How-To simplify your digital life for the Tiny House

I am all for decluttering. I don’t like a crowded kitchen, a crowded closet, or even a crowded desk. So why then would I want a crowded digital world? And because my laptop is both my office and my recreation, cleanliness is next to cyber-godliness.

It all made sense to me when my dear friend Naomi Seldin of the Simpler Living blog sent out a link on her Facebook. The link was from the New York Times and was an article called True Confessions of a Digital Hoarder by Jenna Wortham.

Her story begins,

“Walk into my apartment and you’d most likely be hard-pressed to find a book or dish towel out of place. This is, in part, because I live in a studio in New York but also the residual ripples of growing up the youngest of five girls, which ingrained in me an obsessive compulsive disdain for clutter.

My online life, however, tells a completely different story.”

I stopped reading there. I had to control my knee-jerk reaction to grab my external hard drive and begin backing up immediately before deleting anything that I felt was lingering. Between work files, sub-contracting files, and personal files, I have no less than 4 email addresses, 13 social networking profiles, 3 external hard drives, a cloud backup system, and a shoebox of burned DVDs. This is what I could think of right off though. I am sure there are more. As I continued to read her article I began comparing myself to the situation Ms. Wortham found herself in and I didn’t feel quite as bad.

I had only 2 unread emails at the time. Older readers may remember that I once suggested reading email only three times a day for a set period of time; just as you would another task like a smoke break or a trip to the coffee pot. Because I have adhered to this I have within my 4 email accounts some 38 folders (some of which has sub-folders), exclamation points for emails that are highly important or timely, highlighted titles for those that should never be deleted, and only 2 unanswered emails.

I read on.

“Twitter, Facebook and Formspring are clogged with a backlog of unanswered messages, at-replies and notes, all begging for a reply. At the current moment, the text-message inbox on my smartphone says I have 14 unread messages (and in my book, that’s a good day).”

I toggled my browser over to Facebook stopping only for my Flickr account. Nope. No unread messages. No unreturned messages. No requests left hanging. And no Tweets left untweeted. My phone appeared to be working yet I had no voicemails, no text messages, and even the picture folder was cleared out. I was beginning to think that I was beyond organized; I was borderline neurotic.

Ms. Wortham began to get to her point though. She was not trying to bring light to a difficult issue just for the sake of it but rather to show that even digital clutter can begin to overwhelm you to the point of incapacitation and temporary paralysis; mentally and emotionally.

“…it’s starting to ruin my life.

I’ve missed important e-mails about family health matters, queries from editors and pings from sources. Earlier this week, I just happened to be staring into the abyss of my bloated e-mail inbox when a note floated in about last-minute drinks with a good friend who happened to be in town for the night. Had I not been looking at Gmail at that exact moment, there’s a good chance I never would have seen it.”

I remember the days where I was as overwhelmed, exacerbated, and, well, disheveled as she. As the Internet has grown and our lives have expanded more and more toward the digital there have been moments when I felt the infinity of the world wide web and its capacity to hold all of my data was a plausible reason to just let it accumulate. Like chotchkies on a side table I had emails, pictures, text messages, requests, unfinished docs, and half watched movies just floating around my digital world. But I have overcome such and I want to offer you 5 steps to bringing simple living back to your digital life!

  • Declutter and Streamline Your RSS Reader Feeds
  • RSS feeds can begin innocently enough. You find a blog. You like it. You click on that bright orange button and you follow it. You may not always read the post but at least you know there is activity. Then you add another. Maybe you add a news site too just to stay on top of world events. Before you know it you have subject folders, dozens of feeds, and a growing number of unread posts. I recommend catching up with the How-To Geek and his method to streamline and declutter his reader inbox. It covers deleting, foldering, and filing.

  • Clean Up Your Contacts
  • Oh, autofill, how we love thee. NOT! Once your contact box gets a bit robust you will find that every time you compose an email and begin to type in the address people show up automatically. Where did they come from? Who are they exactly? Whether you are on a Mac or a Windows box the best way I have found to keep accurate contacts is to first delete the ones you can’t remember in 3 -2 – 1. DELETE! Then I apologetically send out a mass email, an identical FB message, and sometimes a TXT message asking people to send their accurate contact information within 3 days so that I may update my lists. I then use those responses to make any changes, insertions, or deletions accordingly.

