First Published: January 2017 | Last Updated: December 2021

The gist: learn how to go through a digital declutter to better focus and avoid multitasking. This post is full of computer decluttering, smartphone decluttering, and email inbox decluttering tips.

For all the talk about physical clutter and decluttering, and with how much of our lives live online or on a device, you'd think there'd be more talk about digital decluttering too.

Personally, it's always been a necessity.

I've battled hoarding tendencies in the past (ask my mom how it made her feel when I was a kid), but haven't had the physical or digital space to let things pile up as an adult.

So my digital workspace? The one in the computer? Freaking spotless.

It’s like Monica Geller lives in my computer.

And it has to be.

The Importance of Digital Decluttering

So why is taking the time to digital declutter worth it?

At least for me, it's about:

  • Finding focus more easily when I'm using my computer
  • Keeping my computer in good shaper to last longer
  • Disengaging from the attention economy and hustle culture

Finding focus

Given my ADHD and host of other neurodivergencies, if I don't know exactly where on my computer to look for a file I need, what should be a 2 minute search of my Mac' Finder turns into a 20-minute stroll through memory lane via the file gallery.

And I don't have the time or energy for that.

Keeping my computer optimized

In addition to that, I put a lot of wear and tear on a computer and can't exactly afford to max out their specs. I'm willing to put in effort to keep my computer in good shape if it means I don't need to replace it as quickly.

So digital decluttering has always been important to me.

Even if digital declutter doesn't impact you quite as negatively as it does me, think about how much a quick minute here and a quick minute there searching through your digital life adds up.

It easily adds up to hours that could be cut down with a few minutes of decluttering.

Disengaging from the attention economy

Finally, digital decluttering lets me better control where my digital attention is spent. 

With so many brands competing for it in my inbox and social media feeds, it's important to check-in with them now and then and re-establish some boundaries.

As Jenny Odell writes in How to Do Nothing, the first step to "doing nothing," being more at peace with yourself and away from hustle culture, is disengaging with these things battling for and demanding your attention.

Only then, is your attention freed up to focus on something else.

And while I'm not a big fan of drastic measures like digital detoxes, I do believe in the general philosophy Cal Newport writes about in Digital Minimalism, which he defined as:

"The philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."

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Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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So now let's get into the actual steps you need to take for your digital declutter: grab your computer, phone, and email inbox and let's get started.

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

Decluttering your desktop

First, let's take care of the screen you probably spend the most time staring at: your computer, whether it's a desktop or laptop.

There are a lot of ways you can optimize your computer to make it last longer and keep you more productive in the mean time.

Some, like customizing your sidebar and changing your download settings, are simple things you only need to do once. Others are ongoing habits to cultivate in between "big declutters," so another is creating a reminder for it.

(Note: the tips and terminology throughout this post will be Apple-centric since I'm speaking from my experience, but I know most features and tactics here have Android equivalents...I'm just not sure what their names are to name them here.)

Use consistent file names

The first step I like to take whenever I’m organizing files and folders is making sure everything is titled following the same rules. That way you don’t need to memorize a bunch of file names in order to know how to find them.

Get consistent with naming and moving your files and folders so you can always find what you need quickly and don’t end up redoing work or saving multiple copies of the same file in different places.

There's no one right way to name things, just make sure it's consistent, and something you can remember.

Action item: Take a quick scan through your most frequently used folders, delete anything you don't need anymore, and clean up the file names for everything else.

Customize your Finder

Now let's move onto the sidebar of your Finder (on a Mac), or whatever the PC equivalent is (I know it's there, it's just been too long since I used it to remember the name).

Did you know you can customize it? Probably.

But have you ever taken the time to do so? Less likely.

customized finder sidebar

By default, it will probably list a lot of the core folders or files that came pre-installed with your computer. Things like “Music,” “Wallpapers,” and useless BS like that. Things that your rarely, if ever, need to access.

Instead, you can replace those with the folders you're opening multiple times a day. Like "funny memes for when I'm depressed." 🙃

Seriously though, I do have a link to my smile file in the sidebar for easy access, along with the folders of my professional headshots, the company's main brand assets like logo variations, and gifs.

