Clear out mobile phone apps

I think at some point I might retroactively add a category for “life laundry”. There are so many things in our modern lives that pile up and add distraction or mental baggage. There’s a place for passions and hobbies, of course, but most of us now exist surrounded by reams and reams of stuff we don’t really need or have time to make use of. Everything piles up: email, regular mail, tasks, clothes, social media, software, half finished projects, boxes of junk in the garage or attic. Just as it’s healthy to clear all the unused clothes out of your closet once in a while, it’s healthy to reduce things down elsewhere as well.  It gives you a bit more space to focus.  Reduces that mental baggage I mentioned earlier.

One of the smallest and yet most prolific areas of clutter in my life is mobile apps. Hundreds of the little buggers have somehow marched onto my iPhone and taken up residence (and the same would be true for Android, if I were using that… this post is brand and device agnostic).  The why is obvious; apps are generally very cheap, if not free, there’s a vast array of wildly diverse little curios, and they’re really easy to install with a couple of taps and the time it takes them to download and unpack.

Unlike most of the other things I mentioned apps don’t take up any physical space, but they make up in other ways. They occupy your screen, put distractions permanently in your peripheral vision, clutter your phone when you actually need something, eat up the capacity you might otherwise have wasted on thousands of pointless photos and, in some cases, drain your phone battery.

cluttered iphone appsThat picture, up there, that’s my iPhone. I make it 142 apps, quite a few of which are buried in ugly iOS folders. I’m not holding this up as a particularly extreme example, in fact am sure I’m merely average; no doubt there are people out there with thousands. I think iOS limits you to 9 screens, with many folders on each. I bet someone has hit the upper limit without trying. But still, it’s a lot of clutter.

I hold on to them for several reasons. If it’s an app I regularly use, fine. Sometimes there are apps I rarely use, but do want for those occasional occasions. Also fine. The rest though? There are a lot of other apps that I keep because they’re great, even though I will never use them again. Plants vs Zombies is a brilliant game I completed years ago, for example, and which now has a sequel, but which I keep around just in case I want to break out the melonpults and smash some coneheads. I never will. There are those apps I think maybe one day I will actually need, like Hotel Tonight or Color Cap, and would regret deleting. There are apps that are pointless but flashy gimmicks I hold on to purely to show other people how cool I am.  Then there are games I got bored of, but hadn’t quiet finished, so can’t bring myself to remove for lack of resolution.  Those that I paid for, and didn’t like, but kept around because I paid for them. And finally those I should have deleted months or even years ago, but cling onto for … well, for some unknown reason.

I also have a whole folder called “unused”, full of those mandatory Apple apps that can’t be removed (the immortal Stocks app makes me want to switch to Android), but also quite a few more that I just put there as a halfway house rather than evicting them for good. Appurgatory.

Actually, excuse me for a moment

…right thanks for waiting. I just needed to change the name of that folder from “unused” to “appurgatory”.

Seeing as most apps can back up settings and saves to the cloud, and can be re-downloaded at any time for free, there’s really no excuse. Time to do some uninstalling.

I would would use iTunes to go through them, if iTunes wasn’t bizarrely, inexcusably dreadful. How the company that designed the iPhone and iMac also designed that dreadful, unintuitive mess of an interface I will never know. It’s got incrementally better over the years, but I’m still dismayed anew whenever I boot it up. So the manual route then: delete them one by one.

I came up with a rough system, partly to force decisions but also to drag this out so that I would have enough to justify a week’s worth of blog post. I put everything in folders on late pages and then, over the week, moved any app I used back to the front. By the end of the week I could see what remained: all the unused apps I probably don’t actually need. One by one I picked through them and uninstalled whenever I could.

All in all, I managed to remove 57, reducing the clutter by more than a third. It’s a nice feeling, actually. I know they’re only little curved-edged icons, occupying only virtual space, but en masse they manage to produce mental clutter. I like my phone stripped down to what I actually need. OK, “need” is relative. But stripped down to the things that I actually use, at least.

I thought I’d find myself re-installing a few, in the week that followed, with a little uninstallers remorse, but no. They have stayed uninstalled. turns out I really didn’t need them.

I really recommend having a clean-out like this, though my process was unnecessary faffery. Better just to work your way through, one by one, and be rigorous in deleting anything you can find an excuse to. Would probably only take 20 minutes. The battery on your phone will thank you.

