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How To Break Your Media Addiction And Clean Up Your Digital Clutter

Clutter can choke you: it takes away usable space, stresses you out, and makes you feel closed in. Digital clutter is just as bad, and while it doesn’t take up physical space, it does eat up your hard drive, attention and time. Let’s put an end to it.

Break Through the Cycle of Clutter and Admit There’s a Problem

When someone keeps a lot of old clothes they’ve never worn or rents a storage unit, we say they’re wasting money and energy on clutter. However, when someone buys 1TB hard drives for all of the movies and they’ve downloaded or ripped, it’s no big deal. Digital clutter is still clutter, and even if it doesn’t take up physical space, we still have an unhealthy attachment to it, whether the clutter is a few gigs of movies or a hard drive full of MP3s that we’ve never watched or listened to. In this post, we’ll help you minimize the digital clutter in your life, and break free of that attachment. When we’re done, you’ll know that every audio file, every video or movie you have on your computer, NAS, or HTPC is something you’d actually watch, listen to, and enjoy. Photo by cambodia4kids.

Storage Is Cheap, but That’s No Excuse

We can hear you now: “Storage is cheap! I can buy a 1TB external drive for less than $US100 and keep everything there, and even take it with me! Who cares?” That’s a fair point, however:

  • Keeping everything creates mental clutter too. If you’re swimming in 1TB of digital music, or digital copies and Blu-rays of movies you’ve never even watched, trying to figure out what to listen to or which to watch is more difficult than just pressing play when you’re in the mood. The bigger the music collection, the worse shuffle works, and the harder it is to make a playlist, or even choose a few songs to go when you need to hit the road. In the end, the more we have, the less we actually listen to and really enjoy. Photo by Paul Wells.
  • Buying a hard drive for media you don’t use is still buying stuff to hold more stuff you don’t use. It may be cheap and small, but that doesn’t make it less unnecessary clutter, and it doesn’t make the drive’s contents somehow more useful or valuable. Imagine if that 1TB drive were full of things you actually used and enjoyed, instead of your digital cast-offs.The purchase would be more worthwhile, wouldn’t it?
  • That extra storage still requires power to operate, and needs you to back it up. The power costs are minuscule, of course, but if you don’t want to lose everything on that drive, you’ll still want to back it up. If the drive is the backup, that’s one thing, but if you don’t want the data to die when that drive dies (and it will, someday), you’ll need to back it up to a location with even more storage. See the problem?

Like any good garage cleaning, we need to set up three buckets: Keep (store in an accessible location), Toss (delete) and Maybe (decide later or archive instead of keep). This will determine whether we keep it nearby on our main computers or NAS devices, delete it entirely, or archive it some other way.

Whittle Down Your Must-Have Music and Stream Everything Else

When I asked my friends whether they ever deleted music they didn’t listen to, they looked at me like I was crazy. “Delete music? Why would you ever do that?” Most of them pointed to the storage argument, and noted that they have remixes and songs unavailable through most streaming or digital download services. That makes sense, but those exceptions likely don’t make up the entirety of your collection. So if you’re ready to clean that stuff up, get your buckets ready.

  • Sort your library by Last Played/Last Modified. Unless it’s really worth keeping, delete any tracks you haven’t listened to in over a year (or less, if you’re feeling ambitious). If you’re keeping them for archive purposes — as in you’ve digitised CDs you no longer have — that’s fine, but get them out of your library. They just make it more difficult for you to find the things you actually want to hear, and make shuffling a painful experience.

  • Stop syncing everything to your mobile devices. Aim to sync playlists with your mobile devices, not entire collections. Ideally, you’ll have playlists for the songs you actually enjoy, so you don’t have to worry about missing anything. Then, these playlists will inform what you should keep and what you should delete.
  • Try a new music player. Our own Walter Glenn noted that when his dad wanted to really get to the bottom of what he listened to, he installed a new music player, and instead of importing his whole library, he dragged in songs individually when he wanted to hear them. After a week or so, he had a new collection of only the music he actually listened to. Give it a try, and if you’re interested, here are some new players to try.
  • Separate what you love to hear from what you want to keep. This is where our “Keep” and “Maybe” buckets come in. Delete is easy, but separate out the songs that are rare or you have an emotional connection to from the ones you could fire up right now. Put the ones you could listen to at any time today in the keep folder, and the rest in your maybe folder. We’ll archive those later.
  • Stream Everything. For our own Adam Pash, if he can’t get it on one of the myriad streaming services out there, it’s not worth the effort. For others, like Whitson Gordon, streaming isn’t ready to totally replace his music library. Use a service like Spotify, Rdio, or even Google music to hold songs or albums you never listen to but might want to “some day.” That way they’re there for you, but they’re also not taking up space.

These are just a few ways to trick yourself into highlighting the crap lurking in your music collection that’s taking up space. It’s long stopped being a badge of pride to have thousands of MP3s, and having the biggest collection doesn’t net you friends asking to poke through them anymore. All it does is take up disk space you could use for other things, clog up your music library, break your music player’s shuffle feature, eats bandwidth if you back up to the cloud or stream to your mobile devices, and make your backups painfully slow. Consider how much space you’ll free up for new releases from the bands that you actually do enjoy hearing regularly, or for future discoveries, once you do clear out all of the old crap.

Whittle Your Digital Movie Collection to The Movies You Actually Watch

Streaming services offer a wide catalogue of movies and TV shows that are all available on-demand at any time. While their catalogues change with time and licensing agreements, that doesn’t mean the only thing left to do is download everything or start buying Blu-rays. The goal here is to minimize the clutter, right?

  • Clear the low-hanging fruit first. Delete your duplicate files. Delete the movies that you have physical copies for, or the movies and TV shows you downloaded but are available on streaming services (and probably aren’t going anywhere.) Also, just like you did with music, delete anything you haven’t watched in over a year that you’re not keeping for archive purposes. You can always re-rip, buy, or download it again if you want it.

We’re not telling you to not digitise your own movies — just avoid collecting for the sake of it, or ripping just because you paid for the movie, even though you’ll only watch it once. There are caveats though: Travel or lack of internet access is a good reason to pack a digital copy. Also, it’s not difficult to blow through a bandwidth cap while streaming, so we understand if you’d rather be a little more conservative in your deleting. If you have a terrible DVD rip of a film you know is free to stream on Amazon in HD, seriously, let it go.

Archive Everything You Can’t Bear to Delete

By now, you probably still have a “Maybe” folder you’re having a hard time with. That’s OK: it’s time to archive those tough-to-handle files for safekeeping. You’ll note we didn’t do this first precisely because we didn’t want you to just toss everything on a hard drive, pretend to “clean up,” and in reality just add another device to your clutter. Photo by Robert Nelson.

We mentioned earlier that storage is cheap, and it really is. Pick up that 1TB drive, and label it “Archive”. We’ve shown you how to digitise your life and get rid of physical clutter, but archiving your media lets you keep the things that are rare or special without taking up useful space, and doesn’t require you to back it up regularly. Stash that drive somewhere that’s not just plugged in to one of your computers — preferably somewhere you keep other valuables. (If you must plug it in, just don’t import those files into your library!) This is key — don’t just use the drive as more space, use it as a true archive.

When I realised that I had movies on my HTPC that I’d actually never watched and that my home server was choking on hundreds of MP3s that I’d never heard — not even once, from bands that I don’t even like, I knew it was time to clean up. All I needed — and hopefully all you need too — is the mental will to just let it go.


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