I also like to bookmark any active projects I'm working on, like the folder for new Energy Effect videos I'm working on right now.

Change your default save location

Now, I need you to set the default location for new files to be your “Downloads” folder. Or ANYWHERE that is NOT your desktop.

I'm serious.

For the love of Beyonce, do NOT use your desktop.

For most of us, whatever we choose as the default save folder in our most used apps becomes the most cluttered, chaotic folder on our computer.

The desktop is too center stage for that. Change it.

Don’t put that mess right in front of your face all day. Otherwise it's like having your computer screaming all day, “Hi anxiety! Here’s a reminder of all your open projects and unfinished to-dos!”

Go dockless

Now, this one might be controversial:

Hide your Mac dock or Windows start menu until you need it. 🙈

Turn on the setting that hides it until you move your mouse into the area where it shows up. This is especially important if you have ADHD or another neurodivergency.

Like any other windows you have open, those icons remind you of everything else you have going on. They’re begging for your attention. Don’t give it to them.

Do as much as possible to put your current task front and center of both your brain and laptop screen.

Related to that...

Use fullscreen mode

Whenever you can, work with whatever app you’re using in fullscreen mode. This eliminates the distraction of any other apps and windows you have open, and helps you beat the urge to multitask.

You won’t have another project poking out and reminding you that it’s not done yet. You can’t see the corner of your unfinished to-do list.

You can totally focus and singletask.

It’s the same reason moving files off your desktop background is helpful: out of sight, out of mind.

Adjust cloud storage settings

In addition to decluttering the files in your cloud storage, whether you use iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive (or whatever it's called these days), your storage settings could probably use some tweaking.

For example, one of the beauties of cloud storage is that it can free up space on your current devices.

But sometimes the default setting on devices is set to download all files locally.

You certainly don't need that for ALL files, if you need it for any.

dropbox local settings

Take a few minutes to research (a) the cloud storage service you use, and (b) the devices you use it on. You may find some optimizations that can speed up your computer A LOT.

Declutter your browser bookmarks

Also take some time to go through your browser bookmarks and see what you can declutter.

Look out for and delete:

  • Duplicate versions of bookmarks (for example, two slightly different versions of the same website's URL)
  • Outdated information
  • Pages that aren't live anymore

Once you've gotten rid of unnecessary bookmarks, take some time to organize the ones remaining into whatever "schema" makes sense to your brain.

chrome organize bookmarks settings page

Run CleanMyMac regularly

Moving into ongoing maintenance, try to run CleanMyMac once a week or so.

This is a less noticeable cleaning task, but gets rid of unnecessary files, empties your trash, and other good stuff we always say we should do, but never remember.

Things that keep your computer in top shape.

I mean, look at how much work it’s done for me over the past six months. 🤯

The first time I used this, it found a horse crap ton of stuff to get rid of, and even running it once a week, it always finds several GBs of clutter to clean up.

Set up a recurring task for maintenance

Finally, accept that clutter will continue to accumulate, and these weren't one-off tasks. 

Set a recurring task in your calendar or project management system to come back to this checklist in 3 months or so to see which areas need another cleanup.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

Declutter your smartphone

Once you've taken care of decluttering your computer and set up a reminder to do it again soon, it's time to move on to smartphone decluttering.

Luckily, the new customization options brought to iPhones in iOS 14 and 15 have made it a lot easy to simplify your smartphone setup!

Cut down on apps

There’s an app for everything – which sounds great, but it’s actually awful for productivity. 🙈

If you have apps for everything on your phone, they’re all there to distract you.

Delete infrequently used apps on your phone.

Seriously, so many websites have great mobile websites or web apps now. This makes keeping the app on your device 24/7 unnecessary.

If you only use a service once a month or so, consider using the mobile site or web app instead of keeping the app on your phone all the time.

You can also download apps just when you need them.

For example, when I lived in NYC, I use local rideshare services more than Uber, and here in California we have a car. So I only download Uber when I’m going out of town and will need it temporarily. My account stays active whether the app is downloaded or not.

