Saying No to Digital Clutter: Minimizing Online Distractions

Digital clutter is accumulating in our daily at a rapid pace. To live a simpler life, it’s no longer enough to  limit the number of physical objects we own – we have to take conscious steps to reign in digital distractions, too.

Challenge: can you read this entire post in one sitting, without switching tabs or windows?

Digital clutter causes information overload and constant distraction

Online information overload can drive anyone crazy

Summary: increased exposure to online content/services is changing the way we think, behave, and interact. It’s all too easy to get swept up by the allure of shiny new websites and services, each promising to make our lives better. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself accumulating a lot of digital clutter – this can be very distracting, and may even lead to increasingly anti-social behavior. This is a brief, practical guide on how to simplify your digital life – and regain control of your sanity.

Think of the world wide web as a busy, sprawling metropolis – a city with billions of inhabitants (and many more arriving every day). There is an endless amount of things to do and see, partly because the place truly never sleeps – at any given moment, hundreds of millions of people are connected and active. Large areas of the city are undergoing rapid development. It’s also a fairly new place: rules are still not well defined, and all sorts of shady and illicit behavior is common. The web is a wild place, full of excitement and surprises.

It’s no wonder that some don’t want to ever leave/disconnect, and even come to prefer the online experience to the outside (“offline”) world.

This isn’t just about a few people (geeks?) sitting in windowless rooms, surfing the Internet and playing online games late into the night. With the rise of connected mobile devices, just about everyone has a chance to get addicted to the web. Smartphones are now considered standard issue worldwide, and in many cases are never more than a few feet from their owner (there are places in the world with wireless connectivity, but no running water). Tablets have found a permanent nesting spot on nightstands and coffee tables, while ultralight laptops have invaded office meeting rooms, hotel lobbies, and (now) even airplanes. Man and machine, it seems, are tied at the hip.

But the relationship actually goes much deeper than that.

It’s not just about being increasingly reliant on the Internet for all information and entertainment. The web is changing the way we think and behave, too.

Having been conditioned to expect something new every time we connect to the web (e.g. emails, blog posts, headlines, social network updates), many of us are in a state of permanent distraction – constantly checking our phones, eager for that next dopamine release. A recent study showed that the average American checks her phone 300 times a day – a frightening figure, even if off by 50%.

We are becoming more and more impatient. So accustomed to receiving communication instantly, many of us now become genuinely upset and/or angry at any kind of delay or system breakdown. Regardless of where we are (or the time of day), we expect instant access to the world’s information. This behavior is reinforced through planned obsolescence – the increasingly popular practice of designing devices that become “obsolete” after just a few years (demanding either costly upgrades or replacement). When it comes to the web – we want it all, and we want it now.

Also gone are the days of having to remember anything. As all information is being stored digitally, we no longer dedicate brain power to memorization. It won’t be long before we start forgetting our own phone numbers, too.

There’s also the matter of online social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) – we have become used to sharing our lives online. Many are addicted to the validation they get from their peers (i.e. having someone “like” your status update). Largely surviving off of advertising revenues, social networks are designed to be as addictive as possible – the more often users comes back, the more ads can be shown. As we cede more of our free time to these online services, opportunities for traditional (i.e. in person) interaction become more and more limited.

Group meals are now commonly preceded, interrupted, and followed by the frantic checking of smartphones for any kind of notification. A family scene may very well consist of each person immersed in his or her own device (be it a smartphone, tablet, game console, or computer). And with information so readily available, we (perhaps unknowingly) deny ourselves the pleasure of life’s surprises (e.g. an unexpected discovery of a new cuisine).

Bit by bit (no pun intended), we have grown to be dependent on the internet, and in the span of just a few years have gotten very, very comfortable with its ubiquitous presence.

