What’s Digital Decluttering? (5 Steps to Reduce Digital Overwhelm)

  • By: Ryan Kane
  • Updated: December 5, 2022
  • Time to read: 4 min.

Digital decluttering reduces overwhelm by providing clarity on what your current projects are and removing anything that takes away from that focus. By organizing your digital life, you can more effectively keep ideas for future use. This relieves your mind from the burden of holding them.

From time to time, I feel an intense desire to get organized.

When the feeling hits, it hits with urgency.

It’s hard to tease apart why. 

Is it a genuine response to messiness in my life? Is it a form of procrastination? Am I just sick of all the notepad files littering my desktop?

Perhaps it’s a mix of all of these.

But I do know this:

Cleaning and organizing reduces overwhelm.

And while moving files around on my laptop isn’t the best use of my time, sometimes it just has to be done.

That’s what “digital decluttering” is about.

Why organizing your physical, digital, and mental life reduces overwhelm

Woman organizing shelves at home

Let me explain how this phenomenon works for my mind. 

Perhaps you’ll relate.

The physical world

Organizing the physical world gives me a sense of control. 

When life feels chaotic, I know I can neatly make my bed. When there’s a lot to do, knocking out simple tasks like taking the trash out can build momentum. Completing physical tasks often feels more satisfying than information-based tasks.

The mental world

Then there’s the world of thoughts.

These are tougher to organize. My key tool here is journaling.

“Brain dump” journaling is a method to untangle the many thoughts in your head. Putting thoughts down on paper makes them concrete. By doing this until I run out of thoughts, I experience some relief.

The next step is to give my brain permission not to let go of those thoughts. 

Sometimes, just writing it down does the trick.

In other cases, I may need to take an action to relieve the thought. Perhaps I’ll set a calendar reminder for a later date to reassure my mind that it’ll be handled later.

Some cases of worry or overwhelm are hard to resolve through journaling.

Those take time and practice to navigate.

The digital world

Here’s where it gets more complex.

At this moment, my digital life feels especially in disarray.

I’m keeping my physical world tidy. And I’m journaling when needed to support my mental world. 

But all those tasks, ideas, and plans for the future are ending up in a messy digital world.

I don’t use many physical sticky notes. 

Instead, my ideas and commitments are stored in:

  • Notepad files
  • Google Keep notes
  • Calendar invites and reminders
  • A largely unused Notion setup

Just this week, I realized something:

The relative chaos of this unorganized digital landscape is starting to take up mental space for me.

I’ve done the work of removing these thoughts from my brain. 

But because the notes are scattered around, I know there’s a good chance I’ll never take action.

Digital organization and the “Second Brain”

Organized folders in a few different colors

It’s time to clean house.

To start, I’m reviewing principles from a book by Tiago Forte called Building a Second Brain

The primary concept in the book is about reducing information overload by capturing ideas that are interesting to you and distilling them to their essence.

Here’s how that works:

  • Take notes on anything that resonates with you (from books, blogs, podcasts, social media, etc)
  • Organize these notes
  • Distill them to their essence
  • Express the ideas from your own point of view

What I’m focused on right now is mainly #2: organization.

The author recommends a system for organization he calls “PARA”:

  1. Projects: Active short-term projects you’re working on (like “website design”)
  2. Areas: Evergreen areas of responsibility (like “taxes”)
  3. Resources: Notes of possible future interest that aren’t related to a current project.
  4. Archive: Old projects or irrelevant resources or projects.
  5. Future Projects: To make this clearer for myself, I’m adding a fifth folder: Future Projects.

Digital decluttering reduces digital overwhelm

Here’s where I think the big “overwhelm” unlock could be:

Being 100% clear that only things in “Projects” matter right now.

If there’s a project I may want to pursue in the future, I drop it in Future Projects and come back to it when I have time.

If I audit my current Projects and feel like there’s too much going on, I’ll pull the least urgent work back into Future Projects.

There’s so much we could be doing in this life.

Sometimes, that knowledge feels overwhelming.

By putting boundaries around it, we can protect ourselves from overwhelm and have a clear idea in mind of the specific projects we’re trying to move forward at any given time.