Remove non-essentials from your homescreen

For the apps you do keep on your phone, consider removing them from your home screen and accessing them via Spotlight search or the App Library that came with newer iOS updates.

If you find yourself opening an app out of habit more frequently than you open it because you actually need it, consider hiding it from yourself a bit. Putting it a few more swipes away.

minimal ios home screen

Once again it's the "out of sight, out of mind" principle at play.

Turn off most notifications

It’s common advice to turn on Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, or Focus Modes so your phone doesn’t keep lighting up and distract you while you work.

That’s great advice.

So are a few alternatives: not having it out in the first place or keeping it face down.

But you know what's better?

Having things so pared back in the phones "normal" mode that those extra steps are unnecessary.

Turn off notifications for any app that does not send you ones that are both urgent and important.

Also consider "banner-only" notifications or notification summaries as a way to get notifications batch delivered instead of as the events happen.

ios notification settings

Create a recurring task to manage camera roll

You know that recurring task I mentioned for your computer earlier? It’s not the only one you should set.

Recurring tasks are amazing in general, but for “housekeeping stuff” like this in particular.

I cannot tell you how often I used to have to clean out my phone out of necessity...because I needed to save something but had no room for it.

Between sending friends memes, screenshotting things as “notes to self,” and Instagramming all the livelong day, that roll sure does roll up quickly.

So once a week, I take a few minutes – 5 tops – to back up any photos I want to backup, and delete anything I don’t need anymore.

(If you’ve ever strugglebussed to fit just one more offline Spotify playlist or Kindle ebook on your phone, this tip will be amazing for you!)

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

Declutter your email

Ruthlessly click "unsubscribe" links

I’ve talked about newsletter management before, and it will never stop being important. You really do need to be ruthless about it.

Out of all the changes I made to my email habits, this one probably had the quickest payoff.

When you first stop keeping Gmail open, habit will have you navigating to it anyway. It’s not an immediate time saver until you break the habit.

But cutting things off at the source – having less email to read in the first place – will save you from yourself.

And getting rid of email you let into your inbox but don't read will reduce navigation time and visual clutter.

There are services you can connect to your email to help you mass unsubscribe from things.

newsletter search filter

You can also manually search your mail archive for things like "unsubscribe" and "adjust email preferences" to bring up a list of all marketing emails. Review the results and unsubscribe from anything you're no longer opening or interested in.

Take some email accounts off your phone

Most of us have more than one email account. I have 7 bajillion, and yes, that’s an exact number.

There’s my “personal” one, at least one email per blog/website that I have live, my day job, etc.

And I used to have them all coming to my phone.

Oh my God, why did I EVER do that?!

The majority of those accounts weren’t important – they were for personal stuff or hobby blogs. And all they did was dilute my attention from the emails I needed to be paying attention to when I was on-the-go.

Now I only have the inboxes for my day job and my main business email address on my phone.

As for the others, I never need to check them on the go, and I can still log in at home.

Create a marketing filter

For the marketing emails that you do decide to stay subscribed to, deprioritize them in your inbox.

You may already be using the built-in Gmail promotions tab, but even if so, it probably needs some fine-tuning. Take the time to do so.

If, like me, you have those predecided Gmail tabs turned off entirely, here's how to build your own custom version of a promotions folder:

  • Create a folder for all brand/marketing/shopping emails
  • Set up a filter for all emails that contain the words "unsubscribe," "adjust email preferences," and other footer-type text
  • Have that filter automatically move those marketing emails out of your main inbox and into the folder you created

"Out of sight, out of mind" again. You'll still have all those coupon codes and newsletters if you have time and want to read them, but they won't be bombarding you at all times tempting you to spend money.

gmail newsletter filters

Start your digital declutter

Declutter your digital life and you’ll feel less overwhelmed when you open your computer and “clock in” every morning. ⏰

The things in front of you will be only the things you need. You can sit at your laptop all day without getting distracted, and log off breathing easier every night.

To take even more control of your productivity, check out The Productivity Power-Up to declutter the rest of your biz!

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