Declutter Your Digital Life

Kellen Evan


Categories: Programming Health

Many years ago, I had my life transformed by a silly book about cleaning. It was called: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and it was written by tidying Marie Kondō. Marie suggests taking a step back from your busy life, breathing deeply, then decluttering your life in one ruthless material purge.

To become happier, more productive, and less stressed, she teaches one how to craft a simplified existence surrounded only by the things that spark joy within. Applying the advice was profound, however it missed one important area for the technically minded: the machines.

We often line our apartments and desks with relics of our past. We start to get weighted down. Whether it’s the minimalist movement or the blitzkrieg on clutter led by Marie Kondō, the promise of a lighter existence through reduced material mass has inspired many to turf their excess.

“The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.” - Marie Kondō, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Many of my peers seem to be embracing philosophies of reduction. Working in the technical realm, I’ve seen beautiful and minimal bags, offices and work stations; the brilliant attention-to-detail and efficiency one etches into their programs represented to the outside world with clean lines, invisible wires, and no finger-prints.

I find when I look deeper, the facade of neatness falls apart. Like the duck’s busy feet under-water, the calm on the surface belies the scramble underneath.

Let’s consider that our brains have a limited amount of Random Access Focus (RAF). Do you fall victim to any of these common clutter-bugs that lead to burnout-causing focus leaks?

“Clutter is the physical manifestation of unmade decisions fueled by procrastination” ― Christina Scalise, Organize Your Life and More

Bookmarks and Reading Lists

The content aggregator is a scourge on internal balance and productivity. As we scroll… and scroll… and scroll… through HackerNews, Reddit, Slashdot, whatever our poison, a spritz of dopamine tells us this article is worth our time.

“I don’t have time now”, we hedge… “but tomorrow I will definitely want to read this!” – bookmark! Tomorrow arrives and the prospect of undiscovered gems of wisdom has us scrolling again, adding trophies to our never-ending reservoir of pending wisdom.

I’ve seen many reading lists that contain enough withering content to have their potential purveyor reading well into their next decade.

Config Files

“To reach the next level, I need to have this in my .vimrc!”

“If I can’t tmux like some sort of lazer-wizard, I’ll fall behind.”

“This version is bugged, so I’ll put the work around in my config”.

I often witness rookies - and many a wily veteran - fall into this trap. Letting your configuration files fall into disarray can cause future headaches. I’ve even witnessed someone - who definitely isn’t me - cry over issues stemming from contradicting $PATH variables in disparate .zsh config files.

The answer to this cluttered puzzle is to organize your .dotfiles. It’s a project. You can begin here. Book a chunk of work time to cleanly organize and audit your configuration files. Remove what you don’t need, comment on them so you know what they do, format them nicely, then check them into version control.

Afterwards, if you can clone your .dotfiles and have a new machine custom-tailored to your liking then you’ve succeeded.

Tabs and Windows

The most common affliction in the world of digital clutter. Tabs have a weed-like way of choking out productivity. It seems like a typical case for most to have 50 tabs on standby before lunch time. I understand the quandry; your solution is divided over Stack Overflow, this fresh guide, and a four month old cryptic conversation.

To make things more confounding, we might have three Google accounts. One personal, one work, and one for our side project. Each of them containing 20 tabs across varied contexts.

Proactive slaying of tabs will prevent you from drowning. We don’t want to disrupt our flow, but we can take 10 minutes before lunch and 10 minutes at the end of the day to take a cold and calculated look at what we have open.

Desktop, Downloads, Folders, Cloud Storage

Most people develop some form of file organizational system. Despite our best efforts, things will start to pool up. Wherever the ingress point, the way out of the jungle is the same. Maintain full awareness of where you are storing things.

Do you need to have local copies? Do you have duplications? Is it requisite that you download the attachment from your email, given the impressive nature of its search capabilities?

Say thank you if you no longer need things and don’t hesitate to banish them to the ether of the trash bin. Stick to your system, don’t repeat yourself, and make cleaning the nooks and crannies a regular routine.

Notification Hell

Myriad devices, more chat programs than we have digits to count them, mailing lists… Notifications feel good but the machines have grown out of control. Our reward systems are as finely manipulated as social networks are astro-turfed. Notifications are white sugar. Notifications are digital cocaine.

To combat the deluge, unsubscribe to mailing lists you are no longer interested in. Consolidate communication programs when you can. Flag SPAM as SPAM. Clear emails with zeal. Silence notifications within generous “off-hours”. Schedule a period each day where you check emails and texts, instead of responding immediately on their terms.

If you’re into gaming, mobile games like Clash of Clans and Farmville masterfully abuse the same cognitive systems that makes us feel like champions when we get notifications. Beware. If the only requirement for success is time/money expenditure, you aren’t playing the game; you’re being gamed.

Pirate Booty

Arrr’! I get it. It’s a precious collection. Before NetFlix and Spotify, your home-servers and media centres were a living chronicle of your keen ability to harvest the boundless fruits of stolen digital goods. Terabyte upon terabyte of old TV shows, trillions of MP3s (or flac files, my audiophiles), and every movie ever released in English… and Japanese?

Say thank you and then let it go… There is little difference between this bit-rotting collection and the unkempt hordes of dusty-boxed DVDs in your aunt’s basement.

Drafts and Half-Completed Projects

Before writing this, I drank my own potion. I vaporized tens of thousands of words of half-baked opus. The experience of partially finishing these works was enough for me. I thanked them for the journey we took together, apologized that no one would ever see them, then opened up a blank page.

My mind blossomed into the cleanliness of my working space. No longer did the far-reaches of my conscious fragment thoughts for this piece or that piece. Just the things you’re writing in this moment.

A clean machine, a clean mind. Our jobs are hard enough without burning most of our cognitive fuel simply navigating the labyrinth of windows, tabs, and files that we’ve built around ourselves. We only have so much focus and energy to allocate.

As we take steps to improve our focus, relax and maintain energy, we think to minimize the excess that we carry around in the physical world. To get closer to clarity in the modern world, don’t forget to tend to the dim corners of your digital work-spaces.

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” ― Albert Einstein