Digital clean up day

Updated: Mar 27, 2024

In case you missed it, March 16th 2024 was Digital Clean Up Day, a global initiative aimed at raising awareness about digital pollution, encouraging individuals and companies to declutter and organise their online presence.

So why is this important and what’s in it for us?

The impact of digital clutter #

Notifications piling up, a disorganised desktop, an overflowing inbox, hundreds of open browser tabs – at some point, we’ve all felt overwhelmed by the digital stuff we accumulate.

When we’re disorganised we struggle to focus, we loose things, we repeat ourselves, we loose track of the task at hand and our productivity slows.

In Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice, Hoa Loranger talks about how excess of choices often leads to fatigue and impacts our decision making.

“As the number of choices increases, so does the effort required to collect information and make good decisions.”

Hoa’s article primarily concerns user experience, but the same is true of digital clutter – it’s difficult to avoid decision paralysis when too many options are on the table. All that chaos creates inefficiency and negatively impacts mental wellbeing. Over the long term it can lead to chronic stress and anxiety.

And then there’s the physical impact.

Digital hoarding, as it’s commonly know, is a direct product of using software which makes it easy to accumulate files, and not so easy to delete them. All this data requires vast amounts of computing power to process, which depletes batteries faster and reduces the lifespan of our digital devices, as a result.

Let’s not forget that all these files need to be stored somewhere, too. Many of the apps we use rely on cloud storage to store the files we create, and this has to be paid for. The more digital clutter we create, the more we find ourselves paying for extra storage space to accommodate. And this incessant need for storage has a detrimental impact on the environment.

As Gerry McGovern puts it in The World Wide Waste:

“Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth. Every time I download an email I contribute to global warming. Every time I tweet, do a search, check a webpage, I create pollution. Digital is physical. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy. It seems invisible. It seems cheap and free. It’s not. Digital costs the Earth.”

This is the sad and unfortunate realisation that most of us are now facing, so what can we do about it?

Organising your life with a digital declutter #

Digital decluttering helps to reduce digital distractions and reveal what’s important.

As Iryna Komazova writes in Embracing simplicity: the indubitable benefits of reducing digital clutter:

“Reducing digital clutter is synonymous with prioritizing what truly matters”.

With fewer distractions it is easier to focus. With less stuff competing for our attention, productivity improves and we feel less stress and anxiety.

But digital decluttering doesn’t just positively impact our productivity and personal wellbeing. It also improves our finances and helps to reduce the impact digital is having on the planet.

Less clutter requires less computing power and less storage space, which reduces the negative impact to our wallets and the environment.

How to clean up your digital presence #

Reducing digital clutter can be a time consuming process. But for the aforementioned reasons, it’s well worth the effort. Here are a few ideas of how you might make a start decluttering your digital existence.

Clean up your smartphone by deleting unused apps and delete large media files sent in group chats. Move older photos onto an external hard drive. I tend to do this at the beginning of each year, only keeping the previous years worth of photos and videos on my device.

Clean out your mailbox(s) by organising any emails you need to keep hold of in folders and archiving or deleting old emails which are no longer needed.

Clean up your hard drive by organising active projects into folders and deleting old files or moving them to an external hard drive.

You might also consider deleting the data from any web apps you no longer use and closing your accounts.

As I wrote about previously, there’s plenty of software to help you delete existing data from social media, cloud storage and hard drives.

I’d also recommend reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, if you haven’t already. In the book, Cal offers a full 30-day plan to help you digitally declutter. What’s interesting about Cal’s approach is that it’s less about cleaning up digital artefacts and more to do with learning how to be intentional about the technology you use. There’s plenty to take from it.

What I’m doing to clean up my digital presence #

I’m currently working on decluttering my Notion account, with the aim to eventually move all content out of the app, so I can close my account. For a long while I used Notion for everything, so unfortunately this isn’t a small task.

Where possible, I’m trying to reduce my dependency on apps which rely on cloud storage or make it difficult to control your data. Instead, favouring applications which use local storage or give me more control over the data I create. I’ve written more about this in software that encourages local storage.

A while back I stumbled across Steph Ango’s File over app philosophy:

“If you want to create digital artefacts that last, they must be files you can control, in formats that are easy to retrieve and read. Use tools that give you this freedom.”

This makes a lot of sense from the perspective of ownership, resilience and sustainability. Data that you control is typically much easier to organise and manage.

Obsidian, the Markdown based writing app, of which Steph is the founder, follows the File over app philosophy. I’m using it for pretty much everything that I once used Notion for – note taking, bookmarking, project management, you name it. All this now happens in plain-text files inside an Obsidian vault (folder) on my local machine.

One of the many things I like about this approach is that working with plain-text files makes decluttering a simple task. I can either delete files I no longer need or move files that I’ve archived to an external hard drive for safe keeping. Working with markdown files locally also means no vendor lock-in. You’re in full control of your data which has many positive implications for privacy and security.

My goal moving forward is to only use cloud storage for active project files – files I need to access to regularly on multiple devices. Any past projects, which I no longer consider active, or files I need access to infrequently, will all live on an external hard drive.

I have plans to wipe the data from my inactive social media accounts (that’s pretty much all of them) and close all my accounts. But I’m not sure exactly when this will happen as I already have a lot on my plate with this project.

Final thoughts #

The problem with digital clutter is that it’s so much easier to create than clean up. To get on top of the problem we really need to start rethinking how we design software and move away from the patterns currently used.

Sadly, for most of my life online I’ve given little thought to the impact digital clutter is having, both to myself and the environment. I wish I had become aware sooner, as over the years I’ve created my fair share.

But awareness counts for something, at least, and a digital declutter is a good place to start. To make any reasonable progress, I’ve found it helps to dedicated a regular block of time in your calendar to the task. I’m hoping to make this a habit.

To me, my weekly declutter is time well spent. It helps me feel clearer, calmer and more focused with my work. It’s also helping me to think more intentional with the technology I choose to use.

It’s a long road ahead but I’m beginning to think more consciously about the digital artefacts I’m creating and take responsibility for the clutter I’ve already created.

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