What is Digital Clutter? How to Clean Your Computer Files
What is Digital Clutter? How to Clean Your Computer Files
20 May 2022
illustration for decluttering online

What is Digital Clutter & How Can You Manage It?

Trying out new apps is normal. You may be looking for a tool to find the lowest gas prices in your area. Or maybe you’re bored in a waiting room and need a new, fun game to pass the time. Whatever the case may be, our smartphones, computers, tablets, and other devices tend to accumulate such digital “dust” or “junk” over time.

Digital clutter, then, can be defined as anything you have saved on your computer, in the cloud, and on mobile devices that you rarely if ever use.  

These may be unused applications running in the background, unneeded videos and pictures, or maybe once-important documents with sensitive information that’s gone untouched in the “Downloads” folder. 

You may have also built up digital clutter on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites that you use. “Friends” who you don’t actually know, groups with interests you no longer have, or even posts and pictures you’ve shared that you no longer want public. While these are, arguably, rarely harmful, you’ll find your social accounts filled with information not relevant or necessary to you. 

Whatever the case may be, it’s smart to routinely clean your digital devices out, just as you would your house and car. Practicing good digital cleanliness will save you money, increase your device lifespan, and even keep you safe from intrusive ads or scams. 

Why Digital Clutter is Bad

An unclean device is filled with a lot of unknowns and vulnerabilities. Think of it like storing food at room temperature. Sure, it won’t be dangerous at first. But over time, bacteria may find a way into your food. Technology works the same way. An app that you no longer use may still be running in the background, potentially using up your battery life and cell phone data. 

An independent study found that 96 out of 100 android apps work in the background without users launching them (Kaspersky). Furthermore, 83 out of 100 apps have access to sensitive information on the phone like contacts, messages, and files. Intrusive advertisements can also find their way onto an installed app, which will constantly annoy you during normal use. Your devices will also run faster and have longer battery lives when you eliminate unwanted apps running in the background. 

Besides potentially dangerous apps, you’ll generally have a better experience using your devices if you regularly clean them out. Information that’s relevant to you will be far easier to access when the irrelevant clutter is pushed aside. You’ll notice you are far less overwhelmed when using these apps. 

So where do you begin? How can you separate the necessary from the clutter?

8 Places Digital Clutter Accumulates

  1. Applications: Uninstall unwanted/unused apps. You can go into the Applications section of your system settings to see a list of all your installed apps. On most devices, you can check the details of each app to see how much data or system processing the app regularly uses. You can choose to force stop or even uninstall many applications that aren’t essential to device use. 
  2. Photos Folders and Apps: Get rid of unwanted photos and videos. Ever had to do 20 different takes of a family photo because someone kept blinking? It’s easy to forget the many unnecessary or accidental photos and videos we take on our devices. These take up a lot of system memory, so clearing them out or storing the best ones on the digital cloud is a great way to digitally declutter. 
  3. Social Media Accounts: Pare down your friends and followed pages on social media. Our interests and social groups tend to change over the years. Sometimes you’re following a page that just isn’t relevant to you anymore. Maybe you find yourself doing too much “doom scrolling” (consuming other people’s negative content). You’ll find your social accounts far easier to use and much more enjoyable without unnecessary information crowding your homepage. 
  4. Cookies: Notice the advertisements on the sides of websites you visit know a bit too much about you? This is usually due to website cookies. While it’s normal and harmless for the browser to store cookies of information like website login information, it can be a bit annoying to get repeated advertisements for kitty litter just because you looked it up once. Clear your cookies and cache in your browser settings to avoid this. 
  5. Old Downloads: This can be a big one. Do you download a lot of documents around tax season that have sensitive information on them? Those are likely just sitting, untouched, in your downloads folder. Go through your downloads regularly, and get rid of or safely store all documents in a password-protected cloud-based folder. That way, if someone gets access to your computer, they won’t find those documents on your hard drive.  
  6. Email Folders: Speaking of downloads — when was the last time you cleaned out your inbox, sent, archives, and trash folders? Clean up these folders regularly, so that (a) your important files are safely stored and password protected and (b) your email boxes aren’t overstuffed. 
  7. Bookmarks: Having far too many bookmarked pages will leave you unable to see or remember what you saved. It’s easy to separate these links into folders with different categories. Learn more bookmark management tips.
  8. Notifications: Apps can default to sending out notifications to try to get you to come back and use them. Fortunately, most modern apps will let you disable unwanted notifications in their settings pages. But if an app gives no options to disable notifications, you may be able to do it on your mobile device in the notifications settings. If you’re using Windows, click Start > Settings > System > Notifications & actions, then enable or disable alerts. 

How to Get Organized Online

Now that you know what to get rid of, what do you do with the stuff that you want to keep? You don’t need a decluttering app to make this a regular practice. Follow a few steps to digitally declutter.

Organize and password-protect your files. 

Cloud storage like Dropbox and Google Docs will provide a certain amount of free storage for documents, photos, and videos that you still want to keep. These programs will store your information remotely, so you can access them from anywhere. They’re also secure, as no one will be able to access your documents without your permission. 

Declutter your email boxes.

If your email is getting cluttered, it’s important to organize your inbox into different folders for the categories of messages you receive. Microsoft Outlook can be a great choice, as it integrates with any email you use. You can mark emails as important and sort them as needed. Make it a regular practice of deleting emails that are older than one year (or whatever you deem is old enough to delete).

Categorize your bookmarks.

If you’re having trouble with too many bookmarks in your browser, you can check out our article on bookmark management. There, you’ll find information on organizing bookmarks into folders on most web browsers. 

Clean up your social feeds.

Go through your social media, even the sites you don’t use anymore, and consider cleaning out your “friends” list and old pages you follow. For cleaning out friends, we’re not suggesting that you can’t be friends with someone you haven’t seen in 20 years. One of our editors uses this rule: If I were to run into them in the grocery store and wouldn’t stop to say hello, then why are we friends on social media?    

Many social media sites link the metadata, or the information they’ve collected about you, and use it to create a profile across all platforms. Cleaning out information that’s incorrect, or that you don’t necessarily want to be associated with your name anymore, is a great way to keep social media clean and accurate. 

Make Digital Decluttering A Regular Habit

Digital clutter tends to build up over time, so it’s good to remember the steps you use to organize so you know what to do when you make another round of cleaning in 6 months. You won’t have to clean your digital life as often as your house but the more you keep up on it, the easier your next de-clutter will be.