Hamlet’s Blackberry. The Joy of Missing Out. Irresistible. Reclaiming Conversation. The Tech-Wise Family.
Recent years have seen a boom in books (and articles) about being digitally mindful — putting down the smartphone, closing the computer, and engaging with real-world, tactile things. All this content makes the case that our devices are sapping a bit of our soul.
And I have to agree. Here on the Art of Manliness, we’ve written about FOMO (and interviewed Christina Crook about JOMO), breaking the smartphone habit, the importance of conversation in a digital world, and more.
This isn’t to say that the digital revolution is a bad thing, just that it needs a little more mindfulness than simply picking up the latest iPhone and diving into the digital ocean with reckless abandon.
In reading these commentaries on the effects technology is having on our lives, and considering both the negative and positive sides of the coin, it occurred to me that perhaps the best way of thinking about how we should engage our digital spaces, is to compare it to how we inhabit our physical ones.
In the same way that “analog” possessions are neither good or bad in and of themselves, but only detract rather than enhance our lives when they become too great in number, require too much maintenance, and clutter up our garages, kitchens, and bedrooms, apps and websites aren’t inherently problematic, but become such when they overwhelm our devices and require too much attention. When they become digital clutter.
Just as physical clutter can cloud the mind and hinder your focus, so can digital clutter. It takes up an inordinate amount of mental space and bandwidth.
Fortunately, just like with physical clutter too, the digital variety can be readily sorted through, organized, and cleaned up. By making the effort to do some digital decluttering — putting everything in its place and ditching what isn’t desirable — you’ll be able to focus better, breathe easier, and reclaim many of those spare moments that have been lost to endless scrolling on Facebook and Instagram.
If you’re ready to vacuum up some digital dust, clean out your closet of apps, and pare down your technological junk drawer, then grab a metaphorical trash bag, and let’s get to work.
The Harm of Digital Clutter
Just as physical clutter leads to stress and a muddled mind, so does digital clutter. It leaves you with what author Scott Hartley calls “constant partial attention.”
It works in the same way that physical clutter sometimes leaves you unable to fully focus on a task: You need to finish up some administrative work at home, but you know there’s a pile of mail that needs your attention, the living room needs vacuuming, and the coat closet is bursting at the seams with junk.
The digital version: Your inbox has thousands of messages. Your smartphone notification window is alerting you to 6 different social media apps that need your attention. You have 19 tabs open, each with some purpose that you’ve probably already forgotten. You have a conversation going with a family member in a variety of different places — text message, Facebook messenger, email — and you can’t keep track of what was last said.
With all that going on just in your little device that you hold in your hand, it becomes impossible to truly focus on any one thing, let alone something that’s truly important.
Scott Hartley states this problem well in The Fuzzy and the Techie:
“It’s a process of constant minor interruptions that delude us into thinking that we’re highly engaged across a number of shallow conversations, but in fact, we’re just continually, partially attuned.”
The very technology that we’ve created has in fact very slowly hijacked all of us. As Christina Crook notes, “Facebook in 2006 was fun, Facebook in 2016 is downright addicting.”
You know the feeling of satisfaction, relaxation, and relief that comes when you’ve tidied up your room or house? It’s the exact same when you tidy up your digital life. You regain the ability to focus on important things — not necessarily productive things, but important things like your family, a good book, even a great meal. (When’s the last time you went a day without checking your smartphone during a meal?)
Identify and Inventory the Problem
The task of physical decluttering often starts by surveying what areas of the house have become overly filled with junk, and deciding on a rubric for figuring out what should stay and what should go.
The job of digital decluttering should begin in the same way.
In The Joy of Missing Out, Christina Crook offers a helpful yardstick for evaluating the effects of our digital “possessions.”
She was inspired by a seemingly unlikely and decidedly un-modern source: Saint Ignatius Loyola, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
While it’s unlikely he created the discipline, he considered what he called “The Examination of Consciousness” (sometimes shortened to simply be called “Examine”) to be the most important spiritual practice one could partake in. It was really quite simple — twice a day, the Christian practitioner would guide themselves through a reflection of their actions and time spent, using the 10 commandments as a guide.
With Ignatius’ Examine as a starting point, Crook created a shorter, modern, secular version designed to inspire reflection. She asks readers to inquire of themselves, on a daily basis, two things (and in this case especially, thinking with your device and internet habits top of mind):
- What today was most life-giving?
- What today was most life-taking?