  • Clean Out Your Hard Drive
  • Please tell me why you still have the Limewire app on your computer’s hard drive? Limewire died by supreme court months ago. Let it rest in peace. Remove it and all associated files. Dig your way through your hard drive. You will be surprised at how much clutter you have amassed without realizing it. For me the most surprising folder is the ‘Mail Downloads’ folder. It is almost overwhelming in and of itself. I suggest either cleaning and defragging your Windows box or using a free third-party app like Disk Space Fan. If you run a Mac you may want to use Mac Cleaner as it cleans your Mac with one click of the mouse. I have used it for a year now and am quite pleased.

  • Free Up Space in Gmail
  • Most of us – 93.4% according to Google – have gmail accounts. Whether we use them as primary email or not a lot of people use them for email redirection, account setup, etc. And like me I am sure that when you created that free account you never thought you’d use up all those free gigabytes. Well, perhaps you have or are coming awfully close. Gina at LifeHacker has a great seven-step-clean-out for Gmail. I walked through it yesterday and am feeling quite spiffy about my new ‘G’ look.

  • Use Dropbox…A lot!
  • I just came across Dropbox thanks to a Twitter friend. Where has this cloud app been all my computing life? The file syncing service Dropbox does one thing very well, and that is give you access to a certain amount of file space (2 GB in free accounts) on any computer you use, as well as on smartphones. I use it to sync all my passwords, as extra storage, to share files with another computer user, and to….well, the list may very well be limitless.

But what about you? What are you doing to keep the clutter out? How do you defrag, declutter, and decompress? Is there an app you use or do you just have a stand-up method? If you know someone who could use to declutter their digital life please share this link on Facebook with them or Tweet it out to your followers!


Bigger does not always mean better. Progress does not always mean forgetting our roots in order to forge a new future. Blogger, photojournalist, and hobby farmer Andrew Odom has spent much of the last few years rediscovering the lost art of living, growing, and being truly happy. Visit him online, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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Michael Braun - August 18, 2011 Reply

I think there is an important distinction to be made between digital clutter that reduces productivity and the simple storage of digital files.

Having a cluttered inbox, or disorganized file system, or a hard drive that is continually out of space to store new documents – these things indicate too much digital clutter. Definitely time to go through and sort.

But using your computer as a place to store a lot of things is often the opposite of leading a cluttered life. For example, I was going through some papers a few weeks ago, and I came across some handmade thank you notes from the children of a friend of mine. I didn’t want to throw these notes away, but I didn’t want to store them either. So instead, I scanned them, saved the digital images, and tossed the paper. It was a good compromise. Using a computer this way can result in less clutter overall, even as it means more files on the computer.

Grant Wagner - August 18, 2011 Reply

One note that I would add, DO NOT USE ANY CLOUD BACKUP. Cracked web services are incredibly common and there is no such thing as a truly secure web service. Some are better than others, but not one won’t fall to a 16 year old with easily available automatic cracking software within a couple of hours, if not seconds. Everything that goes through the internet is public knowledge. If not explicitly, then it’s only until the next hacked email or SQL injection attack.

Use off line backups. A simple USB HD can hold everything, costs less than $100, and can be safely locked up at an off site location, such as a family member’s home or a safe deposit box. Use two; one at home for immediate use and one off site. Switch them every few weeks.

    Josh - August 18, 2011 Reply

    Use off line backups. A simple USB HD can hold everything, costs less than $100, and can be safely locked up at an off site location, such as a family member’s home or a safe deposit box.

    But there are a couple of key features that Dropbox offers (I’ve been using it for a long time) that you won’t get by simply backing things up on a hard drive. When you modify a file in your Dropbox folder, it automatically changes the file in your online backup. With Dropbox, your files are accessible from any computer by logging into your account online. I love it, and the important files that I keep in there are encrypted in a Truecrypt file container. Good luck cracking that password.

Living Large - August 18, 2011 Reply

I used to be so organized in my digital life. I don’t know what happened, but I’m working on it. A good reminder to do so with some good tips.

Josh - August 18, 2011 Reply

I agree wholeheartedly with Michael about the need to recognize the difference between clutter and storage for important things. I’ve been a fan of scanning important documents and things of that nature for a long time; not only so I can sometimes get rid of the hard copy, but also so I have easy access to them via the computer. I really need to declutter my hard drive though. I find myself downloading funny pictures or videos all the time and then storing them away in various folders. They are the type of things that I surely wouldn’t miss since I tend to not even realize they’re there. Need to go through and figure out what’s important.

I downloaded that Disk Space Fan program and installed it. Pretty neat little program. Using it showed me that I had 24 gigs of recorded TV shows that I had forgotten about. That freed up some space when I deleted them!

aftermath - August 18, 2011 Reply

At the risk of being unpopular…Beware of those who “cherry pick” data to fit their models.

