On Clutter, Digital and Otherwise: Part 1

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I sometimes wish so hard to be one of those minimalists that have, like, five perfectly chosen books, 25 pieces of beautifully curated clothes and one exquisite piece of jewelry. I have lived with a few minimalists and marveled at their self-possession and self-sufficiency; I’ve envied their elegant asceticism, taking it as a sign of higher consciousness or something. But I am not this kind of a person myself. I attract piles. I fight clutter constantly.

I’m not a hoarder, and my approach to matters of adornment, decoration and ownership is simple and straightforward, actually — but simplicity and minimalism are not the same thing. So I still have my little bete noires when it comes to Stuffness, as I like to call it. For some reason, I like to hang onto clothing hang tags. I like to read, so I have piles of magazines and books sprouting in my bedroom like newly emerged archipelagos. Being my mother’s daughter, I clip coupons and forget to use them (unlike my mother). My Salvation Army pile tends to hang out in my closet until I can’t ignore it anymore, and then I must schlep it to S.A. to get rid of it. There’s a hoard of mini-fragrance vials, perfume pens and samples in one of my medicine cabinets. Perhaps I’d be more clutterific if I hadn’t moved so much and been forced to pare down possessions relentlessly. That might be my only saving grace, actually, because at this point in my life, my physical clutter and I are at peace, at a pleasant detente. It builds up and then I “manage” it, but it’s not onerous at all to deal with — maybe 5-10 minutes a day keeps it okay.

Alas, though, there’s another level of clutter altogether to deal with: digital clutter. Digital clutter is my true enemy.

You Know What I Mean By Digital Clutter

Bookmarks, e-mail, Delicious links, RSS feeds, contacts, old texts, Twitter favorites, Tumblr favorites, Facebook messages. There is so much electronic information to manage now. I feel guilty because I know I contribute to the mess in my way, but I’ll save that for another post. In this one, we’ll just talk about the effluvia, flotsam and jetsam I find from others. You don’t even realize you’re collecting it because it is virtual — there’s no mass or weight to it in the physical world. But it takes up so much space in your mental world.

My lightbulb moment about digital clutter came one day after scrolling up and down my browser’s Bookmarks bar looking for a link. Stupid link, I thought to myself, where did I put stupid link to something minute yet somehow so consequential to my thought process that I cannot proceed with the outline of my next novel without it! I finally realized I had spirited it away in some obscure folder within a folder. After 15 minutes. 15 MINUTES OF LOOKING FOR A STUPID LINK. How many seconds did I waste scrolling down my Bookmarks? How did that add up, day after day? It was too depressing to contemplate. Did I really want to spend more time wading through digital clutter? No: I had to deal with it like I had my real-life stuff.

In Which I Am A Ninja, Fighting Against the Hordes of Invisible Electronic Invaders

Thus set off a chain reaction of activity. First: the stupid Bookmarks bar. The first question I had to ask myself: did I really need it? (I feel like that’s a good question to start with anything.) Could I conceivably just click on a box somewhere and make it go away? The answer is personal to everyone, but for me: yes, a bookmarks bar was something I used, a list of shortcuts to websites I go to often, so I don’t waste time typing the stupid address in again and again. It felt good to define the purpose of the digital receptacle, so to speak. That would help me figure out what went in there and what didn’t. So: my Bookmarks bar was a list of favorite web places I like to visit as a regular. If it wasn’t a regular, it didn’t go there.

And so the carnage began, and thus went the culling: I deleted old links I didn’t visit anymore. I collated similar links and put them into folders: fashion-y things, web/tech-y things, job-related things, literary business things, being-a-wise-person things, astrology things. Delete, collate, delete, collate. Occasionally you have to keep asking yourself tough questions: Have I found this piece of information useful? Do I still need it? Will I genuinely ever visit it again? Will I even remember I put it here? My goal was never to scroll far down in my bookmarks list again; I wanted to look at this stupid Bookmarks bar and feel calm and happy, like, Ah, here’s the corner of the Internet I’ve so lovingly cultivated for myself.

It wasn’t as involved as cleaning out my closet, which lead to a whole odyssey of growth and changes, but it did involve carving out some time to focus, a few cups of coffee and confronting how oddly attached you are to past systems and objects within them. And sometimes I doubted whether the effort was worth it as I was doing it. Was this another way to procrastinate? Is this genuinely effective? Blah, blah, blah.

Against Friction

But after a bit, I realized it was worth the effort — and that digital clutter was just as insidious as real-life clutter. Its invisibility makes it easy to discount, and it’s easy to overlook the sheer friction it can create in our everyday lives. You know what I mean by friction: when you can’t remember your password to some stupid site and have to go through some song-and-dance to retrieve it, or spending a minute deleting a million newsletters you don’t ever read, or getting distracted because your RSS reader features mostly sites you end up skipping because they keep recycling the same ideas again and again.

It’s easy to discount how that friction can add up, because the effort to get past tiny bumps is so minimal. But then I noticed how the quality of my attention online had declined — how I read stuff and it didn’t stick, how nothing inspired me anymore, how grumpy I felt about the Internet in general. It’s because my Internet and online life was a sprawling mess, full of inconveniences, dead ends, detritus. You know how there’s a shelf or a drawer in every house that’s just a mishmash of stuff? That was like the whole entire Internet for me.

The truth is that doing something simple like cleaning out and organizing my Bookmarks bar made a small but significant difference in my life. I use it everyday, after all — how could it not? It sounds silly, but opening and using it made me feel more purposeful and deliberate about what I was doing on the Internet, especially as I am apt to get distracted and turn it into a vortex of timesuck. And I did spend a lot less time scrolling. I knew it was prime mental real estate in my mind, so I stopped adding things to it indiscriminately — everything had to be a “destination.” (I revived my Delicious account — which I designated my random Internet clutter drawer — to clip links of stories I liked for some reason or another and wanted to squirrel away, but it’s something I only check now and then when I have time to sit and read.) It made me have a more mindful relationship to the Internet and to information in general — and as a writer, that kind of clarity makes a huge difference in focus, creativity and just not being distracted in general.

