I recently noticed that a friend has 711 unread emails in her inbox.
I asked if it bothers her that she has so many messages waiting for action, and she admitted that it does. But, she said, I don’t have the time to deal with them, and even if I did, my responses would only create more emails.
We’re all drowning in digital interactions these days, whether it’s emails, text and IM messages, or social media updates, our digital interactions beget more digital interactions and all of it can leave us feeling out of control, mentally exhausted and even physically sick.
According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, our brains need downtime to rest and repair themselves so that they can work in high-gear when we need them to. It’s why solid blocks of sleep time are so important.
If you’re always in receive mode via your screens, your brain never gets the chance to wander, to go where it wants to, rather than where it’s being led. It’s no surprise that we often get our best ideas in the shower, because it’s one of the last places we don’t take our screens with us.
Constantly being interrupted by what’s pinging on our screens is also having a negative impact on our ability to focus and complete tasks. As Levitin explains, multitasking is a myth. Our brains simply cannot do two things at once. Instead, when we go from text message – back to work – to Twitter – and back to work again – our brains are having to refocus every time we switch. And it’s a really inefficient way of working.
But what’s the solution when there’s so much digital information out there and so much temptation to interact with it?
What if we imagine each digital interaction as a tangible item – like a shirt? So every time you like something on Facebook or send a text, you are creating something with a physical presence. Every digital interaction becomes another shirt, stacking up in your closet.
Pretty soon your closet is jammed full of shirts, making it hard to locate what you really need. You end up wasting time sifting through all of it every day to find what is going to give you real value. Eventually you have to clean out that closet. It’s the same with your brain and digital clutter.
So how do you start your digital de-clutter?
Here are two tips:
First, take a hard look at each of your digital interactions, so that you can decide what their benefit is to you.
Marie Kondo applied this technique to physical possessions in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. In it, she asks us to consider each of our possessions and ask ourselves if they bring us joy. If they don’t, she advises that we get rid of them.
You can apply similar thinking to your digital clutter. Consider each interaction and ask yourself, what is this adding to my life? If I comment on this Facebook post and read the replies I receive, is this giving me real benefit or am I adding more clutter to an already full closet?
Second, think about where you keep your tangible possessions in your home.
You don’t carry everything you own around with you all the time. Instead, you keep certain things in certain places, for example, shampoo is in the bathroom and kitchen utensils are in the kitchen.
Apply the same thinking to your digital clutter. Instead of carrying all of it with you all the time, create boundaries for yourself – as you do with your physical possessions in your home – by designating certain digital interactions for specific times of day. So, choose times when you will look at emails or post on social media, rather than allowing yourself access to everything all the time.
Once you’ve tidied your digital closet to only those things that are giving you real benefit, and designated specific times when you will engage, you’ll feel less harassed by your digital interactions and more in control of your life.