Productivity: Do a Mid-Year Digital Declutter

Decluttering your digital assets reduces security risks and helps you manage your everyday work and play. Here's what to do for that spring-cleaning feeling across all your tech.

Lisa Schmeiser

May 31, 2017

7 Min Read
Productivity: Do a Mid-Year Digital Declutter
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Many Americans of a certain age will remember the end-of-school rituals every June, many of which involved excavating layers of paper that had been stuffed in the back of a desk, crammed into folders, or gently composting at the bottom of a locker between layers of long-forgotten sack lunches. There is something about the mid-year point -- end of the school year, beginning of summer, whatever -- that inspires decluttering.

As grown-ups, few of us must clean out a classroom desk every June. But we've still got clutter: the files we've downloaded for one use, then never needed again; the emails we've read and somehow not deleted; the PDFs containing account information we've used for taxes. On it goes.

But storage is cheap and basic security is easy to set up. So why would you bother digitally decluttering? Here are a few reasons:

1. The fewer files you have with personal information in them, the lower your risk that someone can get that information and use it for identity theft, hacking, or other malicious appropriation.

2. Eliminating old accounts you no longer use also eliminates the chance that someone else can start using your old Dropbox account, your old email address or that trial you forgot you did.

3. The smaller your digital hoard, the easier it is to keep track of, and secure, your assets. (It's the same principal as real-world housekeeping: the more stuff you have, the more time you spend managing your stuff.)

So now that you're persuaded, how to best tackle the digital decluttering? Here are the best practices I've found useful.

Break down the decluttering into discrete tasks. This keeps you from getting overwhelmed. It also helps you establish and maintain momentum. So one day, you spend an hour listening to your favorite "get-things-done" playlist (apparently video game soundtracks are very good for this too) and go through your bulging downloads and documents folders on your desktop, another day you deep-dive into your email and see from what you can unsubscribe, and so on. A good digital decluttering takes about a week, provided you break down the tasks into manageable chunks.

Find and delete unused accounts. I'm looking at you, person who hasn't opened [email protected] since high school. In addition to deleting old email accounts, old Google accounts (think of someone parking their files in the Google Drive of an account you haven't checked in years) and little-used online storage accounts, you will also want to delete your accounts on different websites where you may have bought something once a few years ago. 

How does one find these accounts? I did searches in my email with phrases like "update your account," "manage your account," "manage account," "account information," "update password," "manage preferences," "your purchase" and the always-useful "unsubscribe," then checked for domains and sites I haven't visited in a white. I also double-checked my password manager to see if there were web sites I hadn't visited in forever, yet still had account information for.

Once I had my list of accounts, I set aside some time, deleted accounts when links were provided for doing so, or searched online for "How to delete [account]" for a particular vendor.

Another very useful resource for this type of thing is the web site Just Delete Me.

Double-check your browser settings and password managers. Because you'll want to make sure you're not stashing a ton of dead or outdated data.

Block out a few hours on your Outlook calendar so nobody bothers you, and handle your email. I have always enjoyed the simplicity of an Inbox Zero approach -- read a message, respond if it will take less than a minute or two, throw the message in an all-purpose "archive" folder if they have information that's useful, delete the message if it's not useful.

The only problem with this approach is that you end up with a massive archive folder -- and do you really need to hold on to everything? It doesn't hurt to go surfing through every so often to see if there are message threads from long-since-launched projects you can snip, or routine reminders about your 401(k) statement being available online that you can bin.

Then again, your idea of archiving email might be to just let it all sit in your inbox. That's all right too -- we all have organizational schemes that work best for us. But you may want to try and sort out some mail -- by sender, subject, or date -- and see what you're hanging on to that you can release.

While you're poking around your inbox, take the time to unsubscribe to any email lists where you get the email and automatically delete it. Just admit you're not going to open that newsletter and unsubscribe.

Do you have thumb drives, old hard drives or computers waiting to be wiped? Just clean them off and dispose of them already. If you've never cleaned a drive for disposal, here's a quick rundown of what you do: Deauthorize any apps that access streaming services or digital assets you own. Deauthorize any third-party apps you've got on the device. If you've got a hard disc drive, use a disc-wiping tool like Darik's Boot and Nuke. That vendor also offers free trials of their tool for erasing solid-state drives (SSD).

To clear off a USB stick, all you have to do is connect it to your computer -- make sure you have a vague idea of what's on the USB stick first, or else make sure you have a current backup of your system just in case -- then delete the files and reformat the drive.

As for getting surplus hardware out of the house, there are a number of ways to find a tech recycler, a donation program, or an online reseller who will take your goods.

Take unused apps off your mobile devices and your computers. Seriously -- if you're not using the app, open it up only to delete any lingering data, close your account with the app maker, then delete the app.

Remember that closing an account may not guarantee that a company deletes all your data, but it keeps the company from collecting new data about you. It also reduces the number of live user accounts you've accumulated. And thus you continue to reduce risk.

Clean up your downloads, document and desktops. We've all seen the nightmare screens of people who have saved thousands of files to their desktop. What people may not realize is that all those tiny file previews that show up on the desktop gobble up RAM and slow your computer down. So streamline that desktop! While you're at it, go through your designated downloads folder to see what ancient relics lurk within. And go to the all-purpose documents folder to see if anything saved there needs to be moved to a more relevant and useful home or data back-up repository, like OneNote or Evernote. If not -- consider killing it. 

Check your automated cloud services like Microsoft Flow or If This Then That. We love automation here, but it never hurts to see whether you really need to keep collecting all your Facebook statuses in a spreadsheet, or whether every tweet needs to be saved to a OneNote notebook. And speaking of ...

Look through your cloud-based drives and digital repositories. The more places you're stashing your assets, the more places you're opening up to risk. It's fine to have -- and use -- services like Dropbox or Google Drive for hosting assets you share with others. It's also okay to take a look at what you're storing in those places and see if you really need to keep it.

I find this last step often takes the longest, especially if you're going through your OneNote or Evernote to delete digital ephemera from dead user accounts or hotel receipts from long-past vacations.

Think through how to make a semi-annual decluttering less painful the next time around. This is one of those things that's the most painful the first time you do it, but the goal is to make it no more than mildly inconvenient in subsequent decluttering iterations. If it helps to program reminders in your calendar to check your different cloud services every month, do it. If you want to make the day after Thanksgiving your annual unsubscribe-from-emails day, do it. Just take small, regular steps to keep your digital assets as well-edited and secure as possible.

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