I know a lot of people who, despite usually doing nice and kind acts, do some pretty rotten, reprehensible things as well. Nevertheless, they see and talk about themselves as “good people”, which they are, but are unwilling to accept the fact that they are “bad people”, which they also are. Life is complicated, and it’s much easier to blind yourself to things that run contrary to how you think you want to be.

We are pre-biased to certain ideas about things. We go sifting through our experience of reality, and as long as we can find enough of something there, we convince ourselves that our ideals are in fact valid and thus we can reject evidence to the contradictory that is also present. It’s not exactly the healthiest aspect of how people function, but it’s what happens. This mechanism is why marketing works, and in particular why the uninformed consumer can be more than satisfied with terrible quality products and services. When you eat fast food, the “food” is important to the extent that you convince yourself that the marketing messages, the ambiance, and your experience all converge to deliver on the promise that you’ve already made to yourself about what you’re going to experience. It has to be good or else you’re letting yourself down, and nobody wants to let themselves down. Luckily, it’s easy to lie to ourselves, which is what we do. If you were to bring your fast “food” to a totally different context with totally different expectations, like Thanksgiving Dinner, you might be considerably disappointed because you’re suddenly experience things as they are rather than as you needed them to be.

In this spirit, I can’t take seriously the pretenses of people to favor simplicity and sustainability who do fundamentally insensible things with computers:
* buying or using proprietary or closed source operating systems
* buying or using proprietary or closed source software
* buying or using hardware that relies exclusively on proprietary or closed source drives
* making use of any hardware, software, or network service with arbitrarily restrictive interoperability
* making use of any network service which relies on a proprietary or closed source client
* making use of any network service which relies on a proprietary or closed source server
* making use of any data creating, managing, storing, or editing service which relies on proprietary or closed source code
* allowing your digital rights to be managed by somebody who is not you
* subjecting yourself or people whom you care about to arbitrary policies created or enforced by third party

Blah, blah, blah… the list goes on and on. If you do this stuff, you might be interested in cherry picking simplicity and sustainability in certain areas of your life, but you’re not actually interested in simplicity and sustainability and should stop the pretense.

When it comes to technology, there are lots of intellectually bankrupt ways of faking an idealized interest in simplicity and sustainability while failing in real life: Anything from Apple, Anything from Google, Many things from Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, Flickr, Youtube, etc.

I know what the objectives are to this line of thinking because I hear them all of the time, and they’re always wrong (I guess I need them to be). The reality is that you don’t need any of this stuff, and if you’ve put your life in a position where you do need any of this stuff then you’ve failed yourself at some deeper, more fundamental level. If you literally can’t live a wonderful life without a Twitter account, then your life may not be worth that much. If you can, then you’re wasting your time and effort uploaded content (FOR FREE) to Twitter’s website. At the very least, you could use something like identica, which is covered by the AGPL, the web services equivalent to the GPL.

Please are pretty stupid when it comes to everything, I think people in the tiny and alternative housing movements definitively have a different level of awareness than others when it comes to housing. Even though we pass the housing IQ test, most of us fail the technology IQ test because we’re back in the familiar position of being very ignorant consumers. Don’t worry though, you don’t have to achieve a high level of simplicity and sustainability in your technological life to enjoy a high level of simplicity and sustainability in your home life. Just don’t pretend like you’re not a cherry picker or that you’re really interested in and actually living out simplicity and sustainability. You’re not. You’re just doing it in certain parts of your life to the exclusion of others. You should make peace with that dissonance, or it will haunt you and undermine everything that you’re trying to become.

    alice - August 18, 2011 Reply

    Ouch! Harsh judgement! Please remember there is no single definition of simplicity. If your ideal involves all these things and you achieve them that’s fine, and if you’re disappointed by not achieving them you can work on it in your own life. To see anybody else as courting dissonance or being less than perfect for not conforming to your ideals is neither practical nor, in the long run, consistent with your notion of simplicity. We ALL “cherry pick” what fits with our own notions of the way things should be and I don’t see how your list of preferences should be the only one.

    cj - August 19, 2011 Reply

    I was having many of these same thoughts (w/o the depth). I’m sure there are some good organizational tips in here but I can’t read past the word ‘facebook’. Somehow it misses the boat to organize what you can simply do away with. But that’s me.

    Thank you for the straight talk. You’ve given me much to think about and much to correct. In particular, my operating system. I have to actually learn the ins and outs of your reference points.

