/ Minimalism

Digital clutter: cultivating an attitude of minimalism in your digital life

When it comes to possessions and mindset, I’m a solid minimalist. I acquire with intentionality, and am twice as fast to un-acquire stuff the moment it no longer brings exceptional value.

But in one area, I’m a hopeless clutter addict: my digital life.

After a decade of computers, I’ve acquired terabytes of digital clutter. Since storage is cheap, I initially embraced a gospel of “delete nothing.”

In trying to coax family and friends into more minimalistic habits, I encouraged them to digitize everything so they could trade physical possessions for cheap digital storage.

What are a few backup hard drives to a garage full of unsearchable memories?

One is greater than four

That philosophy hasn’t worked well the last few years as I’ve consolidated 2TB onto a 0.5TB laptop — and in keeping with the principle of accessibility, I have no plans to carry around external drives with the other 1.5TB.

Now I realize storage isn’t the problem. Ownership and availability are. Just like physical possessions, every file I own has mental ownership of me. And while the practical aspect — running out of space on three computers and selling two of them — has forced my hand, it’s been on my mind the last few years. As I aim for accessibility and replaceability, I can’t seem to get my digital life in shape.

If your laptop (and backups) burned up, what would you lose? Would you have anxiety from not knowing the extent of the loss? If I’m preparing to lose or let go of things, I want to have a say in what goes while I have opportunity.

Going through the digital closet

That means letting go of files in exactly the same way I cull through possessions.

When decluttering a room, the easiest place to start is your wardrobe — styles go out of style, and you can only wear one outfit at a time. In the digital realm, that meant a visit to my downloads and design asset folders that were littered with:

  • Photoshop brushes, actions and textures that I never even unzipped.
  • More themes, icons and templates than I care to admit. Did I mention I used to collect Windows Vista icon packs?
  • Design work that’s over a decade old and I will never, ever want to look at again.

1. When was the last time I used this?

Maybe your digital life isn’t as hopeless as mine, but why on earth would I hold on to unzipped fonts and icons I downloaded 5 years ago?

To start my spring cleaning, I sorted by Date Modified or Last Opened to guesstimate the last time I wandered in the neighborhood.

My downloads folder sorted by date modified

2. Will I need this in an emergency?

Why are these files in a folder where I’ll never find them? Emergency documents should be accessible and replaceable, which means they should be available online and backed up with 1Password or Dropbox.

3. Does this bring some happiness?

If you don’t use it and you don’t need it, it isn’t bringing happiness. Trash it.

4. Is there already something better that duplicates its purpose?

The downloads folder is a well-meaning sanctuary for duplicates. Bench Report.xlsx, Bench Report (2).xlsx, Bench Report OLD.xlsx. For every file you download, find two that should be trashed or moved to a better home. Need to archive a document for records? Convert to PDF and ditch the source document.

Two hours later, my downloads and design asset folders are completely empty for the first time in 6 years. In sifting through thousands of files, I found 10 that were meaningful and belonged elsewhere.

Letting go of digital junk

Before dropping from 2TB to 1TB, I had already taken practical steps to remove large files. That was easy: I just looked for old raw video files.

But going from 1TB to 0.5TB was infinitely harder because I needed to let the millions of little files go. Large files may weigh my hard drive down, but the millions of little ones weigh me down with anxiety.

Since becoming a digital nomad, I thought I’d gotten over I-might-need-this syndrome. However, my old design work and downloads folder were full of memories, and I liked the security of having something to reminisce over.

It’s the same trap I thought I had tackled years ago. It suggests two unrealistic assumptions:

  • That these files are something I’ll want to reminisce over.
  • That preserving all of these files in their original format is the best medium to reminisce.


Some of my friends love to scrapbook. For a while, I thought it was stupid — actually, I still do — but scrapbooking can be a powerful antidote to clutter: it coaxes you to curate hundreds of isolated memories into a cohesive highlights reel.

An image has far more power in a gallery collection than as a single in the closet. Scrapbooking creates from material you’ve already captured. Few things have intrinsic worth: it’s what we invest that takes raw material — family photos or old design work — and turns them into something valuable.

Scrapbooking preserves memories in a format worth celebrating. It’s not the material itself, but how you frame it.

Digital scrapbooking for rainy days

In the digital world, that entails recycling old material — photos, milestones, projects — into a sort of “digital scrapbook.” While the source material might be thrown out, the scrapbook is worth holding on to for reminiscing.

A digital scrapbook can be just about anything: producing a performance highlight from work emails, coalescing old video clips into a YouTube montage, or uploading interior design ideas to a moodboard like Niice.

When a “rainy day” hits and you’re in need of encouragement, you won’t reach for reams of raw, disorganized memories. You will want to reach for a concise, meaningful digital scrapbook.

However, if you frequently find yourself with rainy days and reminiscing over old memories, it might be time to get out of your comfort zone to make new memories. Being comfortable is one of the dreariest, most uncomfortable stages of aging.

Rather than stockpiling old memories for depressing days, optimize your lifestyle for making new memories over curating the old.

Down to 400GB

I was a hopeless digital clutter addict. But there just might be hope.

I made one final backup and set up camp on a new 512GB computer. Whether I’m away from backups for a few days or a few years, now I know that I have everything I need with me.

macOS Finder

Like moving out of a house, moving to a new computer gets easier each time. You get in the habit of knowing exactly what you will let go of, and what carries meaning. Minimalism is about making everything count: anything that doesn’t, goes in the trash (folder).

Apart from a little baking soda, tidying up your hard drive is no different from tidying up the house.

Jonathan Lee Martin

Jonathan Lee Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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