I’m always reading books about clearing clutter and creating space. It’s good research.
I recently finished the book, Unstuff Your Life: Kick the Clutter Habit and Completely Organize Your Life for Good, by Andrew J. Mellen and it left me with lots of action steps to clear clutter. (Read my review of the book on Goodreads.) But in this case, I’m focused on the part about clearing digital clutter. And for good reason.
“In the United States alone, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominantly mundane matters, according to Basex, a leading knowledge economy research and advisory firm. The firm states that a large part of that $650 is the result of time lost recovering from interruptions and trying to refocus on work.”
Not only is it messy, digital clutter is a huge distraction.
Imagine running around the house looking for your keys when you’re already late for work. That’s you, too, when scrambling to find documents, spreadsheets and other files before you can get down to business.
Productivity suffers and energy wanes when we don’t clean up our digital disaster—a.k.a. social app clutter, gaming clutter, computer clutter, cyber clutter, mobile clutter and email clutter. Oh, but especially email. The constant line-stepper.
The Cluttered Email Inbox
Emails land in my inbox so fast and so often that long ago I gave up trying to keep it empty. I’d sort emails into folders sometimes, but mostly I surrendered to the daily barrage. I’d do searches on keywords or sender addresses to find messages I needed instead of going into a folder to find it neatly tucked away where it belongs.
My email inbox was piled high with read and unread mail just sitting there, waiting to be answered, sorted or deleted.
2,700 emails and 54 pages later, I decided this was ridiculous. That inbox of mine was an indication of a messy business, a messy schedule and a messy personal life. Time to clean up.
There’s nothing sexy about a cluttered inbox. I personally wouldn’t want anyone checking mine out. Not to mention, talking about the thing is boring, cleaning it is boring, managing it is boring. Monotonous and tedious, pages and pages of old messages, old concerns and old news.
Still, at the risk of boring you to tears, my guess is we could all use some digital decluttering advice.
So I’ll share some of Mellen’s below. With his help, I’m down to 200 emails in my inbox and it’s taken me about a week and a half to get there. I committed myself to 15-minute cleaning sprees per day. That’s all the time I’m giving it because while it’s a priority, it’s not a time-sensitive priority.
Once I’m down to zero, my goal becomes getting my inbox to empty by the end of every day. So only new incoming mail is in the inbox along with any email threads that I’m handling in a given work day.
That’s what an inbox is, I learned. An in-box. A box of unread messages waiting to be attended to. It’s not a task list, shopping list, or reminder list. Once I accepted that, the sky opened up and shined its heavenly light on my computer screen.
The Digital Declutter in 9 Steps
Maybe it’s time you look at what’s lurking in the nooks and crannies of your digital life.
First, I’ll allow the author of Unstuff Your Life to set the tone for his digital declutter tips:
Just because you can send an email or instant message, just because you can surf the Net and spend hours skipping from site to site on those nights you can’t sleep, doesn’t mean that you need to. You can remain calm, unhurried, and proactive in determining exactly when and how you use any of these tools. Others may disagree, but I offer you my certainty that the choice remains yours.
What we want to avoid is any situation where the tool ceases to be useful and becomes a burden and an obstacle to efficiency and speed.
Here are 9 of the most useful tips I learned from Mellen to rein in my digital clutter (with my 2 cents sprinkled in). Most of these have to do with email because that just happens to be the most pressing area for me. But it all goes hand in hand. Email is a big one, let’s be honest.
1. “One Home for Everything” and “Like with Like”
…works for digital clutter, too. File away documents and emails into an intuitive folder structure that drills down by category, type of document and year. For example, client invoices:
Company XYZ > Clients > Jane Doe > Invoices > 2016 > Paid > JDoe_Invoice092316.pdf
Think about organizing in this way: If your assistant had to locate a document for you (be it in email or on your computer), would he be able to find it if all you gave him was the type of document it was, e.g. “An invoice for services rendered in 2014”?
Start your file hierarchy as it makes sense to you, then ask your mom’s opinion. What does she think about it? Then ask a man 2 years younger than you for his opinion. What does he think? Does it make sense to both of them equally? What does their feedback reveal about your folder system? Try to get it as general as possible to achieve a long-term, sensible layout.
2. Check email only when you have time to read all of it and reply to it.
Your daily process would be as follows:
Email comes into your inbox, when the time comes to read it, you read it
>> You reply to it (even to say you need more time to reply to it)
>>> You file it away or trash it
Try not to reply to the email in a way that will get you another question or hoop to jump through. Meaning maybe you didn’t read the email entirely and missed important points, or you answered too vaguely and the person comes back with a confused response. The objective would be to attend to the task, delegate it to someone else, or ask the person to provide you 3 possible solutions before you can respond adequately. Don’t create more work for yourself because you weren’t thorough in your reading or responding.
