6 tips for decluttering your digital workspace

Here is how to get started cleaning up your electronic files.
By Dawn Wotapka

Just as cluttered stacks of paper can become overwhelming in the workplace, so can an overflowing email inbox or a computer desktop littered with electronic files.

"From a productivity standpoint, a cluttered desktop and files equals a cluttered mind," said Melisa Celikel, chief executive of Let's Get You Organized, an organizational business consultancy based in San Diego. "Tasks and to-dos may go unnoticed, bills unpaid, and emails unanswered."

While spring is typically the season for cleaning physical environments, there's no traditional season for purging digital messes. As a result, it may rarely — or never — get done.

That means you could find yourself frantically organizing your desktop or email while on deadline with a client project or clearing space just before your boss wants a key presentation.

The good news is all this is preventable. Here's how:

Avoid being overwhelmed. If you haven't digitally decluttered in some time, be aware that the process can be overwhelming, said Katie Corritori, a professional organizer in the New York City area. That doesn't mean you shouldn't start.

She suggests setting a timer for between 10 and 30 minutes a day. "When the timer goes off, you're done for the day," she said. "Shorter bursts of focused time can be more sustainable and effective, especially when the project is quite large." 

Start with your computer. For most of us, the computer (desktop or laptop) is our digital headquarters, so it makes sense to tackle this first. Delete unused files regardless of age, clear out downloads, scrap unneeded screenshots, and purge the digital trash. Then, pick a time each week to designate 15 minutes to keep it clean, suggested Alexis Haselberger, a time-management and productivity coach based in San Francisco. "Having a regular day to do this ensures that it doesn't get out of control or overwhelm you," she advised.

Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based security awareness expert and speaker, suggested that you periodically organize music and photos into folders, uninstall programs that aren't frequently used, and control icons by consolidating them or deleting unused ones. "A desktop cluttered with icons will slow boot-up time," he explained, adding that removing an icon won't delete the program — just the shortcut.

Control the tabs. Haselberger also suggested closing out all of your open browser tabs at the end of the week if you, like some people, don't shut down your computer daily. "If the articles weren't important enough for you to have time to read this week, you're unlikely to read them in the future," she pointed out. "Cut your losses and move on." 

Take on email. Now, turn to your email, which can quickly overflow with messages. "Start with your inbox. What's been sitting there for ages that you'll never open? Delete it," Siciliano advised.

Next, respond to outstanding messages, clear out ads, unsubscribe from unneeded email lists, and file documents that need to be saved. The goal is to get down to zero unread messages, said Haselberger, or at least as close as you can. Going forward, "archive anything older than a week," she suggested. "If you are afraid you'll miss something by doing so, well, you've already missed it." 

Check out the cloud. A great way to truly declutter is to use the cloud to store everything from large documents to travel receipts. Virtual storage helps control the computer desktop clutter, can be used to prevent email from getting unwieldy, and can even translate to a cleaner physical space, said Celikel. It can also be a great repository for personal and professional pictures — especially those taken with a phone — that you don't want to lose.

"Scan all docs into the cloud and say goodbye to the physical clutter," she said. "Gone are the days of stacks of paper on desks. Many open-concept workspaces no longer even have filing cabinets on site."

Of course, check with your firm to ensure you aren't running afoul of any records-retention or client privacy rules. The AICPA also offers guidance about record retention practices.

Tackle the phone. Meanwhile, "don't forget your mobile device," which operates much like a small computer, Siciliano said. Periodically remove unneeded apps, music, and photos, which can eat into valuable storage space, and make sure you have downloaded the latest operating system for efficiency and security.

Once you organize your digital life, keep up with your digital decluttering on a regular schedule that works for you. The goal is to not fall behind and face space-hoarding digital clutter again.  

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.  To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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