    Mel - December 9, 2014 Reply

    Wow. Judgemental babble. Some of us are actually citizens of the 21st century. Sounds like you think free is the same as simple. Grow up.

Victoria - Ozarks Crescent Mural - August 18, 2011 Reply

I find the easiest way to deal with anything in life, including email, is do it immediately. As an email comes in, I read it and delete it. Simple, takes a minute and done. That principle applies to everything in life. If there’s something you have to do, don’t plan for it, just get it done right then. I think the planning and doing all at once consumes far more time than just immediate action. I don’t like RSS readers. I would never keep up on my favorite blogs if that was what I had to rely on. I get a new email for each new blog post. And it’s treated the same as all email. Read it when received and done.

Christina Nellemann - August 18, 2011 Reply

Thanks for the great post, Andrew. I think when it comes to digital clutter, it is the old adage “out of site, out of mind”. Most people do not see what is actually on our computers all the time.

I agree with Victoria…clean up/delete/organize right away. When you can’t, designate a time to do it: every quarter, twice a year, etc. I usually get a week off work for Christmas and do a full digital clean-up/back-up session during that time…just in time for the new year.

Bonnie - August 19, 2011 Reply

There are some good ideas here, even on that long snotty letter.

Benjamin - August 19, 2011 Reply

I disagree of a lot of what has been said above.

Modern computers make it very inexpensive to store a LOT of information, and back it all up safely. My hard drive on my 3 year old desktop is barely half full. I can’t see wasting a lot of time pouring over its contents looking for old programs and clutter to clean up. A big old forgotten program may be taking up about 2¢ worth of bytes. Let it; I don’t care.

(And my Mac defrags automatically by default so that’s not an issue.)

I can find anything I want in all those cluttered gigabytes a few seconds with my Mac’s search program. And it is all backed up in real time on a separate disk with Time Machine and on a monthly basis on 2 portable disks that have Time Machine on them that get alternately swapped out to my off-site safe deposit box.

So if it makes you feel better to clean up old emails instantly as they come in, go ahead. I skip over emails and just leave them unread on my HD -and any of them can easily be retrieved a year later if I suddenly realize I should have read them. Also I can easily find (in about 3 seconds) information someone asks me about an email they sent me 2 years ago. All those gigabytes of clutter costing me less than a cappuccino at Starbucks.

Clutter about the house is a nightmare and deserves our time to clean up. Clutter on the hard drive … I couldn’t care less.

    Benjamin - August 19, 2011 Reply

    One caveat though: be sure to take a few seconds to add titles or keywords to photos and image files to make them findable in a search.

anotherkindofdrew - August 19, 2011 Reply

I typically don’t retract any statements or even bring attention to myself once I have posted. But I want to clarify a couple of points.

1) This post came out of the need to remove as much physical clutter or physical items as possible in order to live in a tiny house. This includes extraneous external hard drives, a number of CDs and DVDs, cords, batteries, etc.

2) My use of Facebook and Twitter is neither here nor there. It can be likened to the fact that anyone who posted on this article is clearly reading blogs which are every bit as representative of social media and online habits.

3) Anything that keeps you from FEELING cluttered or disenfranchised or disorganized deserves clean up time.

Words of Wisdom: A Serious Block to Painting and What to do About it | The Dao of Doing - August 24, 2011 Reply

[…] for me, reading through all my 120 e-mails, I found this post from Tiny House Blog.  How-to Simplify Your Digital Life for The Tiny House.  Of course people with tiny houses have to be very mindful of what they bring into their homes […]

Anthony - September 4, 2011 Reply

Though I like the idea of this post and the desire to declutter; I must agree with a number of the posts, specifically to do what helps you feel decluttered and remove distractions.

I will though re-iterate and note the though Dropbox is great for what it does, do not forget that your documentation on there is neither yours nor safe from others. Dropbox has serious security issues with it’s implementation model (do not put anything you think might be private and/or confidential (passwords, credit card information, etc.)) and though you can create an encrypted volume (via TrueCrypt or many other volume creation applications (like Disk Utility on Mac)) this defeats some of the purpose of Dropbox. Also, there are arguments that if someone were to get access to your Dropbox account, directories linked to it (on Mac at least) that lie outside the Dropbox folder, are accessible with easy. So just be warned.

I will just note, on the topic of downsizing and decluttering, that I have moved and cleaned up my HDD, going from about 350GB on my iMac down to 75GB. I know I have moved some things around and cleaned some stuff off as well. Beyond, that moving to less proprietary formats (like simple txt files) also helps to free up space and reduces clutter and increases freedom (of data movement).

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