How to declutter your digital world

Overwhelmed from telecommuting? Here are ways to step away from your devices and, just maybe, get to inbox zero

Working remotely may have eliminated your commute and allowed you to spend the day in your pajamas, but it also means you’re most likely bombarded with digital communication every second of the day — from personal and professional emails crowding your inboxes to push notifications reminding you of every news development to the nonstop viral allure of Twitter and Instagram.

If you are suffering from tech fatigue, or simply trying to become more productive online, here are steps you can take to organize your digital landscape.

Create separation

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University who writes about the intersection of technology and culture, said many people succumb to what he calls the list/reactive method: They instantly react to communication — texts, emails, Slack messages — while occasionally trying to make progress on their work. One moment they’re responding to an email from their child’s teacher, the next they’re jumping on a conference call — blurring the line between the professional and personal.

“It blends together the lives completely,” Newport said. “You’re never not working. You always feel behind.”

To avoid that cycle, set a fixed digital schedule that clearly dictates when you are working, when you are attending to your family and when you are unwinding. Deal with communications concerning the different parts of your life only during those times. Put aside blocks of time to check personal text messages. And only go over the day’s headlines in the morning so you don’t casually check the news during work hours.

“In our current moment, to not look at any news seems like it would be a betrayal of your civic responsibility,” Newport said. “But on the other hand, to look at news all the time is a betrayal of your sanity.”

Set expectations

Talk to your colleagues — or, if you’re a teacher, your students — about when you are available to answer them.

“Set expectations for everyone involved,” said Lynette O’Keefe, the director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium, a nonprofit that offers digital teaching guidance to educators. That can help reduce the volume of messages you receive and make clear to people that your schedule may not align with theirs. Educators, for instance, should let their students know whether they respond to emails after hours or not.

“We’re expected to be available a lot more, which is perhaps ironic,” said Ioana Literat, a communication professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We have so many more responsibilities and our lives are so chaotic now.”

With that in mind, share how you prefer to be reached. If you are telecommuting with young children at home and worry that they may Zoom-bomb your meetings, explain to your boss that you prefer audio calls. Educators teaching online should find out how their students prefer to communicate and try to meet them halfway, O’Keefe said. The chat app Remind, for example, lets teachers receive messages by text, email or push notifications.

You may feel obligated to instantly answer every email, Twitter message and Slack message that comes your way. But Diane Bailey, a communication professor at Cornell University, says it’s important to remember that “what’s an interruption for us is typically help for somebody else.” Some requests are urgent; others are not. Before stopping what you’re doing to lend a hand, think about when you can make time to help others and when you need to focus on helping yourself. If, for instance, you need an hour to meet a deadline, close your email inbox, and don’t check it until your job is done.

Assume control of your inbox

One of the simplest ways to clear out your inbox is to unsubscribe from mailing lists. Both Gmail and Apple’s Mail app notify users if an email is from a mailing list with the option to unsubscribe with a single click. Use it.

You can also sort — and limit — emails by filtering them by the sender, recipient or subject line. Say you receive a weekly progress report that is good to have in your back pocket but doesn’t need to be read as soon as it arrives. You can create a filter that will automatically mark it as read, send it to your archives or give it a certain label. For your personal inbox, consider creating labels for bills or appointment reminders, so they don’t get lost in the mix.

Then, consider whether you would be more productive if you consolidated your personal and professional emails in one inbox. If you worry about missing important notes from either and constantly toggle between the two, import them under a single address. You can do this on Gmail using the mail fetcher option, or on Outlook by creating aliases that send and receive emails from different accounts. Both systems also have features that can automatically forward all your emails from one account to another.