On a recent Saturday morning, while my wife and infant slept in their peaceful, newly uncluttered rooms, I opened my laptop, clicked “select all,” and looked at the frightening total.
I knew it would be bad. I didn’t realize “bad” meant there would be 27,897 files on my computer. Almost immediately, my resolve to get my digital life in order weakened. Then I heard Marie Kondo’s voice in my head – or more accurately, in my inbox.
“The biggest mistake with digital tidying is focusing too much on what to discard,” Kondo wrote me in an e-mail earlier that week, by way of a translator, by way of a publicist, by way of a naive hope that a Netflix star could rescue an overtired new parent from being buried alive in his own digital clutter. The focus, she told me, should be on “what’s valuable to you and on what you want to keep in your life.”
With that soothing advice in mind, I resumed my digital tidying.
Like many people looking to regain control of their lives by watching other people on television regain control of theirs, my wife and I binged Kondo’s new Netflix show, “Tidying Up.” In one uplifting episode after another, Kondo, a bestselling author and decluttering expert, helps untangle families from their excess belongings.
Clothes and books are piled high. Papers and tchotchkes are laid out on tables and garage floors. Owners are asked to assess whether each item does, or does not, “spark joy.” Those that do are organized and displayed more thoughtfully in the home; those that don’t are thanked for their service and promptly banished.
With this deceptively simple rubric, lives are unburdened. A husband and wife bicker less. A mother watches her children take more responsibility for their stuff. A widow is able to move on with the next chapter of her life. Floors and walls and kitchen cabinets breathe free.
But only after we excavated all the clothes from our apartment, arranged them in a three-foot heap on the bed and dragged the joyless castoffs to the nearest Goodwill, did it really dawn on me: This clutter isn’t the main source of my stress.
The clutter that weighs down my life most is online, not offline. It is in my pocket, and on my mind, every hour of the day.
A personal email account that fluctuates between five and 500 unread emails on any given day. A work email account with 1908 unread emails as of this writing – and another 17,921 unread emails in a separate folder that Outlook has fittingly called “Clutter.” An iPhone with 134 videos and 5,336 photos. Enough text messages to take up 8.2 GB on my phone. A Twitter account with 22,400 tweets. And this laptop, with its tens of thousands of files, accumulated over six years.
The tally of my digital clutter is both extraordinary, and entirely commonplace. On the internet, we are all hoarders.
To avoid getting overwhelmed with my first tidying task – organizing the laptop – Kondo recommended creating two folders: one called “Important Documents,” and another called “Spark Joy,” for all my “spark joy items.”
“Then delete the rest! Stop keeping komono ‘just because,’” she said by email, using a Japanese term for miscellaneous items. Kondo personally moves what matters – mostly her favorite photos – to external hard drives, which she then organizes “by date and client.” Nothing stays on her laptop. “If you haven’t opened that document in three years – and reading the title doesn’t spark joy – then let it go with gratitude.”
On her show, the “spark joy” moments can be visceral. Family members touch, smell, practically inhale their forgotten possessions and feel a buzz in their bones. But I wondered if that same process could really apply to bits and bytes locked behind screens. Can an email or a PDF file truly spark joy? Has a tweet ever sparked anything other than outrage?
“Certainly emails and texts can spark joy – think of a message from a loved one or friend that made you smile or laugh,” Kondo said. “However, I think their spark joy impact is probably less than that of tangible items.”
I waded through old travel itineraries, install files, and half-finished cover letters. Duplicate and triplicate photos were deleted. Tax documents and interview notes were moved to the Important folder. A forgotten picture of my mom smiling while laying on a couch, in her final months, was gingerly placed in the Spark Joy folder.
After what felt like an hour, but was probably barely 20 minutes, I paused to check my progress. I’d deleted less than 350 files and moved a few dozen more items to the two new folders. Some 27,000 files still stood between me and the promise of Kondo bliss.
Outside my window, a park full of trees that had Kondo’d away their leaves looked on smugly. As I contemplated next steps, a notification popped up on my laptop screen: My Dropbox account was almost full. My resolve weakened again.
Tidying your digital life may actually be harder than tidying your home. There is at least some certainty that if you search long and hard enough in your closets, cabinets and couch cushions, you will be able to find and parse through all your clutter. But the inventory of digital clutter knows no limit.
Take photos as one example: In addition to the hundreds of images on my laptop, I also have uploaded pictures to external hard drives, older computers, my iPhone, Google Photos, Facebook and Twitter, Dropbox, Flickr, WordPress websites, Webshots (RIP) and likely numerous flash-in-the-pan apps I’ve long since forgotten.
There’s more at stake here than simply achieving some tidiness threshold. Left untended, these old accounts and the data on them can be hacked. Just look at the massive security breaches that hit Yahoo and MySpace, years after they faded from peak relevance.
There’s also the problem of rapid accumulation. Chances are you don’t bring hundreds or thousands of new items into your household each week – if you do, stop reading this and seek help – but it’s entirely possible your digital mess stockpiles by this much or more. My unread work email alone has increased by several hundred items since I began writing this story.
Kondo tries to confront the siege of emails in her own life by organizing new messages into two categories: save and unprocessed. The latter, which includes any emails she wants to read and reply to, are left in her inbox. “When I notice that my inbox is piled up, I try to make time to process them all at once,” she says.
Her smartphone habits are even more enviable. “I do a digital purge once a week from my iPhone,” she says.
It sounded like a pipe dream. A fable of a different digital world that could be tamed. I thought about closing my laptop and leaving the files to multiply at will. Then I remembered the picture of my mom, newly uncovered beneath the clutter and safely tucked away in a new folder. So I pressed on.