Organizing

The Personal Clutter No One is Talking About

Leave the closet and pantry for now, and tackle this.

November 15, 2021
Photo by Meredith Jensen

Simply Living is a new column by Christine Platt, aka the Afrominimalist. Each month, Christine shares her refreshing approach to living with less, with clever tips for decluttering, making eco-friendly swaps, and creating a more mindful living space that's all you.


When it comes to our personal belongings—especially the things we’re most fond of—it’s not uncommon to find ourselves confronting clutter. The linen closet with mixed bedding and towels that are in disarray; the spice cabinet with jars so old the contents have formed clumps; and the closet that needs to be pared down.

While closet clutter and organization get plenty of attention, I’ve noticed two areas that I tend to neglect: paper and... digital clutter (you, too?). Earlier in the year, I began my #paperless journey and it’s been both laborious and liberating. Much like the first round of decluttering my closet, the first month of scanning, shredding, recycling, and sorting through my paper items left me determined to make sure I never found myself in the situation again. I put myself on a moratorium, committing to use or gift the paper products I had before I purchased more. Additionally, as an author, I was determined to find ways to be more mindful of my consumption, such as waiting to print out the almost-final drafts instead of the first version.

But after decluttering my paper, I realized that my electronic devices were just as concerning. Like many people, my phone is more than just a device for phone calls and messaging: It’s my mini laptop-camera-communication device, a place where digital clutter quickly accumulates. Needless to say, there was a lot for me to work through.

Here’s the four-step approach I’ve used to manage digital clutter (as well as my paper—because you can’t fully let go of that) and liberate myself:

Week One: Liberate Your Inbox

There’s a reason to start with your inbox: it’s easy and will give you the confidence to move on to other areas. In fact, you may even find the process therapeutic.

Delete old email messages: Consider searching by sender and deleting in bulk. Or, you can delete by starting at a certain year. (Because will you ever reread an advertisement from five years ago? I doubt it!)
Unsubscribe: One of the biggest sources of inbox clutter are subscriptions and advertisements that come from signing up to attend an event or whenever you make a purchase. Unsubscribe from mailing lists that you no longer benefit from. Hint: these messages often remain unread! You will find the majority of them when sorting and deleting old emails. There are also several third-party tools that help you bulk-unsubscribe to emails, although you will need to give them access to your inbox.
Have a system. Creating a system to manage your incoming messages will be essential to keeping your inbox clutter-free. Can you check your email at a designated time or periodically throughout the day? Can you use labels and tags or folders to keep things organized? Regardless of your method, having a system will help keep you on track.

Week Two: Liberate Your Desktop

If you’re like me and have a desktop computer in addition to your laptop, keep reading. (If not, lucky you! Skip to step three.) Our desktops can also be a source of clutter, especially if we love to save programs and documents on the homescreen. Consider doing the following:

Get Organized: Look at every single item on your home screen as well as documents that are not saved in cloud storage. This is the only sure way to ensure you keep what you need. Send everything else to the recycling bin.
Uninstall: Have you seen an icon and have no idea what it’s for? Why is it still there when you haven’t opened it in years? Consider uninstalling programs that are not part of your desktop's core operating system.
Empty the Trash: Just like with physical trash, it hasn’t really been handled until you take it out. In addition to officially removing the files from your computer, you’ll have the added benefit of your system working faster.

Week Three: Liberate Your Phone and Other Electronics/Mobile Devices

Did you know the average American household owns approximately 24 devices If you’re like me, you immediately started counting! Still surprised?

About Those Apps: It is not uncommon to have several apps that no longer serve you. Find and delete them to clear up some visual space and virtual memory.
About Those Photos & Screenshots: Have you ever opened the photo album on your phone and cringed at the number of images in there? Time to select, delete, and let go. And don’t forget to organize your remaining folders in albums and back them up on cloud storage.
Keep Things Minimal: Keep home screens minimal and clutter-free by creating 4-8 folders to organize and house your most frequently used apps.

Week Four: Liberate the Paper Things

Depending on your age, you’ll likely have more paper clutter than the generation that came after you. As a 70s baby, I have watched technological advancement in amazement… and distrust. It has taken me quite some time to commit to going #paperless because well, I grew up writing on and enjoying the feel of paper. Still, I had to acknowledge how paper clutter was taking over my life and commit to making changes to reduce my paper footprint.

Make Time: Commit to dedicating at least 30 minutes each day to sort through and discard paper clutter. If 30 minutes every day seems too daunting, commit to 30 minutes weekly. The idea is to begin devoting time to the task. Be sure to check with residential recycling facilities in your area. Depending on the amount, some organizations will even arrange for bulk pick-up!
Have a System: For the initial decluttering sessions, consider organizing piles by groupings such as recycle, scan, or save. You can create different systems when it comes to organizing the important documents you saved and scanned.
Trust the Cloud: Scanning and saving files to cloud devices may be daunting at first. But with each passing day and secured file, your trust in cloud storage will grow stronger. Consider systems that have extra security and password protections if this is your primary concern.

