Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Ethan Waldman from the Cloud Coach blog
There is a false perception about clutter that I’d like to clear up: the idea that clutter can only be physical objects. I believe that we are living in the age of digital clutter, and it is my mission to help you avoid it.
Here’s the problem
It is easy to address the physical clutter in our lives, because it’s everywhere. It takes up space in our closets, shelves and bedrooms. It shows up on our credit card bills in the form of new purchases, late fees and subscriptions.
Physical clutter in our lives is pervasive and prevents us from being happy, getting our work done, and living a more fulfilling life. Sites like Be More with Less are serving an important purpose: to combat the culture of clutter we live in.
But I believe that there’s another form of clutter, one that is less visible but just as pervasive: Digital Clutter.
It’s Harder to Recognize Digital Clutter
The problem with digital clutter is that it’s much easier to brush aside. Because storage space is so cheap and so freely available, we can just buy another $79 external hard drive and continue to store more crap on it.
Cloud computing was all the rage this year, and the ability to store your documents, photos and music online is a huge convenience. Yet it is also another opportunity to stash away digital clutter where we won’t see it all the time.
Any clutter expert will tell you that even though clutter isn’t staring you in the face it can take an emotional toll on you. You may still feel guilt associated with the stack of self-help books in your closet even though you haven’t looked at them in 3 years.
I think the same is true for digital clutter. Just replace that closet, basement or attic with external hard drives and cloud storage—Clutter is clutter.
Where is Digital Clutter at its worst?
There are many areas where digital clutter can be an issue, but the one I’d like to focus on specifically is email. Email clutter is worse than other forms of digital clutter for a number of reasons:
1. Most people use email every day
2. Email is the communications center for our businesses, social lives, and relationships
3. Though we may interact more socially on twitter and facebook, we get the most “action items” via email, so messages are much more likely to pile up.
In keeping with the theme of Be More With Less, I’d like to offer some techniques on how you can reduce email clutter so you can live with less digital clutter. Think of this as the precursor to performing an email clutter bust.
Go through your inbox and look for newsletters, promotional emails, shopping notifications, etc. Open each message and ask yourself if this email is really serving you—can you get this information another way?
If so, consider unsubscribing. Unsubscribe from as many lists as you can. Another way to cut down is to turn off email notifications from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Why do you need to get an email every time you get a new follower? By reducing these automated messages, you can reduce the amount of noise in your email. That way, what actually ends up in your inbox is actually important.
I go into this process in more detail in the free Email Ninja Kit resource, including suggested search terms and how to quickly unsubscribe.
Send Less Email
One way to cut down on the amount of email you receive is to reduce the amount of email you send. For me, this means never hitting reply-all. Replying all to an email is a sure guarantee that you’ll receive an exponential number of emails in return—emails that you’ll have to sort through to find action items or important pieces of information.
Before sending an email, I ask myself if this could be better served with a quick phone call or text message. In a way, sending an email just puts off a conversation that you could be having right now.
When you have no option but to send an email, keep it short and to the point. You’ll probably get something short and to the point in return. If you write a novel, don’t expect a concise answer.
One piece of advice that I give all of my clients is that organization doesn’t start once there is a mess. When you start a new project or correspondence that’s going to generate a lot of email, set up a folder or label for that project right away—don’t wait until you have 5 or 10 messages floating around before you create a home for them.
If you have Gmail, you can even automate this whole organization process so you no longer have to manually file emails in their appropriate folders (more on this in the Email Ninja Kit).
You Can Decide to Get Un-buried
Being constantly buried in email is a choice—not an affliction. By recognizing that your current methods and actions are contributing to the digital clutter in your life and adopting new techniques, you can move towards a life with less digital clutter.
How is digital clutter from email affecting your productivity? Your business? Your life? Let us know in the comments.
Ethan Waldman helps people live and work in harmony with technology at the Cloud Coach blog. Right now, many people are using his free Email Ninja Kit to liberate themselves from email hell.