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How to Stop Being a Digital Data Hoarder and Declutter Your Life

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So you’ve hopped on the minimalism train. You’ve KonMari’d your house, Swedish death-cleaned, downsized, and pared down your kids’ toys to the bare minimum. You’re done, right?

Not so fast. There’s also your inbox, which has about 20,000 emails in it, your digital photos (another 30,000 or so items), the hundreds of files and folders on your laptop, and the six hours per day you spend scrolling through social media and online shopping.

It’s hard to talk about the freedom minimalism offers without addressing the profound impact our digital lives have on our happiness and well-being. Paring down your digital files and reducing your screen time is just as important as paring down your possessions — and just as liberating.

What will you gain from doing this? Greater organization and productivity, both of which are important in your career. More time because you’ll be spending less of it dealing with electronic data and mindless Web surfing. More money because you’ll spend less time shopping online and buying things you don’t need. And greater happiness, because you’ll instead be doing things that add meaning to your life, such as spending more time with family or enjoying a hobby.

The Impact of Too Much Screen Time

Woman Insomnia Depressed Upset Pajamas In Bed

Most of us realize that we spend too much time on our smartphones and tablets. But you may not be aware of the effects all of this screen time has on you. They include:

1. Decreased Feelings of Well-Being

Research shows that the more time you spend looking at your phone or tablet, the worse you feel.

A 15-year study published in the journal Emotion found that adolescent well-being decreased dramatically after 2012, when researchers determined that more teenagers were using smartphone technology. The more time adolescents spent in front of a screen daily, the lower their self-reported psychological well-being.

Another study, this one in Clinical Psychological Science, found that adolescents who spent more time on new media — which includes social media and smartphones — were more likely to report mental health issues than those who spent more time on screen-free activities, such as homework, in-person social interaction, and sports and exercise. Suicide rates were also higher for those who spent more time in front of a screen.

2. Poorer Sleep Quality

A 2016 study published in the journal PLOS ONE concluded that increased smartphone use, especially around bedtime, leads to poorer sleep quality.

Another study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that spending time in front of an LED screen with short-wave light signals — in other words, blue-light screens such as those on laptops, tablets, and smartphones — significantly decreases the release of the hormone melatonin, which helps you fall and stay asleep. Researchers also noticed that blue-light screens increased alertness. Increased alertness is great during daytime hours, but in the evening, it can lead to long-term sleep problems, depression, and even cardiovascular disease.

3. Greater Anxiety

Spending too much time on your smartphone can increase your feelings of anxiety and depression. A study published in Behaviour & Information Technology found that university students who had a smartphone addiction demonstrated greater odds of having high anxiety compared with students who were not addicted to their phones. Addicted students also had greater odds of having clinically significant family problems than those who were not addicted.

Anxiety also increases in adults the more they use their smartphones. In an interview with ABC News, Dr. Nancy Cheever, who researched the connection between cellphone use and anxiety for California State University Dominguez Hills, says that it’s a constant, positive feedback loop: Phones keep us in a persistent state of anxiety, and the only relief from the anxiety is to look at our phones. The more we use them, the more anxious we feel about using them.

4. More Loneliness

Despite being connected to more people than at any other point in history, we feel increasingly lonely and isolated. In a national survey of over 20,000 adults, Cigna found that almost half of Americans reported feeling sometimes or always alone, while one out of five reported that they rarely or never feel close to people. Additionally, only half of Americans reported that they have meaningful social interactions daily.

We have plenty of “friends” on the Web, yet these friendships are often empty and meaningless, especially compared with the benefits that come with having face-to-face interactions with people we know.

Are You a Digital Hoarder?

Digital Data Brain

You might laugh at the term “digital hoarding,” but it’s a real thing. According to research published in Computers in Human Behavior, hoarding, which is associated with the accumulation of physical objects, is a relatively new psychiatric disorder. But digital hoarding is an even more recent phenomenon.

