How to clear out the digital clutter and get your focus back

computers

I spend most of my day on a computer. When I’m not working I spend my spare time programming or blogging. When I take a break I spend it looking at my phone.

One of the problems with all this time spent looking at screens is the amount of digital clutter these habits have created in my life.

I don’t just mean files cluttering up my desktop or a Facebook account full of friends I barely know. I mean the intangible clutter: the accounts I have on every social network; the abandoned to-do lists left behind in every to-do app I’ve ever tried; the people I’m always comparing myself to or trying to beat.

Spending so much time online every day leads to a cluttered life. One where you don’t stop and think before grabbing your phone during any moment of downtime. One where you start feeling obliged to post on social networks twice a day because your followers expect you to and you forgot to ask yourself if it even matters what people expect.

It’s so easy for these habits to creep up on us that we never get a chance to ask ourselves if this is how we want to spend our time. Before we notice anything changing it just feels normal to fill up our time—our lives—with screens.

But once we realise how cluttered our lives have become with screens, social media, and expectations, we can look for ways to simplify that mess.

Transition to digital minimalism

Professor and author Cal Newport is well-known for his ideas about productivity—in particular, finding the time and space to do real, important work. So when Newport suggested quitting social media, people took notice.

We’ve all heard of social media sabbaticals, where someone quits social media for a short period of time, but Newport also has a suggestion for a more lasting approach than the yo-yo of quitting and rejoining social media over and over: digital minimalism.

Digital minimalism, says Newport, is focused on the idea of removing digital clutter and spending our time only on what adds value to our lives.

Digital minimalism, he says, “is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

Newport’s philosophy is based around the idea that we can improve our lives by “intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing [our] use of the tools that really matter.”

Of course, to adopt a philosophy that requires us to prune our use of (and reliance on) digital tools, we’ll inevitably have to face FOMO—fear of missing out. Newport says one of the key beliefs underlying his digital minimalism philosophy is that missing out is not bad. We have to come to terms with the idea that we will miss out on some things, and that that’s okay. FOMO is only holding us back by giving us an excuse to stay chained to the digital clutter we’ve accumulated.

So if we admit we can’t keep up with everything anyway and let go of our FOMO, what’s next? How do we actually clear out the digital clutter that’s built up in our lives?

Newport suggests two alternatives for making the transition to digital minimalism. The first is a subtractive approach. This involves removing each digital tool, service, or associated behavior that you find doesn’t add value to your life. One by one, survey each element of digital clutter you’ve accumulated and ask yourself if it deserves to stay. If not, remove it.

The other approach is an additive method. It involves removing everything initially, and adding back only those tools, services or behaviors that do serve your values.

With either of these approaches, you could use RescueTime to show you which distracting tools and services take up most of your time. If you use the subtractive approach, your RescueTime data could also show you how much more productive you are when you cut out everything you can do without, and how that changes as you start adding things back into your life.

Either way, the most important thing, says Newport, is to make sure you’re choosing the best tool or service in each case, not just whatever will do the job.

Choose the best tool for the job

tools

Many of us fall prey to the easy option of finding value in every digital tool we use. It’s not hard to make an argument for spending time on Facebook or having a Twitter account. You could even argue the merits of Snapchat—no one would begrudge you having fun with friends.

But Newport points out that we rarely take the time to find the best way to get the value we’re looking for. Instead, we try a new tool, find some value in it, and decide that’s a good reason to keep giving it our attention.

Newport suggests another way of approaching the digital clutter in our lives. Whether you use his subtractive or additive method from the previous section, he recommends starting by thinking about your values. What is it that’s important to you? What do you want to achieve from how you spend your time?

When you know what your values are, Newport says, you can focus on finding the best tools to help you live out those values.

For example, if you previously found scrolling through Twitter every few minutes useful because it helped you stay on top of news, and one of your values is to be informed about local events, you could then evaluate whether Twitter is the best tool for staying updated on what’s happening in your local area. You might find that a local newspaper or the RSS feed of a local news website is a better tool to help you live out this particular value.

Protect your time

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One of the inevitable effects of digital clutter is that it makes us busy. Filling our time with email, social networks, and mindless scrolling through other people’s updates leaves us with little time to get real work done. Our lives are taken over by busy work.

As writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young points out, this is a problem because we associate being busy with being productive, but they’re not the same. When we spend all our time on busywork, therefore, we entertain the idea that we’re being productive while all along we’re neglecting our most important work.

Although it can be difficult to escape from the cycle of busyness, doing so opens up time for hard, important work.

Young suggests cutting back on your commitments to leave more room for big projects. Newport similarly advocates doing fewer things better, rather than spreading yourself too thin.

But Young also suggests being disconnected or hard to reach on purpose. The more available and responsive you are, the more easily other people can clutter up your life and eat up your time with their own priorities.

Our own CEO Robby Macdonell tried drastically cutting back on his social media activity because it was becoming overwhelming:

About a year ago, I got into a rut where I was completely bogged down with checking news and social networks. I had so many streams of information to monitor that keeping up was really draining. I got totally burnt out on it and decided to quit most of it cold turkey, cutting my time spent on social media by about 90%. I uninstalled everything from my phone and made a point to stay logged out of sites on my browser. The awkward feeling of being cut off from everything was real, but it passed after a few days.

A year later, Macdonell says the change was worth it:

Getting away from the noise I had been wading through felt great. The best part of it is the quality of my offline time is way up. I’m more present, and ‘catching up’ with my friends is generally now a focused conversation instead of skimming over a bunch of status updates.

It might sound extreme, but not having an account on every social network, not leaving your status as “available” in chat programs during work hours, or even not sharing your email address could open up huge chunks of uninterrupted time for real work. By making it harder for other people to contact you, you’ll ensure only very important messages will reach you, and you’ll protect your time from busywork and time-consuming requests.

Of course, the problem then becomes what to use as an excuse when you avoid the hard work anyway…


It’s never easy to go against the grain, but in doing what seems normal we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Our “normal” has become a harmful habit of accepting all new, available technology into our lives, regardless of how much value it really brings us.

Taking the time to re-evaluate the tools we use and how we spend our time can be an eye-opening experience. And if we regularly evaluate our choices and protect our time and attention, we may just be able to avoid falling into that trap again.


2 Comments on “How to clear out the digital clutter and get your focus back”

  1. Tim Ludy says:

    Great article! I recently took the plunge of deleting Facebook from my phone and moving more productive content apps like Kindle and Evernote to the home screen so I reach for them first when I’m killing time. Still a long way to go from deleting my social accounts but it’s a step in the right direction.

    • Belle B. Cooper says:

      This is a great start! The easier it is to do something, the more likely we are to do it, so making productive apps the easiest ones to open is a clever move. Hope it works out for you!


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