  • Difficulty: Easy. Just take 15mins and be strict about what you need.
  • Worthwhiliness: Medium. It’s a good feeling to clear out what you don’t need.

Header image is by Blake Patterson.


Clear my inbox (aka Inbox Zero)

Inbox Zero is the near-mythical state of completely emptying your email inbox, and devotees aim to repeat that on a regular basis (ideally every day).  I’m a devotee of Inbox Zero in the same sense that I’m a devotee of surfing, in that I love the sound of it and I own a board but I’ve only actually managed it a few times and once I got salt water in my sinuses and thought I was going to die.  OK, clumsy analogy.  I’m a devotee in the same way as someone who puts Catholic as their religion on an application form despite not going to church or believing in God or being against contraception.  No, that’s worse.  I think it’s a worthy ideal, and something to strive for, is what I’m trying to say, I just don’t actually get there very often.

You may be sympathetic to my failure.  For some people clearing their inbox might not actually be a laughable prospect, because they don’t get that much email, but I don’t know who those people and I don’t like the sound of them.  Most of us these days are drowning under email, and I know quite a few people with unread emails well into the hundreds.  I once glanced at the iPhone of a friend, who works as a Successful Professional, and noticed the little bubble over his Mail app was in the thousands.  Who knew it even goes that high?  I don’t know how he sleeps at night.  But I bet he’s not the only one.

For my personal email, I manage my Gmail account using the Mailbox app on my iPhone. The two core gimmicks are that from the inbox you swipe left or right to quickly archive, delete or move the email, and you can schedule emails to come back when they’re relevant, sending away the confirmation of a hotel booking until the day you’re due to check in, or something about work until Monday morning.  Since it was released those features have been added into a few other apps, including Inbox (for Gmail) and even the Outlook app, but after trying a few options I’m sticking with Mailbox because it’s simple and effective.  I completely empty my inbox every day, with a minimum of fuss.


At work, it’s a completely different picture.  I don’t have the advantages of Gmail and I’m limited to a prescribed secure app, which is fine but doesn’t have any of those neat features for quick email processing.  I struggle to keep up.  It comes in waves; every year or so I manage to clear my inbox, but it just keeps on coming and if I’m on the road, or take a vacation, or get sick, or just have a busy week, it builds up again before I realize it. It’s not uncommon for me to have more than 500 emails in my inbox, with perhaps 200 of them unread.

I find it sucks all the energy out of me.  It’s definitely inefficient because it prevents you from prioritizing correctly; no matter how carefully I manage my to-do list, there might be dozens of important tasks (and hundreds of unimportant ones) sitting in my inbox that I haven’t even read yet, so I’m not looking at the complete picture.  I’ve also completed a task only to be told it was no longer needed.  “Didn’t you see my follow-up email?”  Gah.

A few years ago I remember seeing lots of articles about declaring “email bankcrupcy”, the idea that you just give up, delete everything in your inbox, and tell people you’re starting over, dealing with the consequences.  I’ve never had the courage to do that but I once, in a previous job, got so underwater that I just moved all the emails that were over a month old from my inbox into a folder marked “old emails I haven’t read”.  I intended to work through those day by day until I cleared them.  A few months later I had managed to stay on top of new incoming emails, but I hadn’t even opened that folder.  I stressed about it, the madwoman in my attic, for a while until I realized that no-one cared.  Aside from a few exceptions where people had simply emailed me again, no-one even noticed.  People in large companies are apparently now so accustomed to the idea that we’re all so busy, and that their email is one of hundreds, that they no longer expect for sure that you’ll get to them.  I’m not actually advocating just deleting everything, and there might well be professional consequences, but it’s probably not as bad as it sounds.

By the way, entreprenurial idea for a company: you give us your work username and password and we log into your inbox and delete everything, then make it look like you were the victim of a computer error.  “I know, Henry, I was just about to action that important deliverable you requested last month but now … *sob* I lost everything, man”.  Now looking for seed money.  Call me, or light the dollar sign bat-signal or whatever Venture Capitalists use to communicate.

These days I struggle, but just about stay afloat.  My inbox stands at around 500 emails, with 150 unread.  This week’s objective then is to get that to zero and zero.