“Digital hoarding” is defined as the accumulation of digital files — personal and work-related — and the reluctance to delete electronic files and photos to the point where they cause stress, disorganization, and other negative consequences. There’s very little research into the prevalence of digital hoarding because it’s so new. However, signs that you might be hoarding your electronic data include:

  • Your phone frequently runs out of memory because it’s so full of photos, MP3s, texts, and PDFs.
  • You have a hard time finding a file or photo when you need it because you have to sift through so much content.
  • You feel anxious when you start to delete an electronic file and think “I might need this someday.”
  • You have an endless list of Internet bookmarks that you never reference anymore.
  • Your home screen is maxed out with apps or desktop icons.
  • You have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, you have no idea who they are, and yet you don’t want to unfriend them.
  • You’ve saved hundreds or even thousands of emails “just in case.”

It’s important to understand that hoarding has a lot to do with your sense of control. If you have 600 emails, yet those emails are well-organized, valuable, and you can easily find what you need, then that’s not considered hoarding. Your stress levels aren’t going up when you have to access a particular email.

However, if you feel that you don’t have control over your digital content, you can’t find what you need when you need it, and you’re anxious about deleting any files, then this is causing you stress and might be considered digital hoarding.

How to Get Your Digital Life Organized

Laptop Files Binders Folders Organizing

Digital decluttering typically takes a two-pronged approach. First, it means organizing and minimizing your digital files and photos so that you feel less overwhelmed by the sheer volume of all your online content. It also includes reducing the amount of time you spend in front of a screen each day, whether you’re reading email or scrolling through Instagram.

Part of the problem is that it’s so easy to accumulate electronic data. Our phones have an incredible amount of storage space compared with just five years ago, and thanks to cloud storage, we can effortlessly store a mind-boggling amount of data without even paying for it.

So let’s start with the first step: organizing and paring down your digital files.

Tips to Declutter Your Digital Files

According to a study cited by the BBC, the average person’s inbox contains 102 unread and 331 read emails. Another study, conducted by McKinsey & Company, found that the average person spends 28% of their workweek reading and writing emails.

Email is incredibly useful, but it’s also a huge source of stress for many people. Luckily, there are several strategies you can use to better organize your email.

1. Respond Quickly

One strategy is to use the “two-minute” rule: If an email comes in and it will take you less than two minutes to respond, take care of it right away and then get back to what you were doing.

This strategy can work well for some people, but it can be very distracting for others. Constantly responding to email throughout the day can prevent you from achieving a deep focus on the work or projects that matter most. If this is the cast for you, to enhance your productivity, turn off email alerts and try the next strategy instead.

2. Process Email at Specific Times

Many people find that they’re more productive when they set aside specific blocks of time to read and process email. For example, they might check email first thing in the morning, right before they head to lunch, and at the very end of the day.

If you don’t think your clients or coworkers will appreciate the delay, consider crafting an email reply so that people know when to expect a response. In his book “The 4-Hour Workweek,” Tim Ferriss shares that he uses this automatic response:

“Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12:00pm ET [or your time zone] and 4:00pm ET. If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00pm or 4:00pm, please contact me via phone at 555-555-5555.”

An email response like this lets people know that you’re not ignoring them and they can expect a reply from you at a specific time. And if it’s truly an emergency, they’ll call you.

3. Organize Your Inbox

If all your emails tend to sit in your inbox in case you need them, then you need to create a system of file folders to organize them.

The trick to creating a useful system is to start with broad categories and then get more specific as you drill down. For example, you could create three “parent” categories, such as “Clients,” “Colleagues,” and “Projects.” Within the “Clients” folder, you create two more folders: “Current Clients” and “Past Clients.” Within the “Current Clients” folder, you create a folder for each client you’re actively working with. As soon as your work for a client is completed, you move their folder to the “Past Clients” folder.

The “Colleagues” and “Projects” folders work the same way; you’ll start broadly, and then get more specific with each subfolder.

