Digital Clutter Confessions

by Tammy Strobel on August 23, 2011

The more I let go, the more time I have to focus on the stuff that matters, like writing and spending quality time with friends and family. Decluttering excess stuff, in both the physical and digital world, is emotionally freeing. I didn’t realize how much my digital clutter was weighing me down until I started to hit the delete button.

It would be possible for me to save every photo, song, movie, letter, or conversation that I’ve had because I can save my files on a device the size of a deck of cards. Or I could put all of my digital junk into “the cloud” and it wouldn’t take up any physical space!

Even though digital documents aren’t physically obtrusive they still cause emotional angst. For example, have you ever sorted through hundreds of digital documents because you can’t find a specific file or photo?

A Little Background . . .

My digital clutter resembled a big pile of stuff that hadn’t been touched in years. Earlier this year, I decided to stop procrastinating and start organizing my digital files. I cleaned up the archives and deleted over 400 posts! And I’m still not done sorting through the old content. Why purge so many old articles?

Most of my posts in 2008 weren’t useful and about 30% of the articles contained ridiculous cat photos. Cat photos aren’t inherently bad. But they are much better when paired with an appropriate article.

A Blank Slate or Reorganization?

I considered “blanking the slate,” but decided against that option. (At least for now.) Rather than deleting everything, I decided to keep the good stuff and purge the bad.

In addition to deleting old posts, I cleaned up my hard drive and trashed essays and research papers from graduate school. I kept my eBooks, music, photos, and my current writing projects. I also changed the organizational structure of my files again.

Right now I have five folders where I save my writing. The folders are: 

-Blog Posts
-Book
-Letters
-Tiny House
-Archive (When I’m done with an essay it immediately goes into my archives folder.)

Deleting my digital clutter wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. It took about eight hours to go through all my old blog posts, essays and papers. On the surface, eight hours seems like a lot of time. Organizing my documents is worth the time because it will save me many hours in the future.

A Few More Projects

Over the last week, I deleted 9,000 pictures from my photo library and kept 250. Why? Every time I opened up Lightroom, I was totally overwhelmed. Most of the photos weren’t very good and I didn’t tag them appropriately, so it was hard to locate what I needed. As I move forward, my photo library will be limited to my best shots and I’ll be tagging my pictures too.

My next big project is figuring out what to do with all my flickr photos. Right now I have about 10,000 pictures on site and I’m considering deleting a lot of the photos.

In addition, RowdyKittens is being revamped. I’m decluttering the blog so that the main focus is on my writing and photography. You’ll probably notice some changes over the next few months.

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If you’ve been thinking about decluttering your digital world, here’s a quick and easy guide to get you going:

  • Inventory your digital files. Go through your documents and figure out what you use regularly and what stuff has been sitting on your hard drive for way too long. If you haven’t opened a file in more than a year, you probably don’t need it. So hit the delete button.
  • Tell someone about your goal. Whenever I set a big goal, I tell my close circle of friends and I write it down too. The physical act of writing out my goal and telling someone about it holds me accountable. I’m more likely to follow through if I have support from friends and family members.
  • Start fresh. If you’re brave and bold, you can always start fresh and delete all of your old documents to make room for the new.
  • Finally, make the process fun! Clearing out the digital clutter feel so good and refreshing.

Do you have any tips to add to the list?

1 Mike | Homeless On Wheels August 23, 2011

You might add to your list:

Don’t get too stressed over it – take your time, it’s only bits and bytes.

Attack it like a physical decluttering task: Move everything to an external hard drive or a designated folder, leaving essentially a blank slate. Then peruse the contents of the temporary drive or folder and bring back only what you need or want. Keep the rest for a predetermined time (several months up to a year) in case you forgot something important. At the end of that period, wipe the temporary drive or delete the temporary folder and enjoy your new digital minimalism.

2 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

Great tips Mike! There is no rush to declutter. I’ve found that it’s easier if I take my time. Then I don’t get stressed out. :)

3 rob August 23, 2011

I *so* need to do this. The dramatic lowering of the cost of storage over the last two decades has made it easy for me to accumulate so much “stuff” that I can’t find anything. Not only anything from 10 years ago, but things that I know I touched 6 months ago. Perhaps it’s time to decide where I’m going with my digital world and do a big purge.

