Managing Digital Clutter
A day in the life of a teacher is full of excitement! There are plenty of things to keep you busy. There are lessons to plan and papers to grade. You’ve got parents to communicate with, students to manage, and a multitude of responsibilities vying for your attention at any given time. Now, top that off with the hundreds of notification bells dinging on your devices, the emails flooding your inbox, and the massive number of digital distractions that invade your serenity each day. So how do you handle it all and maintain your sanity? Your students aren’t going anywhere. Papers still need to be graded and lessons still need to be planned. The responsibilities of the job at hand must still get done. However, there are some steps you can take to at least reduce the digital clutter and reclaim some margin in your day.
Making a few small adjustments to how you manage digital clutter will provide stress relief and increase your productivity. Most importantly, it will also help you shift your attention back to the people who are right in front of you and who matter most…your students. These changes require intentionality but are well worth the effort for the freedom and focus that follow.
Here are 9 tips you can put into practice today to clear the digital clutter and reclaim your time:
Get your email inbox in order
An overwhelming inbox is a common problem for many teachers. When you have to wade through a cluttered mess of junk email, important messages often get buried. There are a few simple ways you can streamline your email system to ensure you don’t miss what matters.
First, take a few hours to clear the old clutter, get organized, and get a fresh start. The easiest way to start this process it to sort your inbox by sender. Then you can move or delete a group of emails at one time. You can create folders and subfolders or tags to categorize important emails. Now, you can save important communication in the folders and refer back to them there instead of in your inbox.
For anything that is junk, delete it. This is a good time to unsubscribe to any unnecessary email marketing lists you are on to. Nowadays, any time I go to a retail store, they ask for my email address. Then, I get inundated with promotions the next day. I’ve started politely saying “no, thank you” when they tell me to enter my email address during checkout.
It’s okay to unsubscribe!
Here’s another important tip I learned from experience. Don’t be an email subscription hoarder! I have subscribed to every email newsletter I found interesting at some point. But then, I never had the time to read the weekly (and sometimes daily) messages I receive. I was feeling ambitious one day and created a folder called “read in my free time” and started moving the messages into there. Guess what? A year later, I still hadn’t read a single email in that folder. They were just taking up valuable storage space for no reason. So, I ended up unsubscribing to most of the subscriptions, deleting the emails, and only keeping only a handful of the ones I was really invested in.
Don’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings. The companies who send them to you will thank you because their email marketing stats can be negatively affected by unopened emails. And they would much rather be sending emails to people who are actually engaging with their content.
After you’ve cleared the digital clutter from your inbox, set a routine each day. Checking your email all throughout the day can pull you away from meaningful tasks and divide your attention, making you more unproductive. Instead, designate a 20-minute window first thing in the morning and just before you leave in the afternoon for checking email. And stick to it!
Turn off notifications
It can be extremely difficult to stay focused throughout the day when you have a constant stream of bells, dings, beeps, and buzzes calling your attention elsewhere. Silence those nagging notifications and check them on your terms when you are ready to. You can permanently turn off your app notifications. If that’s too much, simply turn your phone on “do not disturb” temporarily when you need some peace and quiet from digital distractions.
Keep your passwords safe in one place
How many times have you tried to log in to an account on a website only to realize you don’t remember your username or password? Then it’s five extra steps and 15 extra minutes just to reset your password…only to forget the new one the next time you attempt to log in. Instead, consider an all-in-one digital password organizer like 1password or lastpass. At around $2 a month, this is a worthwhile investment. They will keep your passwords secure and save you the headache of trying to manage all those credentials on your own.
Curate your social media feed
How about consolidating all of those social media accounts you are trying to manage? Social media platforms are constantly trying to compete with one another. They frequently add features to keep up with whatever the crowd is gravitating towards. TikTok was the new kid in town with short video snippets, so Instagram got on board with Reels and then YouTube launched Shorts. At this point, there is really no need to connect to the same 700 friends on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. Just pick one social media platform you are comfortable with that fits your lifestyle and ditch the rest.
Once you narrow it down, you can streamline your account by telling the platform what you want to see and what you don’t want to see. Not ready to unfriend or unfollow your crush from 3rd grade that you haven’t talked to since you were eight years old? That’s quite alright. Just utilize tools like favorites and close friends to curate what shows up in your feed more often and the rest can drift off into the background.