It can help to use old-fashioned pen and paper to design an organizing system for your email. Remember, create a few broad categories that encompass the types of email you most often receive, then get more specific with each level of subfolders.

4. Delete Subscriptions

How many newsletters and promotional emails do you get every day? Chances are, you get far more than you want.

Go through your inbox and start unsubscribing from every mailing list you don’t need to belong to anymore. You can do this manually or use a service such as Unroll.Me, which creates an instant list of every email subscription you have. Once you’ve gotten rid of all the clutter, you can then organize the subscriptions you do want to see into one email, called “The Rollup.”

5. Schedule Time to Declutter

You likely have tons of files, MP3s, downloaded movies, PDFs, photographs, and other digital media on your devices. The old self-help adage “the only way out is through” applies to this clutter; you have to wade into it and just start deleting stuff you don’t need anymore.

Is it tiresome? Time-consuming? Annoying? Yes to all three. But only you know what’s important and meaningful and what’s safe to delete, which means only you can do it. So schedule a time to do a bit of decluttering every day. Even five minutes, done daily, will eventually make a difference.

Pro tip: If you have a lot of photos, videos and other documents on your devices, consider moving them to a cloud storage option like iDrive. Your first 5 GB will be free and then pricing plans for 2 TB or 5 TB are nearly half the price of Amazon.

Tips for Unplugging

One of the most compelling, and relatable, accounts of how digital devices have overtaken our lives is written by blogger Andrew Sullivan and published in New York Magazine. It’s titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

In his essay, Sullivan writes, “Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.”

It’s a grim assessment of our current addiction, but Sullivan tells it like it is. As a digital addict himself, he knows firsthand how damaging it can be to forsake a real life for a digital one. Reading his essay might just be the motivation you need to change your habits. Keep the following tips in mind to do so.

6. Figure Out Your Most Valuable Activities

In an interview with NBC News, Cal Newport, author of the best-selling book “Digital Minimalism,” suggests that for 30 days, you only use the technology you genuinely need to maintain your personal and professional life.

For example, you’ll still need to use text or phone calls to figure out where your daughter is heading after school. But scrolling through Facebook every day while you’re waiting to pick up your son at school probably isn’t that important. If you’re job hunting, then using LinkedIn or other professional job-hunting sites is a valuable use of your time, while manically checking news headlines throughout the day isn’t.

If the thought of cutting out a lot of apps and websites all at once makes your heart race, then go slow. Start by deleting one app or game that you know is a time-waster. A few days later, choose another one. Keep going, deleting something every few days, until you feel like you’re only using apps or visiting websites that have a meaningful impact on your day.

7. Find a New Use for Your Time

People who have already gone through a digital detox, quitting social media or the Internet entirely, often say the same thing: At first, they felt as if there was a void in their life. Suddenly, they had all this extra time, and they didn’t know what to do with it.

Most of us complain that we don’t have enough time to get things done or do what we want to do. So stop and think: What would you do if you had an extra two or more hours in your day? What interests and activities would you pursue? What kind of life could you create if you weren’t looking at your phone every few minutes or endlessly searching for files and photos?

Cutting down on your Internet use, or stopping entirely, could open up a huge amount of time and energy that you could use to do things like:

  • Spend more time with your kids.
  • Get more exercise.
  • Start meditating.
  • Call someone in your family.
  • Read books and join a book club.
  • Spend more time in nature.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Write a book.
  • Meet friends for dinner.
  • Get your house organized.
  • Volunteer.
  • Become a tourist in your hometown: take a ghost tour or go for a walk and discover your neighborhood or downtown.
  • Catch up on a key project.
  • Visit a museum.
  • Think of a side gig you could start to earn more money.
  • Take a class, such as painting or ceramics.
  • Cook more meals at home.
  • Take classes to build your professional skills, such as how to network or be a better public speaker.

The opportunities are as endless as your imagination. In all likelihood, social media isn’t doing much to enhance your life, so replacing it with activities that do will give you a lot more meaning and happiness.

