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Are you a digital hoarder?

by Katherine Fusco

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Cleaning up a big mess has mood-boosting power. Recently, my family and I tackled our linen cabinet and as we sorted sheets, towels, and baby items (so many baby swaddles!) into piles to toss and donate, I felt the mood in the household lighten as we shed the clutter.

Many of us are willing to do this kind of cleaning up of our physical mess—to give a weekend over to sorting, dusting, tossing, and so on. But what about the insidious tech clutter that seems to spread throughout our lives?

This spring, I’m trying two styles of electronic clutter clearing: one that’s a bit closer to cleaning up my habitat, and another that involves a more radical shift.

First, I’m taking the “stuff” that’s junking up my electronic life, dragging me down as much as the socks in my drawers that are never to be reunited with their mates. In the category of electronic stuff, I’m purging the useless and the not-me/not-now.

What does this look like in action? For the useless, I ask myself, what apps are lurking on my phone because they were free to download? In my case, I still had a ridesharing app I used once on vacation and am unlikely to use again—delete!

For the not-me/not-now, I suspect I am not the only one with aspirational items collecting dust in my electronic life. These bits of clutter can be a real drain. As psychologist Barry Schwartz makes clear in his 2005 TED talk, more options don’t make for more happiness. As frivolous as this may sound, I experience Schwartz’s point whenever I open Netflix’s “My List”—all those movies I really should watch but that I’m unlikely to attempt on a tired weekday make me feel a little bad every time I sit down to choose an evening’s entertainment. But no more—delete!

The good news about removing this type of electronic clutter is that these items are easily re-acquired. For example, I had a 5k training app and a 10k training app; now that I’m only running 10ks, the 5k app can go. If I slip up and need to go back to shorter distances, the app is easily downloadable. Or, if I decide I really do want to watch a long documentary about a super-serious topic rather than binge-watching something fun, I can still queue up a sorrowful evening’s entertainment.

The second clutter clear is harder, though. It’s the dreaded tech “cleanse;” a purge closer in spirit to a juice cleanse than a spring tidying because the tech cleanse is about forgoing something pleasurable, dare I say, addictive?

Tech cleanses are becoming increasingly popular as we attempt to manage the cubicle in the pocket. And it’s not easy. As Marian Berryhill, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, explains, “the challenge for us all is that there’s a lovely zap of dopamine when we answer an email or get a text.”

Berryhill also told me that she uses a flip phone! I don’t think I can go quite as cold turkey as that. However, as a new mother, I want to get the feel-good hits that come from spending time with my daughter, not the empty pleasure calories from checking my email. This feels especially crucial because, as Berryhill notes, “there’s a growing literature showing that people who spend time on social media are less satisfied with their social relationships.” My tech cleanse is taking the form of parking my phone in its charger after 5 p.m. on weekdays and then going tech-free on Saturdays.

Cleaning up a tech life isn’t necessarily easy—I hear social media’s siren song when I’m away from the phone—but it’s certainly worth it. Those dust bunnies under your bed can wait.

Katherine Fusco

Katherine Fusco is an Assistant Professor, a mom, a runner, and a long-time yoga practitioner. When she’s not doing those things, she writes about mindfulness, pop culture, and productivity.