How to Start Purging Your Digital Life


A few times during the year, I get an urge to purge. Whether it's spring cleaning my closet or taking an hour on New Year's Day to archive all of last year's emails, I find it incredibly gratifying to dump (or sometimes simply hide) stuff I don't need. There's a whole lot of hippie rhetoric about how clutter-free environments lead to clarity of mind, and I'm not necessarily saying I believe it all, but I sure do feel less stressed when the junk is gone.

We learn from a young age to clean our rooms, donate or throw out things we don't need or want anymore, and put away our physical stuff. But many of us never learned how to do the same thing with our digital clutter. It's no surprise we never learned. Generations before us didn't have digital data, so who would have taught us?

If you enjoy a good purge and have a messy digital life, here are some suggestions and tips for getting rid of some old data.

The computer desktop becomes messy when we stick a file there for convenience, usually so it will be in our line of sight and we'll remember it exists. When we repeat this behavior over and over, the principle defeats itself. How can you see and remember a file among a heap of others, all crowding the desktop?

The easiest way to clean up the desktop is to view all the files in a list, rather than looking at the graphical representation of the desktop itself. In other words, open a Finder window in OS X or File Explorer in Windows. It makes it easier to spot files that are ready to be deleted. You can much more easily see their file names, file type, and date they were created or last edited. You can also turn on the preview option for images, PDFs, and other files because taking a glance at them might help you determine whether they've come to the end of their usefulness.

Just because a file is no longer useful doesn't necessarily mean it's trash, however. While you probably can toss a good number of files, there will be others you're not ready to delete, and that's fine. I recommend moving them en masse, or "sweeping" the files, to a new folder. I like to create folders for every year and stick old files I might need one day in there. It's kind of like archiving them. They're out of sight, but I can find them if I need them.

Don't leave your year folders on the desktop! It will only clutter it again. Put them somewhere you'll remember easily, such as within the My Documents folder or maybe in a file-syncing folder, like the main Dropbox folder.

Ready to dump your email inbox? No? Many people hesitate to throw away emails because they're afraid of missing a million-dollar opportunity or some important message that they haven't had time to read yet. Or they've skimmed the message, deemed it potentially important, and never returned to read it closely or respond.

No one has time to sort through their email messages one by one. Don't do that.

Instead, apply the same concept that you used to clean up your desktop to sweep old emails out of sight. Create a new email folder (or a label in Gmail) called 2015. Create another one called 2014. Scroll through your inbox or filter it by date and select everything from that year. Now move all those messages en masse to the corresponding year folder. Your messages are still in your email account. You know where you can find them. You can read them and reply to them any time. But your inbox is now much cleaner, and you can feel good about that.

Photos on Your Phone
Nearly everyone hangs onto photos on their mobile phone. But clearing them out creates more space on your phone so you can take new photos. More importantly, if you transfer them to a computer or cloud storage account that you back up, you'll be better protecting those photos in case your phone is lost, stolen, or damaged. Having a decent amount of available space also makes it easier to update your OS when it's time, too.

I have a really quick and easy way to move photos off an iPhone (or any smartphone) that involves using cloud storage. If you follow the steps in that article, you shouldn't have any trouble cleaning up your phone. Quite a few cloud storage apps have a button that quickly and efficiently copies all your photos to the online account, which means you can delete the photos from your phone.

Apps (Mobile)
Do you download apps to check them out and then forget to remove them from your phone, even if you never really used them?

To sort through your apps and decide which ones you don't want, first start by backing up your phone (see how to back up an iPhone), just in case you delete something accidentally and want to restore the data in it. In many cases, your data will be in a cloud account, and it will restore as soon as you reinstall the app and log into the account. But not all apps work that way, and it's a good idea to back up regardless.

Now, go to the screen that's farthest from your home screen. The reason is that your homescreen probably has apps you do use, whereas the screen that's hardest to reach likely has apps you don't use. (Maybe your screens aren't organized at all, and you find apps by searching for them or by keeping them open and toggling to them. Whatever. Start on the last screen anyway.)

Look through the apps and pinpoint any that you haven't used in months. Look for app icons that you can't even name. Purge the junk. Make sure you go through apps in folders, too. To delete an app in iOS, hold the app until it jiggles, then touch the 'x' on it; hit the home button to stop the other apps from jiggling. In Android, the instructions vary by device, but pressing and holding the app icon until you see options is pretty standard.

Remember, you can download apps again when you need them. You don't need to pay again for premium apps, either. You don't need to keep all your travel apps installed at all times, for example. Keep the ones that you use to research destinations or for local travel, and delete the others until it's time for your next trip.

Browser Tabs
Are you a tab hoarder? Do you leave open dozens of tabs in your browser, sure that any day now you're going to read all those articles or watch all those videos you opened? The problem with tab hoarding is that it prevents you from cleaning out the Internet cache, which you should absolutely do from time to time.

There are a number of solutions for managing excessive browser tabs. An easy one is to bookmark all your open tabs, which is generally a one-click option in the browser. All your tabs will be saved so you can open them again any time, but you can close them for now, dump the cache, and start over with a fresh browsing session.

Fresh Start
Few people have good habits of purging their digital junk, but that's to be expected. Digital junk is new. We don't yet have a lot of established rules of hygiene. But try cleaning out your desktop, email, phone, and browser. It can be as rewarding as cleaning out your physical junk.

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