In just two days of practicing this contemporary Examine I came to realize that most of my digital actions were far more life-taking than giving. What was most life-giving in a normal day? A splendid cup of coffee in the morning alongside a real book, a breath of fresh air in the middle of the day, playing with my son after picking him up from daycare, writing a letter to a friend. Not once in my reflections has anything social media or internet-related been most life-giving.
And yet, before this digital decluttering, I spent a lot of my time on my phone. Granted, I was better than a lot of people. It’s rare that phone time was truly disrupting something, but in spare moments I was playing games, or perusing Facebook, or trying to pick which adorable picture of my kid to post to Instagram. Those spare moments really added up — I’m a little ashamed to say that my game of choice was Two Dots, and I got up to level 1,006 before recently working up the nerve to delete it.
Viewing my digital habits through Crook’s Examine questions helped me to identify the areas of my tech habits that were problematic, and gave me criteria on which needed to be re-organized, pared down, or eliminated.
Before beginning your own decluttering project, I recommend engaging in the same illuminative exercise. The insights that you get will be different than mine, which will allow you to create a more personal plan.
In a lot of the material out there on digital detoxing, you’ll find plenty of prescriptive advice. The thing with clutter (of any kind), though, is that it’s actually fairly personal. A desk with piles of of books and papers and mail on it doesn’t bother me, but a sink full of dishes does. Some folks are just the opposite. Similarly, an email inbox with more than 30 messages in it stresses me out, while plenty of people have never deleted or archived anything and are perfectly happy to leave it that way.
You’ll have to find out for yourself what bothers you — what takes up mental space — and what doesn’t. Don’t necessarily just blindly follow what’s been recommended by others. Experiment and tailor your digital decluttering to your wants and needs.
How to Declutter Your Digital Life
Once you’ve determined which of your digital habits are more life-taking than life-giving, it’s time to take a broom to the former.
Below I walk you through some steps — both easy and not-so-easy — to tidy things up. Some of them may seem a little intense, but I encourage you to give them a try. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, and as The Strenuous Life implores — “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.”
Since our age is pushing us hard into the abstract and distracting, don’t be afraid to be similarly ruthless with your decluttering — to go to what other people might call “extremes.” You can always add back in what you miss and what you discover is truly life-giving. Sometimes when cleaning up, you just need to throw it all out and start with a blank slate.
Christina Crook did this by going internet-free for 31 days. After going nuclear for a month, she added back in what was useful and beneficial (and also kept the good habits and routines she discovered in that month).
Kyle Eschenroeder did something similar with his Input Deprivation Week. For seven days, he lived without blogs, social media, and online news sites of any kind (among other non-internet forms of input too). He realized the space they were taking up in his life, and noticed a slew of benefits from taking a break:
“It will increase mindfulness, increase the respect you have for your own ideas, you’ll have more ideas, unsolvable life problems may begin to make sense, you’ll have an increased appreciation for the news that actually matters, you’ll become more social, you’ll gain perspective, and you’ll become more original.”
With the principle of doing more rather than less in mind, let’s get into specific tactics for reducing the digital clutter in your life:
Cull your email inbox. Let your inbox become a sacred space. By utilizing filters for any advertising or social media email, and by unsubscribing to anything I’m not actively interested in reading, my inbox has become a place where I know that almost anything that comes in is either important, or from a friend or loved one (which I’m interested in even if it isn’t all that important!).
Rather than letting Redbox into your inbox to tell you the new releases, just go to the website when you want to rent a movie. Rather than letting Target suck you in with coupons, search out the coupons when you need something.
Practice Inbox Zero if you’re into that; if it doesn’t bother you, not a big deal. Personally though, knowing I have a fairly empty inbox at the end of the day clears up a bunch of mental space.
Get rid of apps on your homescreen(s). The homescreens on our smartphones are hotbeds for clutter. Between apps, folders for apps, and notifications, it’s pretty much constantly beckoning for our attention. If you have an Android phone, if you delete an app from a homescreen, it’s not gone, it just goes away into a slightly-harder-to-access app section. I’ve done this, so if I want to get to Instagram, I’ve added a step besides simply unlocking my phone. I now have to navigate to apps, then to Instagram. Just one extra step has me checking on a weekly basis rather than a few-times-per-day basis. My homescreen now only has apps that I use regularly for life-giving or practical purposes: Kindle, flashlight, kid’s mode, camera, phone, email, text messaging, and Starbucks. And boy is it nice.
(On iPhones, it’s a little harder, as apps are downloaded automatically onto the homescreen. Utilize folders, multiple homescreens with less on them, or the below option of losing your apps altogether.)
Decluttered homescreen(s), decluttered mind. You’ll no longer be mindlessly sucked into 20 minutes of Facebook scrolling because you’re worried you’re missing out on something. If you don’t see that little blue F button, there’s a good chance you won’t even think about it (or if you do, you’ll think about it much less).
