I like to think of it as ‘invisible’ clutter. And as it turns out, it exacts just as big a toll on my peace of mind and stress levels as the overstuffed drawers and groaning shelves in my house.
It’s digital clutter, and it’s a relatively new category in the organization game.
Email boxes stuffed to the brim. JPEG files spilling over in our phones. Apps that take up storage and are forgotten, jamming up operating systems.
Except that it’s not really like that. Because it’s not physical stuff. So there’s no literal stuffing and spilling over and jamming. But still.
It definitely feels that way in our minds.
In a recent interview, clinical psychologist Dr Jessie Chua explained why digital clutter and physical clutter can cause a similar level of stress. She said, “It takes up that same amount of space that you can use for, say, creativity or for focus on work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s visible or not visible; it’s still in the brain.” She further explained that when the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that plans and thinks strategically, gets overwhelmed, the amygdala, the part of the brain that prepares us for fight or flight, becomes dominant and brings with it all those feelings of anxiety and stress.1 Those stress hormones flood the body, and just like that, you’re not only feeling the emotion of anxiety, your body is feeling it, too.
And there are other risks associated with digital clutter. Privacy and security issues top the list. All those endless apps we add to our phones and computers, all the places we allow digital vendors access into our digital world, the more risk we run of having our data compromised.
So what are some easy and top ideas for reducing the stress surrounding the digital clutter that is part of our lives?
The idealist in me wants to tackle all of it, to create all kinds of virtual color coordinator folders and a digital filing system that rivals the National Archive. But the realist in me knows that I’ll be defeated before I start. So I’ve identified the top three areas that give me heartburn in my digital closet, and I’m choosing to make strides in these areas, where I know it will pay the biggest dividend in lowering my digital stress.
Skip the Inbox Zero Mythology
One area I learned to let go of a while ago is the idea of keeping my email inboxes at zero. It sounds amazing to finish my work day in my various email accounts, each showing a beautiful ‘0’ in the unread status. And I know there are those out there who inhabit the magical land of an inbox with an echo. But with the number of times I have to provide an email address for any number of verification, shopping, and notification requirements, it’s made for a bog of incoming bulletins. My email inboxes are a filing system of sorts for me. I revisit emails that have important information, like attachments, phone numbers, and lists, rather than download them on my computer. Embrace the idea of determining what inbox zero looks like for you. I will typically delete as many unneeded emails as possible each day and build my task list for the upcoming week and for client projects from the emails I do keep. I try to keep one of my emails as the ‘dummy’ email for all the email sign-ups required for so much of our online life. But it’s not always possible to keep those sign-ups relegated to just one email. And explore using an app like unroll.me to weed out newsletters and notifications you no longer need.
Gather All Your Sign-ins and Passwords
Deb Lee, a productivity and digital business coach, in an article for the Washington Post, talks about the idea of a ‘digital estate,’ which is making sure that you are centralizing your important passwords and sign-ins for your family or estate attorney. She recommends making a physical and digital copy of a list of all the apps and sites you use, so that if a loved one or your lawyer needed to access any of those accounts, they could.2 Also make sure to include links to important documents that you have stored online. It will give both you and your family peace of mind knowing that your important online presence is secure and available to designated individuals.
Print Some Pictures
I’ve had the heart pounding experience of thinking that my online photo storage system has encountered a problem and my collection has been lost. Sheesh. It’s put some gray in my hair and some lines on my face. Thankfully, my photos weren’t lost; I’ve later been able to sign in successfully, or I’ve had a backup in place. But it reminded me in those moments that I still want to have some printed photos around. Just as having digital lockers of precious family photos gives me peace of mind, I now realize that having some specially selected physical copies of pictures does the same thing. And there is something powerful about being able to hold a picture in your hand, to be able to flip through an album, that is just different from looking at it on screen.
With so much digital content always flying my way, I don’t suppose I’ll ever feel like I have a total grip on the invisible clutter in my life. But having an inbox strategy that works for me, knowing my important sign-in and documents are centralized, and having special family pictures printed in physical form helps keep some of the digital clutter angst at bay. Choose the top three areas that are stressing you out in your digital life and tackle those first. And you’ll be surprised how wrangling your invisible ‘stuff’ can take off a measure of stress and restore some outer calm to your life.
Julie Lyles Carr is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Mike Carr. They have eight kids, two unfriendly cats, and an antique dachshund.