De-clutter Your Electronic Life

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We all do it. When faced with the question of “Should I keep this or throw it out?”, we take the ‘safe’ approach. “Well, I might need it someday” seems like a reasonable choice. The item goes in a drawer or on a shelf, never to be thought of again. Indeed, many of us of the Baby Boomer generation fall back on the thrifty ways instilled in us by our parents – survivors of the Great Depression.

There’s no doubt that, occasionally, we might actually use that item someday. But saving pens that are out of ink, a paperback book that you ‘might read again someday’ or even that 1979 model microwave oven that ‘someone might want’ is counter-productive.

People seek help in decluttering. In a recent search of Amazon, a list of more than 1,000 books on the subject popped up1.

Electronic Clutter

But the modern age has spawned a new type of clutter, unused apps and files on our ever-present electronic devices. Because of the constant use of phones and computers, it becomes even more important to address clutter on those devices.

And now, in 2020 with social distancing and working from home as a result of COVID-19, we are even more tied to our devices. Zoom meetings and kids attending school virtually increases the importance of computer speed – speed which is adversely impacted by electronic clutter on our devices.

On the positive side, the reduction in time previously consumed by commuting and in-person meetings gives us the opportunity to address those resource-eating files and apps.

Phones

Today, more than ever, our smart phones have become miniature computers that we can also use to talk to other people. No longer is the phone simply an oral communication device.

Whatever we can think of, “there’s an app for that.” And those apps, and their associated files, can consume huge amounts of space on our phones. The ability to place apps in folders on modern cell phones can mean that apps are easily ‘lost’ – we don’t use them and don’t even remember they are there.

This article was developed using Scrivener

Do I Really Use that App?

Start by critically looking at every app on your phone. Ask yourself two questions: 

  1. “How often, if ever, do I use that app?” and 
  2. “Is it a unique application on my phone?”

The solution to the first question is easy. If you don’t use the app regularly, delete it and free up the space. What does ‘regularly’ mean? Only you can determine that, but if you can’t even remember the last time you used the app, that’s probably a good indication you don’t need it.

The second question is a little trickier, but still obvious if you think about it. In my case, I had three weather apps on my phone. Each presented current weather information in a slightly different way, but the data all came from the same place. There were times when I liked to see the information displayed more graphically, or for a longer term, or whatever motivated me to download the specific app in the first place. 

But did I really need to have three weather apps on my phone? Wouldn’t one suffice to tell me what I needed to know – “What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow, or this weekend?” Of course, I only needed one. I also knew which one I used most often. I kept it and deleted the other two.

Another source of duplicate apps is a little more insidious. We download a ‘trial’ app and after using it, we decide we like it and want the full featured version. So we download that. But in many cases, the trial version and the full-featured version are actually separate apps – now both residing on our phone. Get rid of that trial version.

Computer

Whether we use a desktop or laptop computer, it is all too easy to accumulate clutter. Even more than our phones, our computers are productivity devices. But that productivity can easily be hampered by accumulated clutter.

The Desktop

desktop clutter
Illustration Credit: Ignacio Cordero

If your computer desktop looks anything like this one, this is the place to start. The desktop is intended to be the place where you store your most-used apps and files, not everything you’ve used in the past year (or more). As with your phone, start by examining every icon on your desktop.

If the icon represents a file, decide if it is something you use regularly. Again, the definition of ‘regularly’ is open to individual interpretation, but ‘once or twice a year probably doesn’t count. If not, you have three options:

  1. Delete the file completely. If the icon is a shortcut or alias, be sure to delete the underlying file as well.
  2. Store the file in an appropriate sub-folder in your Documents folder. Be sure to label the sub-folder in a way which makes finding the file easier in the future.
  3. Store the file in Evernote. Evernote is specifically designed for long-term storage of documents. Even the free version is quite robust. One of the great advantages of Evernote is that it automatically applies optical character recognition to every document with type or even hand printing. So a search in Evernote looks at every word in every document, not just at titles.

If you decide that the icon needs to remain on your desktop, consider creating a folder on the desktop to hold the icons of similar files. One example is to create a folder for screenshots. You can still retain the information on your desktop, but the folder takes up far less space and makes it easier to access those photos. In my own case, I even use a folder which contains several sub-folders of different types of photos. 

Duplicate Files

It’s one of those things that just seems to happen. Your hard drive contains multiple copies of the exact same file in numerous places on the drive. Do you really need four copies of the same file, only denoted by four separate storage locations?

There is a great app to deal with the problem. Called the Duplicate Files Fixer, it is a small, and inexpensive app which is available from both Windows and Mac system. It scans your drive and alerts you to duplicate files. 