Ditch apps altogether and use your browser or your computer. Frankly, I love this tactic. Get rid of all the apps on your phone and force yourself to use its browser, or your home computer, when you need a social media fix or to search for something. Apps are clutter. Period.
Need to look up flights? Right now? Doubtful. It can wait until you’re in front of a computer. If it can’t, use your phone’s browser. In general, apps give us permission to feel the need to check or look something up instantly, when that is rarely, if ever, a true need. We check the weather app constantly only because we can. Ten years ago we survived with weather reports on the news, maybe looking it up on a computer, or heaven forbid, stepping outside to feel the temp and look at the sky. Now, I check the temperature on my phone while standing in front of a window. Seems a little silly.
As noted above, don’t be afraid to go nuclear with your apps and mass delete things, and if you find you really need something, download it again knowing that it’s truly useful.
Ditch all notifications. Okay, this is somewhat prescriptive advice. Notifications are clutter, just like a pile of mail on your table is clutter. It’s stuff that’s just begging to be opened and looked at and dealt with. Except whereas your mailbox might have 5 items to look through, between email and social media and news alerts, you could have hundreds of things to wade through every day. Mental clutter.
Treat your notifications more like you do your actual mailbox. When you get snail mail, it’s not chucked through the window at you the instant it arrives at the postal service’s distribution center. That would be rather distracting. Instead, it’s sorted and delivered in a bundle all together at a single time during the day. Take 15-20 minutes once or twice a day to check email, news, social media, etc. Don’t let it clutter your day and interrupt the important things you’re doing.
And while you’ll generally think of notifications in terms of your smartphone, ditch ‘em on your computer too. There are multiple inboxes I keep track of for work, but I’ve limited desktop notifications to only my main account. And I’ve also disabled all social media desktop notifications. Those are things that can be checked at set times during the day.
Stick to 1-2 social networks. I have personally found that trying to maintain regular use of multiple social networks to be just too much. It takes a lot of brainspace to check and be active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, SnapChat, and more all in the same day. So I’ve decided that in addition to deleting most apps from my phone, I won’t even try to keep up with more than Facebook or Instagram, and won’t maintain a presence on even those platforms beyond posting a weekly or bi-weekly photo. I’ve also taken up letter writing to keep in touch with people I truly care about. It’s far more satisfying for both parties than simply “liking” a social media update.
Put your phone away. When you come home and throw your keys into a basket, catchall, or other small container, toss your phone in with them. When it’s with you — and in your pocket — the mental clutter of an entire internet’s worth of headlines and viral videos can be too much to resist. Having your phone always next to you is like having a stack of newspapers and magazines on the floor that you have yet to read. Only when you ditch the newspapers because you realize they’re literally old news will the mental space they’re crouching on be freed up. Same goes with your phone. Those memes don’t call to you if your phone isn’t within reach.
Change your “zoning out” routine. Plenty of people, myself included, cite phone use as a way to zone out and chillax a little bit at certain points throughout the day. Maybe you had a long day at work, or your kids were being extra rambunctious during dinner. So when it’s time to kick back and relax a little, you grab your phone for some mindless browsing and social media scrolling. You need to just not think for a little bit.
But in doing so, you’re adding to your digital and mental clutter. You’re actually filling your brain with more FOMO and more headlines that don’t usually convey anything important. You want to empty your mind, but you’re only adding to it.
Rather than zoning out by engaging the digital clutter, do something else. Anything else. Pick up a book — some easy-reading cheap thriller will do. Sit outside with a homebrew or a cocktail and watch the sunset. Bake some bread. Carve a spoon. Jumpstart your journaling. These are the things that will truly declutter your digital life. While your phone calls you in a million different directions and to dozens of apps to constantly check, doing something tactile often requires that you focus on one thing at a time.
While these actions often necessitate more effort to start than simply grabbing your phone, resolve to do it, and once you’re in the moment, you’ll realize it’s far better than staring at a screen.
When it comes to spring cleaning this year, don’t just think of tidying up your physical spaces, but take time to declutter your digital ones too. Determine which of your digital devices, apps, and emails are taking from your life rather than giving to it, and organize or eliminate the vitality suckers. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” doesn’t just apply to your clothes and dishes, but to your phone, and your habits, too.
Listen to our podcast with Cal Newport for even more about digital minimalism:
The Joy of Missing Out by Christina Crook
A Year of No Clutter by Eve Schaub
The Fuzzy and the Techie by Scott Hartley