There’s something attractive about minimalism. But when you apply it to so many factors of your physical life, it’s easy to see it as a solution for everything. When it comes to simplifying your digital lifestyle, it isn’t so much a matter of minimalism as it is one of organisation and self-restraint. We shouldn’t need articles telling us that deleting the icon doesn’t delete the application. At this point, shouldn’t that be common sense?

Understand Your Digital Space

For the longest time, technology was storage-limited. Prior to the recent explosion of affordable storage media, personal computers were used more for computing than they were for record keeping. Mass data storage was limited to those who could actually afford a rack, and the rest of us made due with floppy disks and CDs.

Today, however, it’s entirely feasible for a home user to maintain a multi-terabyte networked storage system. Between cloud storage, cheap servers, affordable hard drives, and dirt-cheap flash memory, it’s entirely possible to go years without deleting a single thing. You can keep all of the movies, games, documents, and photos you want, with minimal technical know-how.

Which, obviously, raises the question as to why we should minimize our digital space. If you can setup a 6tb NAS in your living room and rent practically unlimited space online for less than your cable bill, why delete when you can archive?

Utility Comes First

Do you know what the difference is between a database and a storage shed? A database is an indexed record of related information designed for easy and frequent access. A storage shed holds all the stuff your family is going to throw out once you’re dead. When it comes to your files, use databases, not storage sheds.

Deciding what to keep and what to delete is important because it isn’t about space; it’s about function. Ten years ago, practicality might have prevented you from keeping all of your digital files; as we’ve seen, though, there is no practical limit on data storage today. If you let sentimentality dictate what files you keep, you’ll end up with a 32gb stack of clip art your Aunt gave you and no idea where you saved last year’s tax return.

Look at your files. How do you use them? What function do they serve, beyond that of a mental security blanket? How easily can you reacquire them from their source? How frequently do they need to be updated and replaced? How organized are they? What will it cost you, if anything, to recover them?

I keep my photos, important documents, and reusable digital assets backed up. I archive emails that document important business interactions or personal exchanges. I use tags, keywords, and a hierarchical data structure to make sure I can access everything I need. The rest? It gets cleared out every month.

Free Doesn’t Equal Necessary

It’s easy to say no to free things that don’t fit your needs (I mean, really, that couch is on the curb for a reason), but many people struggle to say no to free software. Free games, icon packs, wallpapers, ‘productivity’ apps; this is the kind of digital clutter so many of us are surrounded by.

If something is ad-supported, it isn’t free. You’re just paying for it with your identity rather than your wallet. Whenever you’re confronted with the opportunity to add something new into your life, ask yourself whether the cost supports the value. When things cost you time and fill your life with mental clutter, only to provide you with a minor distraction or a change in your experience, are you really adding value to your life?

Ditch the apps, ditch the games, ditch the clutter, ditch the ad-supported nonsense that doesn’t lead to long-term happiness. Physical goods need to be physically removed from your life; digital goods disappear after a few clicks. Rather than turning your phone into a distraction, use it to get more value out of your life.

Minimalist principles are great, but cleaning up your digital life is a utilitarian thing. If you’re struggling to get the most out of your technology, deleting everything isn’t going to help you; learn the tech, take the time to organise your files, and stop falling into the trap of thinking that you need every free program on the app store. Take control of your digital life. What’s stopping you?