Personally, I try very hard to avoid storing duplicates of files. But my first run with the Duplicate Files Fixer netted more than 4,000 duplicate files – claiming an incredible 2.4 gigabytes of disk space. And that was just in my Document folder.

True, many of them were files created by various programs outside my direct control. But to my chagrin, I found several instances of my own creation. I had multiple instances of the cover art for each of my five novels – four copies in one case.

DFF will clean up duplicates automatically, using parameters you set – keep newest or keep oldest. Or you can manually decide which copy to keep. It’s an eye-opening experience2.

When Delete Doesn’t Really Delete

We’ve decided that we no longer need a particular app. So we right-click on the app file and pick Delete or Move to Trash, depending on the operating system. But does that completely delete the associate files?

In many cases, it does not. Our hard drive is still littered with dozens – and maybe hundreds – of files associated with that app. So what to do?

Here, I must state that what I’m about to say only applies to Mac users. I’m sure there is a similar program for Windows computers, but since I’m a long time Mac user, I haven’t kept up with what’s available for the Windows platform.

But if you’re a Mac user, I highly recommend CleanMyMac. The app performs the usual function of cleaning remnants from your browser and other often used locations. But my favorite function is that it seeks out and completely removes every file associated with an app when it is used to uninstall apps. Click on the banner below to try it for free.

CleanMyMac 2

Email Clutter

Another source of clutter is our email program. In this age of email marketing, we can get dozens, and maybe hundreds, of emails a day. But allowing those emails to accumulate in the inbox quickly escalates to its own kinds of clutter storage.

clutter
Illustration Credit: Ignacio Cordero

My goal is to completely clear my email inbox each day. I’m not always successful, but new mail doesn’t stay in the inbox for more than a day or two.

As mail comes in, I make one of four choices:

  1. Is the email merely informational or some kind of solicitation? If so, and it’s not information I really feel a need for, the email is immediately deleted. 
  2. Does the email contain information I need to act on today, or in the near future? If I have a running thread, I’ll leave the email in the inbox so as to keep the thread intact. But I’m always alert to move the thread to a storage location as soon as the exchange is complete.
  3. Does the email contain information that I may want to access or address sometime in the future, or is it the final part of an ongoing thread? In both of these cases, I have a series of archive folders set up as part of my email app3.
  4. Does the email contain long-term reference information, such as confirmation of a purchase and access code or financial information? In such cases, I store the email in Evernote. As I previously mentioned in this article, Evernote automatically runs OCR on every document, making searching easy. It is also easy to set Evernote up to allow emails to be forwarded directly into their storage.

Other Associated Clutter

Now that we’ve cleaned up our electronic environment, we can address some other contributors to that clutter.

Trash the Trash

In some instances, emptying the trash bin merely marks the items for later deletion. This is especially true of email apps, where ‘deleted’ emails are merely moved to a ‘trash’ folder.

Take some time to actually delete items in any such folders. If you follow the advice of regularly dealing with your inbox, there should be no need to keep ‘deleted’ emails longer than a few days. I personally clean out any ‘trashed’ emails older than one week.

Use the Unsubscribe Button

Every solicitation email is supposed to have a link at the bottom to unsubscribe from any associated mailing list. Take a critical look at any such emails. If you routinely delete their emails – Option 1 of dealing with email, above – then why not unsubscribe and stop the clutter before it even arrives.

Social Media

Assuming you kept one or more social media apps during your initial app-cleaning process, take a critical look at the time wasters associated with social media. Unfriend / unfollow any social media contacts that don’t really provide value to your life. 

For more information on this subject, check out my article on social media. Also take a look at an article by fellow blogger Divya Hegde entitled Social Media is Ruining Your Life and You Know It.


Further Reading: For another take on decluttering your electronic life, check out this post by fellow blogger Aditi Jain.

Do you suffer from electronic clutter? Do you have other suggestions to offer for dealing with it? Tell us in the comments below.

NOTES

  1. My personal favorite is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, a 2014 book by Marie Kondō.
  2. In my case, it wasn’t a big deal because my iMac has a 2TB fusion drive, with only about 300GB of files on it. But it’s a good idea to keep the clutter to a minimum in any case.
  3. Not all email apps have a feature which allows you to create archive folders on your local hard drive. However, two popular apps, both of which I’ve used – Airmail 3 and Microsoft Outlook – both have this feature.
Mike Worley

Mike is retired and lives in Louisville, KY USA. He writes about lifestyle issues. He also enjoys photography and works part-time as a college volleyball official.