The Clip-And-Save Part: How to Tackle Digital Clutter

And so I tackled only places where electronic clutter congregated: my inboxes, my RSS reader, the apps on my iPhone, my Flickr account, my Dropbox. Some were easy to tackle, others were far more annoying (ugh, unsubscribing from PR lists is such a chore!) But the process was similar throughout:

1. Ask: Is it necessary? (I didn’t organize anything Facebook-y, for instance, because I’m not on it often enough to justify the effort.)
2. Define: What’s it for? (My Dropbox was only for stuff I wanted available no matter what computer or device I was working on; it essentially replaced my flash drive, so only files that I wanted accessible everywhere went into it.)
3. Cordon off time and attention to delete/sort/delete/sort, according to your criteria in #2.
4. Occasionally be tough with yourself. (It’s just electronic info, after all…nothing a quick Google search can’t fix.)
5. Optional but helpful: designate an Internet odds-and-ends drawer. (For me, Delicious for links and my Evernote account for everything else)
6. Go slow if you want. One “drawer” or folder at a time if need be. (I didn’t bother with things that I never used — I mostly deleted or deactivated them, like old email accounts.)
7. Only do what matters, i.e., what you use the most.

This all sounds so anal and ridiculously OCD, but the payoffs were worth it. I hated the Internet a bit less. I felt like I was genuinely absorbing and learning, and what was just a barrage of information began to arrange itself more naturally into ordered harmonies of knowledge. That is a great feeling, because isn’t that what the Internet is for, really? Whether it’s knowledge of your craft, your self, slow cooker recipes or French courtesans of the 19th century — don’t we want all this information to mean more than just the surface facts? Too much Internet feels random, scattered, destructive, and sometimes it’s easy to forget what a transformative medium and tool it is. Clearing out digital clutter helped me remember. It helped me use it better. It helped it be just a tiny bit more inspiring again. Yay, Internet!

I’ll be writing more about making digi-clutter at the beginning of next week: look out! Until then, here is a picture of what I call my glamour clutter:

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10 thoughts on “On Clutter, Digital and Otherwise: Part 1

  1. I love this! I go through my digital clutter a few times a year, though at this point, it’s under control. I recently unfriended/unfollowed a bunch of people, too, either because they were pointless negative all the time or simply didn’t contribute anything to my online experience. As someone we both know recently pointed out (in a different context), our time is too precious.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading, Suzanne! I almost scrapped it because it felt too service-y (ha) but then it made such a perdonsl impact that I had to share! I haven’t yet culled friends/followers — I use lists on Twitter and FB — but a relentlessly negative presence can def. drag down your experience. Whatever it takes…because, yes, time is too precious! xo k.

  2. It’s funny, I don’t have any problem with digital clutter. I don’t think I’ve ever had more than 20 bookmarks at once on my browser. My RSS thing has like 15 more sites, and honestly it could probably use a cleaning, but I keep stuff (like NOGOODFORME) on there because it’s honestly not enough of a mess to care about.

    It’s weird because, in the physical world, I tend to generate a lot of clutter, and actually, for me clutter is an aesthetically beautiful, creative force in my life. My first order of business when I move somewhere is to cover up the horrible blank walls with whatever I can find, and I don’t really feel at home until I’ve got a few piles of drawings and watercolors lying around. Visual and textural minimalism is not attractive to me at all! I’m also the sort of person who usually knows exactly which pile of random bric-a-brac to look in for whatever tool or item it is that I need.

    But my computer is pretty spotless! I don’t really know why that is. It’s very interesting.

    1. That’s interesting! I think for me, most of my creative work is done on the computer…it’s what I write with and upon. I spend a lot of time and expend a lot of mental energy on the web, in a word processing program, etc…so it seems natural for me to generate clutter there. But since you make costumes and work with physical objects, a certain amount of stuff must be a natural state in some way. I don’t know; I’m definitely no minimalist, but I do find I love a certain degree of harmony in my physical environment…maybe because my mental/creative one is all over the place! xo k.

  3. This is super helpful, Kat!

    I figured out that I had amassed most of my clutter by either mis-using, or flat out not using, the tools and filters that are already built into sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader.

    With my Google Reader for example, I was indiscriminately ‘starring’ items I wanted to look at again, which of course quickly turned into a never-ending stream of miscellaneous items with no way to retrieve what I was looking for. One night I drove myself into a FRENZY trying to find a little quote about screenwriting; wading through all my starred items gave me so much anxiety, I actually couldn’t sleep until I found it. Now, instead of starring posts I’ll use a bunch of labels. I might file a quote about screenwriting under ‘film,’ ‘screenwriting,’ ‘writing advice,’ and ‘francis ford coppola.’ It means I have a lot of labels (some of them reeeeally specific) but it also means I can target my searches much better…and go to bed earlier.

    Really, so much of organization is just being consistent with your methods.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Stephanie! It is kind of amazing (as in, amazingly annoying) that this kind of stuff can drive me nuts. I agree with you, so much of organizing info on the Internet is finding a system that works for you. Sometimes the problem is that it takes awhile to even just FIND the system that works for you — and by “work for you,” I mean how you actually will use it, vs. how you wish you use it! But that’s a good idea, to use tags in Google Reader…I’m gonna start using that tip now before the pile of starred items in my RSS becomes uncontrollable!

      xo kat

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