Your Four-Step, Digital-Clutter Detox Plan

Digital clutter can be just as anxiety-inducing as piles of useless junk on your desk. Here’s a four-step detox process.

Your Four-Step, Digital-Clutter Detox Plan
[Photo: Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis]

There are two sides to the messy workspace story, according to science. One says that keeping things neat prompts other productive behaviors such as eating healthier and doing socially responsible things like giving to charity. Recent research from the University of Minnesota found that working amid clutter actually encouraged creativity.


But judging by the numerous blogs, books, and the zeal for tiny houses, Americans are embracing minimalism and order. “I think so many people became sick of possessing so much stuff,” organizing guru Marie Kondo told us.

Kondo’s core philosophy is simple: get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy. And while that is easy to assess on a desk filled with the daily detritus of work (agenda from a 2013 meeting versus a child’s artwork), there is another, larger, and likely less organized pile of stuff lurking on your phone or in your computer. Digital clutter can be just as anxiety inducing as piles of junk, because it makes us feel guilty and signals that our work is never done. It’s a productivity killer, because we can keep so much more of it, and waste time slogging through stuff to get to what we need.

Consider the number of files and folders scattered across your digital desktop. Contacts in your virtual address book(s), photos on Flickr, Picasa, Apple’s Photostream, or on memory cards, documents in your flash drives, apps on your phone, slide decks in virtual storage. Are you hyperventilating yet?

You may not have Distributed Data Disorder, but it’s certainly likely that you’re hanging on to virtual junk that could be deleted, or at least organized. The problem is not only that the task can seem monumental in the space of a workday, it’s also that parting with even the most useless item can cause psychological pain, as researchers from the Yale School of Medicine discovered.

To do this as painlessly as possible, we scoured the web for tools and tips that facilitate the process.

Step One: The Data Dump

Do an audit of your digital workspaces, advises Jen Cohen-Crompton, editor-in-chief at business software and services provider The Neat Company. In an interview with Business News Daily, Cohen-Crompton says it’s important to clearly define what is necessary to your daily workflow.


“Evaluate each document. Immediately eliminate duplicates, get rid of things that are outdated, and delete [files] that no longer serve you,” she says. Color coding that corresponds to any paper files can help, as does archiving those folders that aren’t needed day-to-day. Ditto for unused programs. Uninstall and eliminate icons you don’t use.

Step Two: The Digital Dustbuster

An overflowing email inbox is probably one of the biggest stress producers in the workplace. But getting to inbox zero doesn’t actually have to happen to achieve a more Zen state of mail.

Using labels and filters can streamline what’s incoming, but don’t get too archive happy, cautions Kelsey Manning. “I know it feels nice to use all these pretty labels you’ve set up for yourself, but most of the time, when you’re finished with something, you can just trash it.”

Still hesitating over deletions? Consider this not-so-fun fact: Spam generates 22 million tons of carbon dioxide in a year, but checking emails with attachments uses the most electricity and generates the most carbon dioxide, according to McAfee.

The makers of Electrolux (yes, the physical vacuum cleaners) launched the “World Wide Vac” late last year, in effort to reduce clutter and save energy. It works by scouring your Gmail inbox to delete items such as promotional emails or those older than three years.

Step Three: The Great Download Deletion

When was the last time you peeked into your downloads folder? You know, the one that’s stuffed to bursting with every attachment you’ve ever received via email. It’s time, not only because it will feel good to ditch those useless PDFs and photos, but also because it’s likely dragging down your computer by hogging all that storage space.


Step Four: Defriend Detox

This may be the toughest to pull off, but the weight of social streams can disrupt your productivity–even when you use them for work. You could just quit Facebook altogether (painlessly, by substituting Instagram or another social network), or you could whittle down your friends, fans, and followers to only the most essential.

Twitter offers a nifty solution that doesn’t require dumping the person. You can simply mute them, so they don’t show up in your feed. Likewise, if you don’t want to unfriend someone on Facebook, but could care less about their kids, cats, etc., you can just unfollow their updates, clearing up your newsfeed for relevant stuff only.

Finally, the best thing you can do to deal with digital clutter is to head it off before you fall back into your hoarding ways. Designate as few as five minutes each day to deal with downloads, email, apps, and whatever else crosses your digital workspace. Get rid of what you don’t need immediately, so you don’t have to spend hours sifting through it down the road.

Watch Marie Kondo organize Fast Company editor Erin Schulte’s messy desk


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.