Keeping Your Paper & Digital Clutter at Bay

After completing these four steps at a pace that works well for you, the hardest part will be over. Then, you’ll just have to find solutions to keep things at bay.

Know the Problem? Have a Solution
The process of working through your paper and digital clutter will serve an important function: it will highlight the areas where you’re most prone to accumulation. Create a solution to keep things under control. If you had to sort through physical copies of receipts, invoices, and bills, create a system to help reduce receiving and storing these items. (Keep in mind that if you ever need a physical copy of these things, you can also return to the source and ask.) I’ve also found it helpful to ask stores for e-receipts and file them in a designated folder. I regularly check and delete those that have expired!

Be Intentional
Did you discover a lot of unopened mail? Be intentional about opening and discarding mail upon receipt. Did you have tens of thousands of unopened emails? Be intentional about opening, reading, and deleting messages in a timeframe that works best for you.

Commit to the Practice
The only way to make sure things stay under control is to make maintaining the paper and digital aspects of your life a regular practice. Whether daily, monthly, quarterly or yearly, commit to keep these areas of your life clutter-free.

Ready to commit to decluttering—or not yet? Tell us why in the comments below.

Grab your copy

It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.

Grab your copy

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • emily
    emily
  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
  • Christine Platt
    Christine Platt
Christine Platt

Written by: Christine Platt

Author of The Afrominimalist's Guide to Living with Less

5 Comments

emily November 15, 2021
Ooh, this is a topic near and dear to my heart! My general rules are to be paperless and keep close to inbox zero (both digital and physical). Inbox zero only feels impossible if you receive 500 emails per day. I attack from both ends - unwanted emails get unsubscribed from and emails get filed into folders (medical, finances, travel, rent/utilities, car, pet) then action items are added to my to-do list and nothing lingers in my inbox.

I also get very little junk in my actual mailbox. Between opting out and going paperless I probably average 2-3 pieces of mail per week. As a first step, I recommend using the options listed here: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-stop-junk-mail I also have a simple form letter that I can copy/paste to any company sending flyers or catalogs. It feels daunting at first (especially if you live in an apartment where junk is being sent to half a dozen different people at your address) but over time the bulk of the junk disappears and it's like a weight lifted off your shoulders.

One great thing about digital decluttering is that it's not physically taxing. At various points in the past few years I've had depressive episodes, illnesses, procedures, plus the whole trapped-at-home-due-to-pandemic thing. It's possible to chip away at it even if you're not feeling high energy. With that said, some people truly hate doing it, so it could be a great gift idea to offer your "services" in helping them declutter. You could help with documents and files, digitize family photos, or unsubscribe from junk catalogs. If you'd like to do this for someone who lives far away, you can use the USPS Informed Delivery emails - have them forward you the list of what they are receiving that day and what they want to keep vs. opt out of. I've done this for my parents and they were absolutely thrilled. All of this takes a little bit of effort, but it's less effort than having to shred or black out your address on a bunch of junk mail that needs to be recycled every single day and my home (and headspace) feels so much more serene when I'm not being assailed by junk I didn't ask for from all directions.
 
Liz S. November 16, 2021
WOW - thanks for the link!! I had no idea there was such a spot(s).

I am paperless when the option is available and most of the "junk mail" never makes it in my house, but there is still that tiny bit of time being annoyed at the junk and the waste that it is ... as you said ... headspace :)

I do similar with email folders, but use my Inbox as my action box. I'll think about an action folder, but I so dislike anything in my Inbox that it motivates to resolve anything sitting there.

Thanks for your detailed comment - very helpful.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. November 16, 2021
Yes! Opting out of junk mail is so helpful with managing paper clutter in our mailboxes. Sadly, I can't blame the mailman on the bulk of my former excess -- I was definitely the problem! :-) Regarding digital clutter, I have also found that many companies use MULTIPLE email addresses to send their promotions. So, sometimes it's helpful to search by sender AND company. Bottom line: tackle the clutter and have a plan to keep things at bay! <3
 
Liz S. November 15, 2021
I have been an IT professional for over 36 years and yet, it was just a little over a year ago that I scanned and stored my paper files to the cloud ... for whatever reason, it had not occurred to me, even thought I WAS keeping less in terms of receipts, etc. as I had switched to various autopay/ACH/EFT methods many years ago.

I've always been diligent about digital files/photos, etc. courtesy of using all devices for work as well as personal.

For me, it was very freeing to get rid of paper as I am not a keeper of other stuff at all and dislike clutter anywhere ... not a minimalist, but I regularly have a good clear out and I have a small house so it is tricky to have too much :)

The initial scanning and setting up of folders took a little time, the upkeep is easier (and more pleasant!) than filing paperwork. I scan to both iCloud and OneDrive so some redundancy. In addition, whether it is the IRS or Insurance companies or whoever, their records are likely backed up digitally also.

Another benefit was I suddenly had the plastic bin boxes that I was using for files to further organize my yarn stash as well as craft fabric.

Great article! I hope it inspires anyone feeling bogged down by paper.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. November 15, 2021
Thank you so much, Liz! And I agree with you -- once the system is set up, the upkeep is much easier than I imagined. :-)