As for telling other people – not necessarily as good an idea as you’d immediately think.. http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html

4 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

@Rob – I say go for it! :) Great talk by Sivers. Thanks for sharing!

5 Tanja August 23, 2011

The bit about deleting the old cat posts made me instantly want to go read them. ;)

6 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

@Tanja – LOL! I still have crazy cat photos on flickr. :)

7 Tanja August 26, 2011

Well you got to keep a few hiding somewhere. ;) I seem to recall I’ve got a dog wearing reindeer ears sitting on my blog. I’m going to take a hint from you and go clear up some of my files too.

Thanks for the inspiration Tammy.

8 Ryan August 23, 2011

Here’s my story. Kind of a bummer, but hear me out.

In late June I bought a GoPro Hero HD camera with a mount for my bicycle. A few weeks later I bought a 2 terabyte external hard drive because I was quickly clogging up my computer with gigabytes upon gigabytes of videos. I started posting edited videos to a free site (not YouTube, but similar) but found out a couple of weeks later that there is no way to keep spammers and other “undesirables” from adding you as a contact, making it appear as if you wholeheartedly support them – with direct links back to your homepage. So this is why it’s free? Um, no thanks. Delete!

I also began thinking about the matter of ownership of posted content – one of my main objections to sites such as Facebook & Myspace, as things seem to tip heavily in their favour. YouTube is owned by Google and is free as well. Such philanthropy!

If I can find a good hosting package I may start my own website and post my videos on it, if visitors could “stream” the videos. But, then again, these are home videos and might just bore the neighbours. :) I need a solution that makes me happy. I haven’t found it yet.

9 derek sisterhen | pastdueradio.com August 23, 2011

I’m feeling this post! I got so overwhelmed by my blog and podcast this summer, I just sort of shut down. I love producing new material for both, but mixing the time involved to do that with the time required to stay on top of all my digital dealings and I pretty much wanted to curl up in the fetal position and start sucking my thumb.

The word of the week in my world has been “boundaries” – what am I doing to shore them up? What do they need to look like so I stay healthy (physically and digitally)?

At some point we have to just start saying ‘No’ to some things, don’t we?

10 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

@Derek – You are right on! Setting healthy boundaries and saying no once in a while is a good thing. Yet, I’ve always struggled with that.

Have you considered taking a digital sabbatical? I took a month off the Internet in July and doing that helped me refocus. It was a much needed break.

Also, you might want to read this post by Sandra: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Digital Overwhelm.

11 Yan | Towards simplicity August 24, 2011

You got me thinking. I recently have had to delete pictures from my computer to make room for a software update. By going through a single month (August of 2010, 2009, 2008, etc., as far back as I have digital pictures), I was able to delete nearly 400 pictures that were simply horrible. I also have 1,700 songs in iTunes, most of which haven’t been listened to in over a year. Thanks for the insight.

12 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

@Yan – Sweet! I’m happy the post was helpful. I haven’t touched my music library yet. Although, I feel like it’s in a good spot. Usually, when we don’t like a song it’s deleted immediately. :)

13 Jax August 24, 2011

There’s never enough cats, y’know. :)

Seriously, I see what you mean. Cluttering up the harddrive with photos and old documents that you seldom (or never) look at is contra-productive. The best way to do it with photos, I feel, is to delete everything but the best ones and print the rest and put’em on a wall. If you got 250 photos, print a few, put them up, enjoy them and then change them, exhibition-style.

Getting the photos out in the world can be a great confidence booster, too. “See, I did this!”

14 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

Great tips Jax! I might print out a few tiny pictures and hang them in the little house. :) That would be fun!