If you too are tempted to attempt this, you’re going to need to accept a few principles.  The first is that your inbox is an inbox, not a holding place, to-do list, or anything else.  You don’t go to your post box, read all your letters, pick out the one you need then put all the rest back (or if you do, you’re probably beyond help).  Because every time you open your mailbox to see what’s new you have to go through the same discovery process you already did for those that remain.

Principle 1: When you open something, you deal with it.  Nothing stays.

The second is that you don’t have to complete the task contained within to deal with the email itself.  You’re just processing, filtering, deciding what the task is.  Doing tasks and processing emails are two different mindsets, so do them seperately.

Principle 2: Emails are not tasks.  Use a to-do list.

The third is that you don’t need to keep everything.  Somewhere between archiving and Gmail we’ve been trained to think that we should keep every little notification and thank you for your purchase and and scrap of information.  Most of it actually has a pretty short shelf life before it becomes useless.  Sure, computer storage is getting bigger and cheaper all the time, but living in a mansion doesn’t mean you should be a hoarder.  It makes it harder to find the stuff you actually need.

Principle 3: Email is not a life-log.  Delete everything you can.

By the way, you know all those emails you get that you might need for a short while but could then delete?  Instead of filing them forever I move them to a folder called “delete after three months”.  Then every so often I go into that folder and delete everything older than three months without looking at them.

OK, let’s do this.  Here’s my strategy for emptying your work inbox:

  1. Block a couple of hours in your calendar.  Turn off your instant messenger and shut down your browser.  Put your phone in another room.
  2. Search your inbox for the word “unsubscribe”.  That will find all the newsletters and notifications.  Sort by sender and, without opening anything, scan the subjects and file or preferably delete.  If you find something that isn’t a newsletter or notification, ignore it for now.
  3. Sort your inbox by date received and move emails that are over three months old to a folder called something like “unread emails from 2014”. Now, sort that folder by sender and move anything from your boss, or their boss, back to your inbox.  We’re not going to worry about those that remain; if no-one has shouted at us by now they’re probably no longer relevant, but we’ll hang on to them in case we need to find something later.
  4. Set your email client to show you the number of emails in the inbox, not the number of unread emails.  This removes the temptation to mark things as read without dealing with them, or to mark things as unread as a reminder to do something.  In Outlook you can do this by right-clicking the inbox folder icon on the left and changing the properties.
  5. Group by conversations.  Gmail does this automatically, and Outlook handles it well too these days.  This lets you deal with a group of related emails at once and helps make sure you’re looking at the latest information.
  6. Start reading. From the top of bottom, doesn’t really matter.  When you’re using conversation view, email chains with a recent response float to the top, but that doesn’t mean they’re the youngest.
  7. If the email doesn’t require a specific action, file or delete it as necessary.  Put non-essential long-reads in a folder called “long-reads” to come back to when you’re on an unnecessary conference call.  Put essential long-reads in a to-do list.
  8. If the email does require a specific action, and you can act on it in 2 minutes or less, do it.  Otherwise, add it to your to-do list and file the request.
  9. If you don’t know the answer someone is looking for, and it’s not really your job to know, then politely reply with “I don’t know” and file the email.
  10. If you can’t clear everything in one go, commit to a significant batch like one month’s worth or 150 emails, and set aside time for the next batch. Do them in as close to one day as you can because those emails are going to keep coming, and there’s nothing more dispiriting than returning to find your progress undermined by a pile of new stuff.  If you can, work all night until it’s done.  Then book a morning off, or whatever you need, but get it done.
Inbox Zero nerd merit badge
Inbox Zero nerd merit badge

It is an amazing feeling when you finally see that empty inbox.  Seriously, even though your to-do list might now be fat with tasks, you’ll feel so much better to know that you have them all in one place.  I know because I actually did clear my emails.  I tried to do it one day, then failed, then got busy in meetings, then found an afternoon I could block out, then worked late, then emptied my inbox.  I was elated.  For a few minutes, before the next email arrived, but that’s OK.  If I can plough through three months, I can handle the new stuff on a daily basis.  Especially now I can think clearly.

