Leaving Work Behind

4 Steps to Declutter Your Digital Life and Get More Work Done

Written by Ransom Patterson on August 23, 2016. 5 Comments

A broom sweeping across a wooden floor.Since you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you want to spend as much time as possible doing work that matters. Doing so is an essential part of the path to working for yourself. It’s difficult to focus, however, when you have digital clutter slowing down your computer, clogging up your email inbox, and generally getting in your way.

To take back your time, you need to do a purge and clear out the excess.

This can seem like an overwhelming task at first, but just as with physical decluttering, the key is to take things slowly and have a plan. Today’s post will show you how to efficiently declutter your digital life, and prevent clutter from piling up in the future.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Identify Your Clutter

When was the last time you cleaned out your closet? I don’t know about you, but mine is full of items that I never use. They’re just taking up space. Why do I still have them? Vague excuses such as “I might need it someday” or “It has sentimental value” are the best I can come up with.

Your digital life is no different. To begin decluttering, you need to honestly assess all your current items. To decide what qualifies as clutter, ask one simple question: When was the last time I used this?

Luckily, this is easy information to find in the digital realm: just look at the date of last access or login. If it’s been more than six months, you should probably get rid of the file. Obviously, there will be exceptions (tax documents, receipts, family photos, etc.), but I find that this rule works well for most of my digital purges.

Now that you know how to identify digital clutter, let’s make the decluttering happen.

Step 2: Make a Decluttering Plan

Most people never get rid of their digital clutter because the process seems too intimidating. I’ve done purges where I went through hundreds of files and emails, so I can relate to this hesitance. Fortunately, things become much easier when you make a plan.

Setting a goal of “decluttering my files” is far too vague and will never get you anywhere. To make things manageable, we need to break your clutter down into categories.

Here are the three general categories I use:

  1. Hard drive files. This includes everything from apps and tools I use everyday to images from old blog posts. Regardless of your specifics, you no doubt have plenty of extraneous files on your computer.
  2. Emails. This is a problem area for a lot of people. I try to maintain a strict inbox zero policy, but clutter inevitably backs up.
  3. Subscriptions/Services. This one is often related to email, but it deserves its own entry. This category includes things like web apps/online services you don’t use, as well as newsletters you subscribe to but never read.

With these categories established, you can start making a decluttering plan. To do this, I recommend blocking off some time on your calendar to get it all done.

The amount of time is up to you. I prefer to do work in big blocks, but with an admittedly unpleasant task like decluttering, you may prefer to spread the process out over smaller blocks of time each day. Pick whichever method will get you to do the process.

From here, it’s time to get down to work.

Step 3: Declutter

With your plan created, you’re ready to start the process. Once you get to it, decluttering is pretty straightforward. Pick a category of items, go through them, and decide which to keep/discard.

For instance, if you’re working on hard drive files, you might decide to focus on all your photos in one session, or spend a whole session just on old emails from a particular client. The specifics are up to you.

Here are two tips to make the process flow more smoothly:

  1. Don’t get hung up on “what ifs.” For example, if you’re paying $20 per month for access to an online training course but haven’t logged in for over a year, you should cancel the service. Don’t worry about possibilities like “What if I want to come back to it someday?” Odds are you won’t, and if you do, you can always subscribe again.
  2. Create a maybe folder. This mostly applies to hard drive files, but I’ve found a helpful way of dealing with files I’m not sure about keeping is to put them in a maybe folder. I then set myself a calendar or to-do list reminder to come back and review the files in a month. If I haven’t used any of them by then, I delete them.

Go through the decluttering process a few times, and before long you’ll have cleared everything extraneous away. Take a moment to breathe and soak in the feeling of increased control.

Step 4: Keep Your Clutter in Check

Now that you’ve purged your clutter, you need to keep it from getting out of control again. This process is much easier than the initial decluttering.

All you need to do is set a regular time to do a ‘mini declutter’. I prefer the first Friday of every month, but you might pick a less or more frequent time depending on how quickly you generate clutter.

These shorter sessions will follow the same procedure as above, but they’ll take a lot less time.

As long as you do the process regularly, your digital life will remain blissfully clutter-free.


When you let digital clutter pile up, it can really get in the way of your important work.

Luckily, you can eliminate the clutter and take back control in just four simple steps:

  1. Identify your clutter
  2. Make a plan of action
  3. Declutter ruthlessly
  4. Keep clutter in check by setting a regular decluttering time

How do you keep your digital life clutter-free? Share your tips in the comments section below!

Image credit: jarmoluk.

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5 Responses to “4 Steps to Declutter Your Digital Life and Get More Work Done”

  1. Elvis Michael
    August 24, 2016 at 12:08 am

    Thanks, Ransom. Organization is something not many people discuss in detail for one reason or another.

    I started by unsubscribing from certain email lists that were “nice to have” but ultimately not essential. And as you said in the article, I momentarily found myself asking, “What if i want to read those emails at some point?” but deep down I knew they were more of a nuisance than anything.

    These days i try to live as distraction-free as possible, which has greatly enhanced my overall productivity.

    Take care!

  2. King Epic
    August 27, 2016 at 5:04 am

    I’ve found that which is “in my face” obviously distracts the most. Meaning, having my desktop cluttered, email inbox, etc. So, those are the places where I clean up on a daily basis – there is no reason to have anything on my desktop or in the inbox (IMO).

    Another things is the bookmark bar; I always add services/sites I think I’ll use … which usually doesn’t happen … and so I also clean up that bookmark bar every few weeks.

    Good article!

    • Tom Ewer
      August 30, 2016 at 9:24 am

      The bookmark bar is a good one! I think Apple users are also guilty of having a jam packed reading list too!

      Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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