Marie Kondo, for your digital life

Marie Kondo has soared in popularity over the past month thanks to her Tidying Up Netflix debut. I decided now was as good a time as ever to finally read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and while I liked it, I wished it had some advice for the more serious clutter problem in my life: digital noise.

Thankfully, many of her tips can be taken out of context and applied to your digital life, so I've compiled a list of strategies I've been accumulating over the past year to help manage what was once an ever-cluttered sea of distraction and unhappiness: my inbox, my tabs, my twitter feed, etc.

Managing your inbox

Email is the defacto notification platform, which means that trivial, low-value and non-actionable information piles up along with the stuff that's actually important. What I found myself doing consistently was opening my inbox, scanning it for important emails (and if there were any, dealing with them immediately or snoozing them), then ignoring any unimportant emails, occasionally archiving them.

In the months since switching back to Gmail from Inbox, my inbox has grown day-by-day into a pile of noise that I've visually noted is unimportant — then when I have freetime, I'll go through and archive the whole pile, maybe once a week. Daily Inbox Zero seems like a good solution here, but it's too much bother to keep up with. So eventually I thought, why not just enforce it automatically?

I haven't decided if this is genius or stupid yet, but I created a Gmail apps script to enforce bankruptcy of old emails. Emails that I've seen and want to do something with can be labeled as 'actionable' to pin them to my inbox. Otherwise, they get automatically destroyed. (I've also experimented with using the built-in Important indicator for pinning).

    function gmailBankrupt() {  
      var maxDate = new Date();
      maxDate.setDate(maxDate.getDate() - 1); // Get a date 24 hours ago
      var label = GmailApp.getUserLabelByName("Bankrupted");
      var threads = GmailApp.search("-label:actionable -label:starred -label:important in:inbox");

      // Archive & label as 'bankrupted' all threads in our query older than 24 hours
      for (var i = 0; i < threads.length; i++) {
        if (threads[i].getLastMessageDate() < maxDate)
        {
          threads[i].addLabel(label);
          threads[i].moveToArchive();
        }
      }
    }

I set this as a trigger to run every ~24 hours. Now all my old mail that I've looked at but didn't want to spend the time archiving is automatically nuked. If there was something important, I can skim through the Bankrupted label to double check.

I came up with this idea after reading Marie Kondo's description of what to do with mail, and her observation that almost all of it is pointless: statements that your bill was paid, advertisements, etc. You could throw away 99% of it and be fine, and that's true of email, too.

Managing your tabs

I recently came to the conclusion that most of my open tabs where things I intended to look back on in the future, but did not currently need (articles, tweets, memes, job postings, shopping, etc.) Because of this, I came up with a basic rule: bookmark, and close, any tab you're not currently using. If you want to look back at it, check your bookmarks, and if you forget about it, well, you didn't need it anyway. I've started using Pocket for this but a variety of tools exist with similar functionality, including just the built-in bookmark manager of your browser.

On top of this, I've started using this extension to automatically close any duplicate tabs, as I often find myself with a growing number of /r/nyc tabs.

Finally, throughout the day, I regularly just close everything that isn't my main tab group (email, calendar, work chat). Chrome's "close all tabs to the right" feature is great for this.

Managing your content

Marie Kondo often talks about how your home will accumulate the same items in multiple places. This is the motivation behind her policy of cleaning by category instead of location.

Along the same line, I'm trying to make sure my that digital content is not sharded across multiple services unnecessarily. Specifically what service you use does not matter, so long as you don't have to open One Note, Google Drive, and Evernote in search of a piece of information. I've settled on storing all my files in Google Drive, photos in Google Photos, and notes in Notion, but it really doesn't matter. I do tend to prefer using cloud services over storing files locally, as this increases availability and removes the ability to fragment my digital life across devices.

For content you don't need to keep or reference, just delete it. Downloads directory? Erase everything in it. Stuff on your desktop that you're not sure of? Delete it. If you want to go to extremes, set up a scheduled task/cron on your machine to regularly delete content to enforce that you properly store/backup anything you care about.

Managing the noise

While different than the above subjects, I've been taking strides lately to reduce the amount of noise taking up my attention throughout the day: social media, chats, etc. I've begun logging out of social chats, muting discord, etc., for several hours of the day, and checking up on them at the end of the day when my attention has freed up. Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are blocked on my work computer, not as an organizational rule but because I modified the hosts file to prevent them from loading. If I get the urge to check them, I can do so on my phone, where the attention span is much shorter, typing more painful, and overall becomes less of an automatic time waster. I've found this to be a reasonable strategy to help maintain my focus.

Conclusion

There's still a long way to go to reach what I would consider optimal digital de-cluttering, but I'm off to a good start I think. If you have any strategies that work for you, drop me a line in the comments. I'll be updating this in the future to describe any future iterations of it.