Perhaps the most concerning part is just how oblivious we are to the sweeping and permanent effects of constant web use. For many, this only becomes evident once it becomes a problem – i.e. attempting to clear any online mention of one’s name following an embarrassing episode (the Internet, as they say, never forgets). We are so used to signing up for new websites and services that we give barely a thought to the matter of privacy – and as such, render ourselves vulnerable to security breaches and misuse of our personal information.

Simply put, we have been rewired. It’s a dream come true for social psychologists and marketers, and there’s no going back – our relationship with technology is only getting more intimate.

Occasionally, you can see (mostly feeble) attempts to counteract the effects of living in a hyper-connected world. As an example: it’s becoming popular among restaurant-goers to surrender all smartphones before the meal begins (sometimes, it’s agreed that the first person to answer/check the phone has to pay for the whole meal). Some forward-thinking companies are even organizing “unplugging” retreats (team-building activities set in nature and the outdoors, where there’s no chance of catching a WiFi signal).

These types of responses are temporary, band-aid solutions at best. As soon as the forced “offline” activity is over, we go right back to checking in on our inbox, Facebook feed, and social activity from those we “follow” on Twitter. Without a system for managing our online services and reigning in exposure to addictive sources of information, an single individual has little chance to escape the powerful draw of the web.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Many, including myself, have managed to do the unimaginable – to regularly use the Internet, while maintaining a comfortable distance its addictive elements. How?

Step 1.) Vaccination – Protecting Yourself From Online Distractions

Are you practicing safe browsing? When it comes to the Internet, it’s important to wear protection!

  1. If you’re not already using Firefox to browse the web, start doing so right now (you can download the latest version here). It’s fast, powerful, and secure (regular updates keep the browser up to date with the latest security threats). Mozilla, the non-profit behind the Firefox browser, is committed to an open and free internet (unlike Microsoft and Google, they are not in the business of generating advertising revenue). If you’re still having doubts about whether Firefox is truly better than Internet Explorer, ask the nearest computer geek to explain!
  2. Once you have Firefox installed, download and install the uBlock Origin add-on (think of it like a installing a new program, but just for your browser). uBlock Origin blocks all ads on the web so you can browse in peace. Install it and don’t look back.
  3. Download and install Ghostery. This simple add-on runs in the background, keeping a record of who’s tracking your web browsing – and giving you the option to block untrusted scripts and trackers. Even if you don’t do much with it, it’s an interesting tool to have in the background (every time you visit a new site, Ghostery will update to show you what scripts are being run).
  4. If you’re using Windows, download and install Microsoft Security Essentials – it protects your machine from viruses, spyware, and other harmful stuff. It’s also free, and arguably more effective than any of the paid anti-virus software out there. If you’re using a Mac, there’s no need to install anything of the sort (many anti-virus “solutions” for Mac do more harm than good).
  5. Set up a basic layer of security – make sure that all your connected devices (e.g. laptop, tablet, phone) require a password to use/unlock. Don’t write this password down anywhere.
  6. If possible, switch to Google’s Gmail for your email. You get a ton of free storage, a professional domain, and some of the best anti-spam coverage out there. Note: while Gmail is probably the best free solution, it may not be the best solution for your specific needs (and certainly not the best solution if you’re trying to avoid targeted advertising and data mining of personal information). If you need a fast, secure, and reliable email provider, check out Fastmail (this is what I use).

For most, the above will be enough to serve as a basic form of protection against viruses, ads, and physical tampering. Try to do this on any machine you use on a regular basis (e.g. at the office).

Step 2.) Disinfection – Cleaning Up the Existing Digital Clutter

So you’ve now got some protection – good. That was the easy part.