Be deliberate in your perusing if you have to pop into your email account to reference an already read message. Enter at your own risk. If this isn’t the time you set to read and reply, go straight to the folder and message at hand and read, reference, close. Don’t get distracted!
3. Disable notifications
…on your phone from person-to-person and business-to-consumer apps like email, social media, Yelp, Groupon, retail sales alerts and video games. Check those apps when you have free time or when you’re in the area of the retailer (and not driving).
Getting alerted to something you didn’t set out to do could wreak havoc on your schedule and your wallet.
I took this one step further and disabled sound notification on my incoming texts. Now, I check texts when I can break away from what I have going on and, basically, do step #2 (but for text!).
4. Set filters in your email inbox
…so frequent incoming emails arrive automatically inside their proper folders. For example, your favorite newsletter gets filtered straight into the “Newsletters” folder, and you set aside a day and time every week to read through them. Look in settings to find how to do this with your email service.
5. Don’t read email all willy-nilly throughout the day.
Instead set a couple time slots each day to check email, 2-3 times max. These time slots should follow the rule in step #2 and have a firm start and end time. If you give yourself 1 hour to attend to email, make sure you start wrapping it up 10 minutes from that deadline.
And don’t let those time slots be during your most productive part of the day. Mornings for me are my most productive times, so I leave those solely to creative and inventive endeavors. Answering email is not a creative-brain activity and can be done when you’re in between projects.
Another thing, it’s always better to send emails after you’ve filled your belly with some substance. Do us all a favor and avoid hitting reply on an empty stomach, when you might be grumpy or short-tempered. No one likes that person.
6. The more emails you answer, the more you receive.
And if you respond too soon after you receive that mail, people will come to expect you to respond that quickly every time…as if you’re sitting there twiddling your thumbs, waiting for their email to arrive.
Make that a habit and they’ll start to think of you as always available, without a schedule or anything else meaningful to do. Which means now you’re their go-to. They never learn to be resourceful outside of your assistance.
You won’t get to other things you have going on because you’re always attending to other people’s agendas. So follow step #5. If that means there’s a delay in replying to their “urgent” email (because you’re not on email 24/7 ready to respond), most times that person finds their own solution to the matter. This is a trick I learned from the 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. Works 98% of the time (even when tables are turned and you’re forced to be the resourceful one).
7. Use subject lines wisely.
There’s nothing worse than an email with no subject line. Using complete, descriptive titling in the subject line will help both you as the sender and them as the receiver. This rule of thumb can save you at least 3 back and forth emails attempting to clarify what could have been wrapped up in the subject line.
For example, a great subject line is:
Volunteer Application Attached – 31 May 2016 – J Doe – Toronto, Canada
Now you know where to file away that email thread in your folders, and so do they.
8. Create various signature lines.
Sign your emails with your contact information so you don’t get emails asking for your contact information. You can limit what information you make public depending on your audience. Mailing address and direct dial. Just the general office line. Or just a web address.
There is a way with most email services to load up various signatures for different purposes, so when you’re composing an email, you can select the appropriate closing for business emails, personal exchanges and corporate inquiries.
9. Unsubscribe often.
Rather than dumping yet another email address, if it’s worth it, you can clean out your current one by beginning to unsubscribe from all senders that don’t align with your current lifestyle. If their emails don’t serve you anymore, it’s ok to say thanks and goodbye.
Without delay, unsubscribe from Nordstrom semi-annual sale flyers, Facebook “Liked Your Post” alerts and CNN headlines. And Southwest Airlines summer specials will be there when you’re ready to plan a trip. None of this stuff needs to come to your inbox. It will pull you off-course every time. If the mood strikes you, you can go to those sites directly. See step #3.
You know what area in your digital life needs decluttering–it’s hard to deny it.
With so much of our life going digital nowadays, we need to stay vigilant over its influence. Even consider a digital detox for a few days, where you’re completely unavailable to your phone and other electronics.
Apply these 9 steps for a more digitally decluttered life and a byproduct will be a more decluttered mind. It will require you to think about how your use of technology honors or detracts from your priorities and goals. If you’re being true to these values, you’ll witness a major shift in your mood, your productivity and your peace mind.
And just like that, cleaning up cyberspace will help clear up some headspace.