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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Digital De-Cluttering: How to Streamline Your Online Life

There’s no question that disposing of unnecessary clutter and distractions in your workspace can lead to better focus and productivity.

But the Zen of a clear desk often quickly fades when you turn on your computer and are confronted with countless icons on your desktop, emails in your inbox, and status updates on various social media feeds.

While most articles and books on de-cluttering focus on physical "stuff," digital clutter can be just as stress-inducing. "We need to be aware and proactive about how invasive, distracting, and time-consuming digital clutter can be in our lives," says Dr. Susan Biali, a wellness expert and author of Live a Life You Love.

Digital information is incessant, digital clutter is inevitable, and the anxieties of managing our hard drives, file folders, and online profiles are probably an inescapable outcome of a modern life. But at the same time, there are some smart ways to maintain a more streamlined digital life and, perhaps, even a clearer mind.

Clean Your Digital Desktop

Imagining turning on your computer in the morning and seeking a truly clean computer desktop: Not a huge mess of files and folders and Stickies—just you and your spotless background to start your day.

Well, it’s actually possible. For starters, take advantage of a service like Dropbox, a file storage service that lets you save files in the cloud and have access across various devices, versus on your desktop. Cloud applications like Dropbox or Google Docs also allow you to take advantage of version control, which means that only the most up-to-date version of the document is saved, and you can go back and see earlier versions if you need to access or restore them.

And for all those photos, Stickies, and randomly saved text files cluttering up your screen? Use a note-taking program like Evernote (for Mac) or ResophNotes (for Windows), which allows you to take, save, and organize your notes in one place, then access them on any one of your devices.

Sweep Away Old Emails

If you get a sinking feeling looking at the thousands of emails in your inbox every day, know this: There’s a different way to live. It's possible to use your inbox like an actual mailbox, where you only see the mail you need to deal with, and everything else is neatly filed away.

This inbox-to-zero mentality was made popular by productivity guru David Allen, and it's easy to implement some of his methodologies.

First, archive everything you don’t need to respond to. It will still be there when you need to search for it, but now you have a clean slate. Next, as new emails come in, file them in appropriate folders (or set up auto filters, which does this for you) so you know where to find them later.

Also consider tuning in to which emails you’re receiving every day—and which you’re actually opening—and unsubscribing from the junk you don't read. You can do this in one step using a mass unsubscribe tool.

Tidy Up Your Browser

When left to my own devices, I will open a dozen windows and hundreds of tabs on Firefox, browsing away until I've crashed the program.

My new saving grace is a plugin that limits the number of tabs I can have open on my browser at any given time. Now, there’s a lot less my brain has to process at one time—and closing out 10 tabs instead of 40 makes for a much less frustrating end of my day.

It's also much easier to use fewer tabs if you install a cloud bookmarking system. You can save anything you want by clicking a button on your browser, then read it later on another computer or your phone or tablet. My favorite service is Pocket, but there are plenty of others, like Instapaper and Readability.

The key to living without digital clutter is figuring out how to effectively process the digital information you're confronted with on a daily basis, and these are all great first steps. But there’s something even more important: knowing when to turn it all off.

The light waves emitted by your screens can block melatonin secretion from your brain, resulting in less (or less deep) sleep. "Poor sleep contributes largely to ongoing high levels of stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Biali. “So my top tip would be to unplug completely from anything digital in the evening."

Photo courtesy of Jim Gardner.