The life-changing magic of tidying up (your computer)

Setting you on a path to living a digitally minimal life.

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    Someone once told me that consumerism is the process whereby our happiness is ripped from us so that it can be sold back to us at a profit. It's the sort of thing you don't think about when you're a kid, but gradually hits you as an adult. After all, three decades of constant consumption, retail therapy and 24-hour supermarkets takes its toll. I've reached a place where I'm being slowly suffocated by my possessions, both real and imaginary, and it's time to make a change.

    Read the lifestyle pages or watch any of the Hoarders-style TV shows and minimalism documentaries and you'll see what's happening. It seems as if the Western world has decided, as one, to collectively fetishize asceticism as a refreshing alternative to consumerism. Marie Kondo's category-defining book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold more than 5 million copies. Everyone is shedding their unwanted possessions in the hope of recapturing some lost joy and freeing up space in the home.

    What interests me is how all of this translates to the digital space, where physical constraints aren't something you have to worry about. After all, if you start to run out of storage capacity on a computer, it's easy to run to the store and pick up a far bigger hard drive for not much cash. Right now, for instance, you can grab a 3TB HDD for just $90 on Amazon -- enough for thousands of high-def movies. In this manner, you could theoretically store almost everything you ever wanted without fear of ever having to think about clearing out. In the real world, you've gotta hire a storage locker, and that costs a hell of a lot more than $30 a terabyte.

    Cheaper than a storage locker and far more capacious.

    Hoarding isn't simply about the act of not throwing something away; it's about forming a deep psychological bond to your stuff. To the point where you would rather suffer gross inconvenience than deal with the anxiety of disposal. Which is the sort of itchy, restless feeling I get whenever I start to think about tidying the old files on my computer.

    The consequence is that I have several hard drives full of disorganized electronic junk that I have no interest in exploring, but am incapable of wiping. I've formed that unreasonable attachment to such digital ephemera that I simply need to get over if I'm ever going to live a simpler, happier, better life. So, armed with a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

    Many books on decluttering talk about organizing elements of your life in isolation, but Marie Kondo differs from the norm. She believes that you should declutter your life in one intensive, prolonged act that can take up to six months (if done properly). For instance, you should gather together every item of clothing that you possess and dump them all on your living room floor. It's only then, when you can appreciate everything that you own, that you can make judgments about what you should keep.

    The second plank of her system is to assume that everything should be thrown away, so you have to justify keeping everything. The rule of thumb is that you should retain only things that bring you some form of joy. Now, if you struggle to find joy in your socks, then Kondo says that you should reappraise your relationship with the footwear. That may sound like nonsense, because it is, but you have to admit, you probably find joy in having something between your foot skin and the inside of your shoes.

    All of this is easier in the real world than in a computer, since there's no virtual living-room floor across which I can scatter my files. The best that I can hope for is that sorting files by type in my computer's master list of files will be sufficient. Unfortunately, that's not entirely useful for making decisions, because it takes so much time to go into each one to examine its contents.

    "That may sound like nonsense, because it is."

    The Kondo system works as an inverted pyramid, starting with all the things it should be easy to get rid of. The book explains that you do clothes first, then books, papers, general miscellany and finish with your sentimental items. Adapting this slightly, I thought I'd start with desktop apps and bookmarks, before moving on to documents, videos and finishing up with my photos.

    Marie Kondo (left), leading the charge for us to be minimal.

    Apps, as it turns out, was a ridiculously easy place to begin, and I was able to cull plenty of inessential files in around 10 minutes. Bookmarks, on the other hand, took the better part of an extraordinarily painful day. The list of stories that I agonized over included an AV Club article about the real KFC recipe, two different reports on the original series plan for Babylon 5 and 55 links about kitchen design.

    The conundrum was that while none of these things particularly sparked joy, I owed something, surely, to Past Dan. After all, he had felt it worthwhile to bookmark those pieces with the intention of revisiting them later. It felt like a betrayal simply to wipe something that he'd felt was important -- almost like I'd thrown out someone else's stuff without his permission.

    In my panic, I consulted Josh Becker, founder and editor of Becoming Minimalist and author of The More of Less. He sympathized with my plight and was able to explain why, talking about a story that he'd heard from another minimalist, David Bruno. "Bruno wrote a book called The 100 Thing Challenge where he got down to owning just 100 physical things," Becker said. "The hardest thing for him to get rid of was the woodworking tools in his garage," not because he'd used them, but because he hadn't.

    Becker went on to say that the hardest things for people to get rid of are those "that signify the death of a dream." It's not that Bruno was sad about losing his woodworking tools; it was the realization that he would now probably never even attempt to become a woodworker. My reluctance to delete that KFC recipe wasn't because I was worried about Past Dan; it was because it represented the death of an ambition. Not that KFC is that nice anyway, but you know what I mean.

    It's not about what these files, bookmarks, apps and photos are so much as what they represent to you. The meaning that you give to them is an order of magnitude more important than what they do on their own. "Decluttering forces questions of value and purpose onto you," Becker said later. "What do I want to accomplish? How can I best serve others, and how can I move society forward?" It left me thinking what, exactly, was it that I wanted to do, not only with my stuff but also with my life.

    So, now, I'm going to start again, looking at each file and folder and bookmark not within the context of joy, but purpose. Specifically, if having this bulleted list of dinner ideas from 2013 will somehow help me become a better person in 2017. Or if I'll ever have another reason to use a picture of Spike Lee taking a picture with an iPad in portrait mode. Not to mention a 2GB pitch video for a product I wound up not covering because it was too silly. My hunch is that I can probably get rid of them all without a moment's thought.

    Check out all of Engadget's "Adult Week" coverage right here.

    Answers edited for clarity.

    Image Credits: Getty (Hard Drives), Joanne Rath / Boston Globe via Getty (Marie Kondo)

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