Reading more can especially be beneficial, but at first, you might find it hard to do. Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” writes in The Atlantic that our Internet use is literally changing our brains. We skim now, jumping from topic to topic and constantly getting distracted by ads or other embedded links. This skimming keeps us from becoming truly engaged in what we read. It’s also becoming harder and harder for us to “deep read,” which is when we sit and read for an extended period, becoming immersed in the text.

That’s why reading more books can be so beneficial. You’ll teach your brain how to process information on a deeper level. You’ll relearn how to focus on a text for longer periods. And you’ll build critical thinking skills that will help you better process information in all aspects of your life.

8. Make It Harder to Get Online

One way to reduce the time you spend in front of a screen is to make it harder to get online.

For example, if you’re a chronic online shopper, use a service like StayFocusd to block “genres” of websites, such as those with an online store, so you can’t shop. If you can’t stop checking Google News throughout the day, delete the app from your phone. If you’re an artist who loves scrolling through Instagram for inspiration, then delete everyone who doesn’t inspire you from your feed and only keep those who do.

Do whatever it takes to put up roadblocks to the Internet.

9. Put Your Phone Away

When you need to focus, your best strategy is to put your phone away, ideally in another room. Not only will you be more productive, but you’ll also think better. According to a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, the mere presence of your smartphone while you’re working reduces your cognitive capacity.

So don’t just turn off your ringer when you need to get something accomplished. Find a place to store your phone that’s outside your immediate area. According to the study, even if you’re great at focusing on the task at hand and ignoring your phone, you’ll still think about it if it’s in the room, and those thoughts will decrease the mental faculties you have available for doing the work that matters.

10. Cut Down On or Quit Social Media

The fear of missing out is very real for many people, which is partly why social media is so prevalent in our society. We want to stay connected and informed, and we want the validation of being “liked.” When our kids say something cute, we have an irresistible urge to share it so that other people laugh.

The problem is that, all too often, social media eats up our day and winds up making us feel very dissatisfied with our life. Instead of being present, we see experiences for how they would look in a tweet or a photograph on Instagram. Social media is also an easy way to distract us from feelings or situations we’d rather not deal with at the moment.

If using a particular social media platform is a problem for you, delete the app from your phone and only use your computer for social media. Or, commit to checking social media only at a specific time, such as during lunch.

It’s also important to think about why you use social media. For example, many people turn to social media for a mental break when they’re exhausted at work; this is especially true around 3pm or 4pm when their brains have been maxed out by the workday. Instead of turning to social media, think of how you can give yourself a break in a different way, such as going for a walk outside, getting a cup of tea or coffee with a colleague, or calling a friend.

You can also consider quitting social media entirely. People do it all the time; Google “I quit social media,” and you’ll see over 31 million stories from people who ditched Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and everything else. Even celebrities like Aziz Ansari have done it — although Ansari did a major digital detox and even swore off email and Internet. If you’re ready for a serious change, quitting social media might be just what you need.

Need more inspiration? Check out Newport’s 2016 TED Talk, “Quit Social Media.”

Final Word

I’ve been an insomniac for years, until recently when I took all digital technology out of my bedroom

I used to bring my phone to bed just so I had a way to check the time in the middle of the night. To stop this, I bought an analog clock that lights up.

I used to read my Kindle in bed to relax. But the same day I set up my new clock, a power outage fried my Kindle while I was charging it, so I went back to reading paper books before bed until I bought a new one. However, I noticed that my insomnia disappeared that night, and every night since then. For the first time in well over a decade, I’m consistently getting a full night’s sleep. And I attribute this change to the “digital-free” routine I now have before bed.

Cutting back on digital pursuits and taking time to organize your digital files can be incredibly liberating. You just might regain a sense of control, feel more organized and productive, and find that you don’t really miss social media at all. You also might start sleeping better.

What about you? Do you use any strategies to control your digital files or limit the time you spend online? What works for you?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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