15 Gina August 24, 2011

Hi Tammy,

As I read this post I thought… yup, this is EXACTLY what I need to do but have been putting it off… for quite a while!? (yikes!) Thanks for the tips… and the inspiration! :0)

ps… I’ve been a regular reader at RowdyKittens for some time now and I’ll be staying tuned in as it evolves!
All the best,
Gina

16 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

@Gina – Thanks so much! Hopefully you like the evolution of the site. I will still be writing about simplicity, happiness and tiny homes. But I’m excited to refresh the design.

Good luck with your digital decluttering. Let me know how it goes. :)

17 Brenda August 24, 2011

Great post, and quite timely! A few days ago, I got a new laptop to replace my old one that stopped working. Aside from a few essential programs, I haven’t put in any programs or files in it yet. On reading your post, I realized that this is the perfect chance to mindfully select what will go on this new computer. I should really do some “digital decluttering” of my external hard drive, where all my computer files are right now. It’s about time…it’s getting difficult to keep track of what I have backed up!

18 Tammy Strobel August 25, 2011

@Brenda – WOW that is perfect timing and such a wonderful way to start fresh. :) Good luck and have fun playing with your new computer!

19 shel August 24, 2011

Hey, Tammy
Wanted to let you know I really like the new, more sparse look of your site! I missed you in July; glad you’re back & looking forward to reading more great posts! I’m pretty digitally-light myself and I’ve been decluttering my physical space steadily over the past year, so I guess the next big clutter pile to whittle away resides upstairs between my ears! Clutter of the mind! :) Peace 2U

20 Tammy Strobel August 25, 2011

@Shel – Thanks for the kind words. It’s good to be back. I’m glad you like the new look of the site.

21 Kane August 24, 2011

Hi Tammy

This post really hits home. Just because we can store so much stuff doesn’t mean it is worth storing. Recently I scanned in a load of photos from 10 to 15 years ago. Reviewing them brought back all sorts of fond memories. Yet of the pictures I scanned maybe 60% are worth keeping.

And how many people have multiple copies of their data, of all types spread across a range of storage media and haven’t needed to refer to it in years?

I’ve recently deleted Gigabytes (you read it right) of stuff all of which were duplicates (the majority) or had no relevance any more.

I’ve started doing the same for books and other ‘hard copy’ materials, very therapeutic.

Great post.

PS The security of storage options is a big issue for me so I figure that one backup is not enough.

22 Sandra Pawula /Always Well Within August 24, 2011

Tammy,

I love the evolving look on your site. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

I appreciate your quick and easy tips for getting going on a digital declutter. Many of us put it off because it just feels too overwhelming. But I did a bout of digital decluttering in August and it didn’t take as long as I thought. And, it feels so refreshing!

I feel drawn to cleaning up my archive too and deleting posts that don’t shine. Thanks for the inspiration in that regard.

23 Sue August 24, 2011

Hi Tammy,

One caveat to ditching the digital files you haven’t looked at in the past year: Even though we should be keeping hard copies of financial, business, or other official documents (Often up to 7 years’ worth for tax purposes), I think it’s a good idea to keep an electronic back-up of those kinds of documents as well, especially if those documents were originally generated or received as electronic files.

I definitely agree that any kind of decluttering project is less stressful when it’s broken down into small chunks over a period of time.

24 Tammy Strobel August 24, 2011

@Sue – Great point! I do have a “tax folder” hidden within my archives folder. For my circumstance, that’s the only “official document” I’ve kept. Also, I don’t keep hard copies of those documents. But they are backed-up. :)

Everyone’s situation is different. What works for me might not work for someone else.

Thanks for stopping by!

25 Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 24, 2011

I second that, Sandra ~ love the new look! :)

Way to go, Tammy ~ the digital clutter is easy to overlook, but clearing it out definitely makes a difference in my energy level + organization. Time for a sort + purge of my own!

26 Tammy Strobel August 25, 2011

Thanks Caroline! :) Let me know how the purge goes. :)

27 Meira August 24, 2011

I keep all my college papers on a jump drive and sync my notebooks between it and my desktop. I only keep five star music, upload all important documents to simplenote. Other documents go to dropbox where i clear out the junk about once a month. All my photo’s are edited and then saved to a folder and flickr. My bookmarks are hosted on bookmarks.google.com . E-mails are deleted after action is taken or put into one of three folders “temp, college, receipts”. That’s about it, then i go through and delete the junk every once in a while. :)

28 Tammy Strobel August 25, 2011

@Meira – Great tips! I’ve used dropbox a few times and it’s really handy. I also like your strategy of clearing out the junk once a month.