It’s now time to systematically cull anything that’s nonessential and/or potentially harmful to your online well-being:

  1. The first step is to assess the extent of just how addicted you already are. Get a piece of paper (yes, we’re going analog for this one). Make a list of every connected device you use, how many hours per week you use it for, and what apps/websites you use on each platform. For example:
    • iPad (tablet): ~8 hours/week (mostly right before going to sleep). Mostly used for reading blogs (Safari), shopping (Amazon), and checking email and Facebook.
    • TV: ~20 hours/week (mostly after work). Mostly regular cable, but occasionally movies/shows on Netflix and Hulu.
    • iPhone (smartphone): almost always on, carried on person at all times. Active use ~10 hours per week (mostly while commuting to/from work). Most popular apps include games (e.g. Angry Birds, Tetris), Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Weather, and Tinder (online dating).
    • Macbook (laptop): ~50 hours/week (work computer). Used for general browsing (Safari) and  checking social accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram). The most visited sites: Amazon, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Yelp, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
  2. Make a separate list – jot down all the online services for which you have registered in the past. Having trouble remembering? Take a look through your email history – search for the word “confirm” (most services ask for a confirmation these days). Check your bookmarks list and browsing history, too. At this point, you likely have a list of 20+ separate accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Netflix, Groupon, Yelp, Gmail, TurboTax, etc.)
  3. Be honest with yourself. Is everything you listed (in the previous two steps) contributing to your mental well being? What takes up a lot of your time, yet doesn’t add much value? What about the duplicates – do you have a real need to do the same activity on different devices, or are you simply addicted? What is absolutely necessary to your life – and what isn’t?
  4. Time to remove anything that’s unnecessary (this is the part where you have to be ruthless). This is best done quickly and decisively – like ripping off a band-aid. One by one, go through your list and delete every account that you don’t actually use and/or have no need for. Some tips:
    • Before requesting deletion, log into the website/app and remove as much personal information as you can (this is usually found in “Profile” or “Account Settings”). If they won’t let you have blank fields, just change the info to something generic (“John Doe” with birthday 1/1/1900, email, etc.) Remove any profile pictures you may have uploaded, along with any other files that may personally identify you (including credit card / billing info).
    • After you have cleared all the personal details you can, request that the account be closed. This option is often hidden/buried, so look around the site. If you can’t find it, just search for “How to close ______ account” in Google. If all else fails, email customer support for help.
    • Try to do all this in one sitting – it’s not a pleasurable activity, and it helps if you get it over with quickly. Aim to cut down the number of accounts you have by at least 50%. Don’t worry if you are not sure whether you need something or not – if you haven’t logged on in a year, you probably don’t need it (delete and move on – you can always sign up again if needed).
    • I personally recommend not just deactivating, but deleting your Facebook account. This may seem crazy (or pointless, considering Facebook will continue to store your information) – but it’s truly the most liberating experience. It’s an addictive application, and the company uses sophisticated psychological triggers to keep people using the site – by breaking away, you give yourself a chance to refocus on your own life (as opposed to observing everyone else). If you still have doubts about making a clean break off Facebook, read this blog post.
    • Make it a game – try limiting yourself to just 20 websites where you have active accounts (this includes everything: Amazon/shopping, online banking, gaming, etc.)
  5. For the services/apps/websites that remain on your list, log into each one and disable as many notifications as you can (including “push” notifications on your phone). Push the privacy controls to their most restrictive (i.e. uncheck all the “notify me when…” boxes). On your phone/tablet, turn off all buzzing/vibrating notifications and previews. These are all psychological tricks – resist!
  6. Take a few minutes to go through your recent emails and unsubscribe from any company newsletter or blog mailing list that you don’t really read. Thanks to recent spam legislation, most automated emails will have a “Click to unsubscribe” button at the bottom – getting yourself off the mailing list couldn’t be easier (if this doesn’t work, make sure to flag the email as “Spam” in your email client). The less incoming junk you have to deal with, the more time you have to focus on the essential things that are important to you.
  7. Delete all your browser bookmarks, and clear your browsing history. This is the best way to clean things up – you will find that you don’t actually need 95% of saved bookmarks (and you can add the useful ones back in as they come up).
  8.  If you’re using Windows, run a full anti-virus scan on your machine (first make sure your virus software is up to date). I also recommend clearing your complete browser history, and any accumulated Temporary files.
  9. Clean up your file/document structure. It’s the same principle as in tidying up an apartment – make sure everything is in its place (all files should be in a folder). Delete any old or unused files. If you’re cleaning up a smartphone, organize the apps into folders – or delete them altogether.
  10. Don’t forget some old school disinfection, too! Get some alcohol wipes and clean all the screens and input devices that you use on a regular basis – chances are, there is a considerable build-up of dirt and bacteria.