And remember all those Facebook Groups you decided to join when you were really ambitious, thinking you were going to take up a new hobby? Or how about that group you joined because your Aunt Edna invited you to it? If they are no longer relevant to your lifestyle, it’s time to say goodbye to the group and goodbye to the digital clutter. Thank them for the part they played in your life when you needed them. Now, move on with a little more freedom and a lot less notifications.
Ditch the digital clutter by reclaiming your calendar
If you feel like your day runs you instead of you running your day, this one’s for you. I recently unburied myself from a situation like this. I was spending about 75% of my in meetings other people invited me to that could have been solved with a simple 5-minute phone call. There was so much time wasted talking about work and not actually getting work done. Then I would leave each meeting with a new to do list of more work that had to get done. I constantly felt like I was drowning! The biggest problem wasn’t the workload or other people’s requests. It was that I didn’t take control of my own time.
Time blocking is a game changer!
A friend introduced me to digital calendar time blocking, and it changed my life. The way it works is simple. You block out your entire workday on your calendar and assign the time to something, including your own downtime. You move important items from your to do list to a specific time on your calendar. That takes away the idea of just an arbitrary item on a to do list that you’ll get to eventually and makes it more concrete by assigning a specific time to get it done. Then you schedule in one or two meeting slots at consistent times each week. So, if someone requests a meeting, they can meet with you at one of those available times. For example, my week may look something like this:
Yes, I even made an appointment with myself to eat lunch! And I had to have the willpower not to give that precious time away for something unproductive and unimportant.
The other thing my friend taught me to do was color code and categorize everything on my calendar. I had a color for spots that were personal time, a color for administrative activities, a color for creative work, a color for meetings, etc. Visualizing it like that really helped me see where my time was being spent and where I needed to make some shifts.
If you want to learn more about the concept of clearing digital clutter using calendar time blocking, check out this great video from Simpletivity that gives an in depth explanation.
Clear the digital clutter on your desktop and phone’s home screen
A messy digital desktop is the equivalent of having papers and random photos strewn all over your actual desk. How can you think when you are surrounded by chaos? Tackle the digital disarray just like you would in the real world. Start by organizing your digital files into a folder system. Throw away the trash that’s been sitting there unopened on your desktop for months. Then, take it a step further and empty the trash can. There is nothing more satisfying than that crinkly sound effect of a virtual trash bin making old files vanish with the click of a mouse. Now sit back and look at your clean organized desktop space. Notice how it makes your brain and even your whole body feel more relaxed.
What does your phone look like? Do you have to swipe seven times to find your favorite app? Just like on your computer, you can organize your apps into categorized folders. Not sure how to categorize them? If you have an iPhone, you can hold down an app icon, drag it onto another icon, and your phone will suggest a folder category that will take into account commonalities between the two apps. Now that’s a smart phone!
Set limits on your phone to carve out digital downtime
If you are like me, you may struggle with the self-discipline to manage your time wisely. Thankfully, my phone has given me some tools to help me with this. Instead of using my phone to remind me to do one more thing, I flipped the script and used it to remind me to do less.
If you have an Android, you can use Bixby Routines to carve out quiet time and silence apps and notifications at a certain time each day. iPhone users can utilize the Screen Time app in Settings to set downtime, communication limits, and time limits for apps. I set a daily time limit for social media, and it reminds me to focus on the more important things. I also schedule downtime when I’m winding down for the evening so I will be reminded to stay off my phone a couple hours before bedtime. This allows me more quality time with my family and gives my brain a chance to slow down at the end of the day.
Cold Turkey is an app teachers love. It can be used on your computer to help manage screentime by blocking out things that distract you. You can block specific websites, the entire internet, and daily distractions. It will even give you a report to show you where you spend your time to help you decide where you need to cut back.
Another thing that is helpful is keeping devices out of the bedroom to make room for rest. Having sleep constantly interrupted by a late-night group text or a moth that sets off your Ring doorbell notification can make it hard to face the day the next morning.
Managing digital clutter is good for your soul!
Creating the meaningful life you desire requires intentionality and sometimes sacrifice. It means saying no to certain things so you can say yes to the most important things. I hope this list inspires you to take steps today to reclaim your time and your focus by cutting the digital clutter out of your life.
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