Thanks for leaving a comment. :)

29 Tess The Bold Life August 25, 2011

Hi Tammy,
Blanking the slate seems like it would be a real experience in letting go. Not sure I’m up to that one. I need to do exactly what you did, with my photos as well. Thanks for the encouragement.
I love what Gwen said about listening to her clients. I’m going to try that with my girls. Will the feel heard!

30 Tammy Strobel August 25, 2011

@Tess – Yeah, I’m not ready to blank the slate with the site. Maybe some day, but not yet. Although it felt really good to declutter the blog and delete all of my really horrible articles from 08 and 09. :)

Thanks for stopping by!

31 Lisa August 25, 2011

Great going Tammy! The only thing I have to add is that I love your ridiculous cat photos…especially today’s!

32 Patricia Wehner August 26, 2011

Please don’t stop showing us kitty photos – furry children are such an important part of our lives. How is your house coming along? Updates?

33 Tammy Strobel August 26, 2011

@Patricia – The tiny house is coming along really well. I’ll write an update sometime this week or next. In the meantime, take a peek at the photos.

34 Patricia Wehner August 26, 2011

Love it!! I want one soooo bad, but my grown children don’t think it’s appropriate for a 65 year old woman to be climbing into a loft – I reminded them that I’m no ordinary 65 year old woman :) Love your blog, and have several of your e-books – you’re an inspiration for us all (no matter how old we are :))

35 Tammy Strobel August 26, 2011

@Patricia – Thanks so much for the kind words and your support.

I think you should follow your dreams. Age isn’t important. Don’t listen to the naysayers, even if they are related to you. :)

36 David Stokley August 26, 2011

As someone who doesn’t take a ton of pictures I don’t have trouble with this as much, but I do struggle with email clutter. I suck at replying to emails, so they often just sit there unattended. Eventually I go through and delete everything, but most of the time it’s a mess. I realize I can deal with this by creating folders or just dealing with stuff when I get it…why are such seemingly simple tasks so hard to do?

The great thing about digital clutter though is that you can just hit delete, which is soooo much easier than throwing something in the trash or taking it to Goodwill.

37 rob August 26, 2011

Regarding Dropbox.

Don’t put anything in dropbox that you want kept private (like a draft of your book). There are weasel words in the dropbox user agreement that says they’ll do their best to keep your stuff private, but by design their employees have the keys to unlock your stuff.

Of course, you could encrypt it before putting it in dropbox and then it won’t matter that their employees can look. Just make sure you use a good encryption program and don’t forget your encryption key!

38 Tammy Strobel August 26, 2011

@Rob – Good to know! Thanks for the tips. :)

39 Krystal August 27, 2011

I actually got my first laptop a few days ago and took the time to delete a bunch of programs I knew I wouldn’t need. The only programs I’ve downloaded so far are Open Office and Mozilla Firefox. So, I have no pictures, no music, nada. I only have one (important) saved file right now. :) Also, I’m actually a fan of “starting fresh.” I’ve had to do system recovery on my desktop computer a bunch of times, not caring for the files I’d lose. I actually don’t even plan on transferring pictures and documents from my desktop to my laptop (unless I feel like I would really need them, which I doubt anyway).

So, when you say, “Decluttering excess stuff, in both the physical and digital world, is emotionally freeing,” I have to agree. A cluttered laptop would make me feel cluttered as well. And even after deleting many programs that were already installed on my laptop, I still feel it’s a bit too cluttered! Haha.

40 Janice MacLeod August 28, 2011

I attacked my digital photos. Now when I show off an album to someone looking over my shoulder, I look hot in every photo. They say, “Oh you’re sooo photogenic.” I grin with devious satisfaction.

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