You have Marie Kondoed your wardrobe (for those who came in late, Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and author), recycled your old newspapers and taken unwanted books to the charity shop. It may feel as if you have succeeded in decluttering your life, but then you turn on your phone or open up your laptop and find a whole load more to tidy up.
Sometimes, it gets out of control. Just this week, the snappily named European Problematic Use of the internet Research Network warned of the dangers of ‘cyberhoarding’, an inability to delete information gathered online. Researchers weren’t sure whether this was a new condition or an extension of a more common offline affliction.
For most of us, though, there is hope: just a few easy tweaks (and a couple of harder ones) can help you to get your cybercollections under control.
Too many apps
If you have used a smartphone for any length of time, you probably have pages upon pages of apps installed and little appetite for imposing any order on them. You may, just about, have a home screen you’re happy with, but everything else lies in a jumbled mess, with the apps arranged vaguely in the order in which they were installed.
Here’s the solution: arrange the icons for aesthetics, not use, and then ignore the home screen entirely and search for anything you need to use. My phone has all its apps sorted into 12 folders, based on colour. If I need an app, I use the search bar. Usually, the app is already there because your phone knows a scary amount about you, and can predict your needs better than your own mother; if not, just a couple of clicks will bring it up. And if you have forgotten its name, well, you can probably remember the colour of the icon, right?
The digital desktop is a lot like the real one. For some people, it’s a space to be kept clean and ordered, a substrate on which work rests. ‘A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain,’ as the saying goes. (Prompting the obvious question: ‘What does an empty desk show?’) For others, it’s a handy flat surface on which any and all documents are kept, for ever. You may be one of those people who make others scream when they use your computer for the first time.
The real solution is the same on and offline: clear your desk, you slob. But if you want a slightly quicker answer, try the harried office worker’s solution and put everything in little piles.
Mac users who upgrade to the latest version of the operating system, Mojave, can simply right-click on the desktop and select ‘Use stacks’. By default, that shuffles all the files on the desktop into small pseudo-folders, arranged by file type. If you’re not a Mac user, or can’t upgrade to Mojave, there’s nothing else quite so snappy, but it’s fairly easy to do approximately the same thing. Just right click on the desktop and select ‘Sort by kind’ or ‘Sort by file type’, then drag files into a few folders manually. The trick is to not overthink it: come up with a simple sorting scheme rather than a complex one that takes mental energy to implement.
The boulder of a modern Sisyphus is his or her email inbox. Unlike everything else on this list, an email inbox isn’t under your control: whether and when it gets filled is entirely up to others, making regulating the flow a spirit-sapping challenge.
One trick is to accept that lack of control and move on from the inbox. Many of us use our inboxes as a to-do list. But a to-do list that can be added to by strangers at any time, day or night, is a recipe for disaster. Instead, use a real to-do list and leave the inbox to its fate as a quagmire.
Or take the other approach and bring it under control with the nuclear option: email bankruptcy. Just a few clicks is all it takes to select every email you have received and delete the lot. Just a few more clicks, and you can send a short email to everyone you know, asking them to resend anything important. If they don’t, it wasn’t worth reading in the first place.
A less extreme form can be achieved by taking advantage of natural breaks in your work: holidays, illnesses. When you get back from the time away, you can use your departure date as the cutoff: anything sent before you left wasn’t urgent enough to do before your holiday and is probably obsolete. So delete it. And if it isn’t, well, they’ll get in touch again.
It’s easy to justify photo hoarding. The point of photos is to store treasured memories, so surely the more the better? But with smartphones, the quantity can end up becoming overwhelming, leaving even the good memories impossible to find. Worse still, the ballooning storage space required can begin to exert its own pressure.
The trick isn’t to clear out your collection – it is to bring in someone else to act as digital archivist for you. If you let them, Apple (for iOS users) and Google (for Android and Windows users) have solutions. The first thing to do is embrace the cloud — even if it means paying a bit. For GBP2.50 a month, Apple gives iOS users enough storage space to store all the pictures they could ever take (and to make backups of their devices to boot). The same service is free with Google, but, as ever, you pay with your data: the search firm will use your uploaded images to improve its own machine learning systems.
Then let the algorithms do the curation for you. Apple and Google Photos offer features that would have seemed magical just a decade ago, from text search for images (letting you find ‘dogs’, ‘Christmas’ or ‘beach holidays’) to automatic selection of pictures — algorithmically trimming your 500 holiday pictures to just 40 or so interesting ones.
Trail of disaster
One of the trickier things about digital clutter is that it’s possible to build it up without knowing or meaning to. Every day, as we go about our lives, we leave a trail of data behind us. At best, it doesn’t help us, just those who harvest it; and at worst, the information can be actively dangerous if it gets stolen.
Did you know, for instance, that Google tracks your location? Even if you told it not to? Or that Facebook uses information others give it about you to target adverts?
So delete it. Unless you are consciously building an archive, or will definitely need access to the data in the future, it’s probably in your interest to clear up that data exhaust. That means deleting historical tweets and old Facebook posts, closing accounts for services you aren’t using and maybe even spinning up new accounts periodically to thwart the creepier web giants out there. It can be a bit of work, but being forced to refriend everyone you know is a good way of realising you don’t need 2,000 social media connections after all.
Guardian News & Media