Step 3.) Rehabilitation – Building Good Habits for the Future

By now, you have set up basic protection and (hopefully) cleaned up any existing digital clutter. It’s time for the most important part – to make digital minimalism a habit (i.e. permanently shift your mindset).

  1. The most promising method to minimize digital distraction is simply to keep it out of sight (and therefore out of mind). Change your environment! Practical advice on how to do this:
    • Protect yourself from potential new distractions – set your browser homepage to blank, and configure the browser history so that nothing is stored. This will limit pointless web surfing. Personally, I configure Firefox not to remember anything so that nothing will appear in the URL bar (as opposed to auto-suggesting URLs based on past browsing history).
    • The physical environment is very important – if you have the will, dedicate a certain part of your home to be device-free. This will trick your brain into associating that room purely with the activity it was designed for , and will make that one activity that much more enjoyable. For example: keep your bedroom as a sleep-only place (No TV, no phones, no computers).
    • Separate the spaces where you live and work (don’t run a home office out of the bedroom).
    • On your smartphone and/or tablet, set it up so your most used apps are on the first screen – and everything else hidden. This way, you are less likely to start using apps randomly.
    • Keep the first and last hour of your day internet-free. If you’re bored before bed, read a (real) book instead!
  2. Practice the “zero inbox” rule – as soon as you see a new message, take action on it immediately (respond or delete). If you prefer to save messages, that’s fine – just archive it so that it’s not cluttering up your inbox. Make a habit of doing this across all your email accounts (incl. work).
  3. When it comes to security and privacy – try to think (and behave) like a spy:
    • Don’t leave unlocked devices unattended. Make sure you set a password for every laptop, phone, and tablet you use.
    • Don’t give away your personal information if you can avoid it. Try not to leave a digital trail of your presence and whereabouts.
    • Minimize your use of unsecured (public) WiFi networks. Simply put, they aren’t safe.
  4. Try to whittle down the number of websites/apps to use to less than 10. It’s an arbitrary amount, but a reasonable goal to aim for.

Step 4.) Spreading the word about digital clutter to others

So now that you’re a professional digital minimalist, what have been the reactions of family and friends that know about your new habits? Been called “paranoid” and/or “crazy” yet? You will be.

Unless you help others form the same habits, you will be constantly pressured to go back to the old ways.

Some people will get very defensive and assign labels – like “weird” or “social outcast” (these are all but guaranteed as soon as you announce that you’re deleting your Facebook account). The best response is to say that you’re doing all this because you’d like to be more social (in the traditional sense). Flip the skepticism on its head – calmly explain that you’re trying to live a fuller and more genuine life, with more time dedicated to physical interaction. Try to frame your response from their perspective – would they be OK with >50% of free time gobbled up by e-devices and vanity apps?

Most importantly, don’t get angry or agitated. Many more people will come to these realizations with time. For now, all you can do is help the ones closest to you (i.e. friends and family)

Good luck!

Less noise, more signal

Note: it will be almost impossible to fully resist what is happening. There will be considerable pressure from friends, family, coworkers, bosses, and society to get even more wired and connected. Being constantly plugged in, however, comes at the expense of focus and productivity. People rationalize their always-on connectedness as an ideal for maximizing productivity, when in reality they end up achieving less – being pulled in 10 different directions means less progress in any one. Stop the digital clutter before it becomes all-consuming.


Add yours →

  1. Thank you, this was really a great read.

    With Gratitude

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *