Reducing Digital Clutter

Published: 2023-01-07

I recently wrote about what we direct our focus on determines our reality and the importance of protecting our attention. I wanted to delve a bit further on the topic digital distractions a bit more in regards to digital "clutter". I mentioned that a skill in the 21st century is knowing what not to pay attention to (a "power" according to Yuval Noah Harari), but I think another crucial skill we can obtain in the digital age is the ability to discard data/information.

We no long have scarcity with digital goods. We also have high speed internet connections and incredibly cheap data storage devices making it all too easy to become digital hoarders. We're saving things and then deluding ourselves that we'll use that data in the future at some point. The reality is that there's far too much information to absorb during our lifetimes, so we must practice the skill of knowing what's worth saving and what should be discarded. I'm not just referring to the regular digital items that we keep on our phones and laptops like documents, photos, videos, and music, but also online accounts, apps on our phones, programs on our computers, bookmarks, and emails. It's become all too easy to store things permanently.

The first question that someone may very well ask is 'Why not hold onto literally every digital item?'. First off, unless you're super organized (which itself can be a time consuming), searching for something can become a real hassle. Additionally, even though storage is cheap, storage devices do have a financial cost. There's also the mental space it takes up. You stumble across this content on your storage device and lie to yourself thinking "oh yeah, I downloaded that video course with all the lectures and assignments - I'll do that someday." Lastly, certain pieces of data we store online like photos, documents, emails, and most especially long forgotten accounts, can become liabilities in the future. Data breaches are all too common and could lead to embarrassment at the least or used against you in the future at the worst.

A while back I had gone through exports from old online accounts that I've long since deleted such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and 23andMe, as well as old college assignments, slides, notes, and essays I had written. Guess what - 99.9% of it was garbage, but I found myself struggling to delete them because "I might want them someday and that they aren't taking up much digital space." I imagine this is the same kind of reasoning of a hoarder in the physical world. One example, I used Google Voice as both my voicemail service and primary number for the longest time. I had literally thousands of voicemails in that export and it was interesting choosing one at random and listening to the voices of people that were once in my life regularly a decade ago, or people that have since past away. But again, basically all of these voicemails were junk. There was nothing interesting or profound in any of them.

Photos have been another area. Reviewing the photos I've taken from the past 20 years, there was a ridiculous amount of blurry duplicates or photos that were simply terrible in quality. I went back year by year and deleted many of these. I'm now much more intentional when I take a photo rather than how I used to just snap a picture of every little thing at the time.

I also have a fairly extensive ebook collection that I've garnered over the years. Hundreds of ebooks in fact, but over time I've done my best to reduce these into "Will read in the future", "Archive - Finished Reading", and "Archive - Likely Won't Read". Anything that didn't fit into one of those categories were deleted. I read roughly a dozen books per year, maybe a bit more when I take several months off from watching TV shows. Assuming my life expectancy is 80 years old and I read 15 books per year, that means I could realistically read 675 books before I'm dead.

Some other things that I've managed to accumulate have been online courses which I managed to obtain an offline copy of, such as web development, philosophy, and psychology courses. I had also had quite the collection of outdated and obscure digital versions of scientific encyclopedias - much of which were way over my head. When it comes to online courses, I've simply acknowledged to myself that unless I'm pursuing a certification of some sort, there's a high likelihood that I'll never finish it. In fact, of the dozens of free online courses I've signed up for through the likes of Coursera and EdX, I completed exactly one. My new rule of thumb is that if I'm not going to get to it in the next 6 months, to just delete it.

I've also done the same with my read-it-later list (via Wallabag) of the articles that I intend to read. When I imported these articles from Pocket to Wallabag, I realized I had around 700 articles in this list that I apparently wanted to read at some point, some of which were 7 years old on topics I had since lost interest in. My rule of thumb now is to keep no more than 20 articles saved at a time.

This isn't to say I never save anything that is useful or worth keeping. It's about being able to identify what's useful and worth keeping. The hardest part here is being completely honest with myself that I'm never going to read this book, use this account, watch this sci-fi TV series from the 1990's, or take this computer science course. If I don't need it or know I'll probably never use it, it's just going to get in the way.

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