (or a date that works for you).  Create folders for mail that you have to keep.

If you have more than one email account, you might want to spread this over several sessions.  You might also want to consider amalgamating addresses if possible.

Banner photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Digital worker photo by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Educator, Artist, Storyteller


  1. Lily Leung

    Thank you for all your information. I have alot of physical, mental and digital clutter. Emails build up so fast. It’s hard to unsubscribe sometimes. They keep coming back. I am less distracted this month because I am focusing on writing. I will review your tips and chip aways my piles.

    • Mary Elizabeth

      I know what you mean about how quickly the email builds. Unsubscribing is definitely a challenge. Sometimes it seems to take multiple times to unsub from lists. I’m being more conscious about stopping it a the source by being more selective about signing on to new lists. Also a challenge sometimes. Good luck dealing with the piles.

  2. Kebba Buckley Button

    Mary Elizabeth, wahoo! What an inspiring framework for digital decluttering! I’m somewhat good at this. I download my camera images to “Pictures” on my computer, and they land in date order. Then I transfer them to a different area, with the ones I want in topic folders and each image labeled. For discarding emails, I do as you suggest; I also find starting with the oldest miscellaneous emails first, helps me see how outdated they are and hit that delete button fast.

    • Mary Elizabeth

      Sounds like you are on top of the digital declutter, Kebba. I have found that when I am clearing email, I like to find a balance between the oldest ones, which I also find easiest to discard, an some of the newer messages so I don’t miss a request or opportunity that is time sensitive. It is an ongoing process for sure.

  3. Cindy

    OMG this so good and just what I needed to read. I think I will need to put time in my calendar to work on some of these things. Thank you

    • Mary Elizabeth

      Thanks for your comment, Cindy. Good luck with the digital decluttering efforts.

  4. Florence Callender

    Hi Mary Elizabeth, thanks for this very useful article. I am guilty of being sidetracked while online. Because of that, I decided to intentionally declutter my email, downloads, and documents, this year. These strategies will definitely help me achieve that goal faster and more effectively.

    • Mary Elizabeth

      Thanks for sharing, Florence. I am glad that you found the strategies useful. Good luck ith your digital decluttering.

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