  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Worthwhiliness: High

Header image is “Drowning in email” by Xavier Vergés

Declutter clothes

There’s a whole category of useful resolutions that I would loosely term “life laundry”. You know the kind of thing: go through all the stuff that builds up in one area of your life, get rid of what you no longer need, and organize the rest. For this week’s mini-resolution I picked the most literal form of life laundry, and an area I’m particularly bad at keeping organized: clothes.

I struggle with two competing instincts. The first is to be hyper-organized and minimalist; the second is to hoard. It’s a lovely combination that keeps me in a state of perpetual mild irritation with myself. I’m probably on some kind of spectrum, though thankfully on the very mild side.

I think the hoarding instinct comes, indirectly, from my mother, who grew up as part of a generation who were significantly less spoiled than my own, needing to be thrifty and resourceful with what they had. “Make do and mend”. That doesn’t make you a hoarder, but it does mean you don’t throw things away if there’s a chance they might be useful in future. Apparently I’m imaginative when it comes to future use, because I find it very hard to discard anything. Containers, in particular, might be very useful for storing something. For example they would be ideal for storing all these other, smaller, containers.

When it comes to clothes, I don’t like to get rid of something if I can still wear it. That leads me to deliberately wear my oldest, least favourite items of clothing in an attempt to wear them out such that I can get rid of them without feeling guilty. The clothes I actually like take a back seat while I wear that t-shirt that doesn’t really suit me, the shirt with the slightly fraying cuffs, the ripped jeans that aren’t supposed to be ripped quite as ripped as they are but it’s fine as long as you don’t stand up or sit in certain positions, and so on.

And so out they go. This week’s resolution is to go through every wardrobe, closet, cabinet and sock drawer and pull out anything that I shouldn’t be hanging onto. Stuff I like that doesn’t fit, novelty clothes, t-shirts from fun-runs, odd bloody socks I’ve hung onto for years just in case the other one shows up. Those old clothes I pointlessly hold on to for decorating or paintball (I don’t play paintball, and I decorate exclusively in the nude).

I’ve had an idea for a system that I’ve wanted to try for a while now (see probably on some kind of spectrum, above). You find a distinctive hanger, or fold some colored card over one, to make a divider, then put it at one end of your closet. Then, whenever you wear something, you return it to the other side of the divider. After a month, you throw out anything that didn’t make it to the worn side. It’s a way of forcing yourself to face up to the clothes you kid yourself you need, but really don’t wear. It’s like being a captain picking sides at secondary school: once you’re down to the last few days, you’re going to need to make some tough decisions about what to save, and that kid who wets himself when he gets excited is not going to make the team.

Who am I kidding, I was never the captain, and I’m not sure what item of clothing the wets-self kid represents. It’s a weak analogy. Anyway, formal or occasional wear like suits or sports jerseys are exempt. I put my wetsuit to one side because, while I’m for sure a gnarly surfer in the summer months, it’s a bit chilly at this time of year, along with my studden football boots because I will play on real grass again one day dammit. Even so, attempting to arbitrarily cram this process into only a week left me cheating wildly and, one the last day, wearing as many outfits as Eva Longoria presenting an award ceremony for people who wear a lot of outfits.

I am often compared to Eva Longoria. Like her, I didn’t really blossom until my mid teens. I’m just throwing this paragraph in so it’ll be displayed when people share the article on social media. Try it why don’t you.

A week later, and my bedroom floor is host to a big pile of clothes. It includes an unpleasant pale yellow shirt I don’t remember buying (and through which you can clearly see my nipples), a really nice and expensive dress shirt that I optimistically bought in Extra Slim, and an old university rugby top from more than a decade ago that still annoyingly fits me and refuses to fade.

The total haul:

  • 9 t-shirts.
  • 1 corporate branded sports coat
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 belt
  • 2 pairs socks
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 3 bloody odd socks
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 2 work shirts
  • 1 rugby top
  • 2 ties
All the Instagram filters in the world couldn't make this picture interesting
All the Instagram filters in the world couldn’t make this picture interesting

I listed the really nice work shirt I’ve never worn on the share-cycle-app-thing Yerdle, everything else that is sale-able goes to the local Salvation Army charity shop, and the rest goes in a plastic bag into our recycle bin because apparently they can do something with the fabric.

My drawers, closet and co are a bit more relaxed, as am I. Sincerely, I actually feel a little bit less stressed. I can find things, and I never have to wear that nippley yellow shirt again. That’s something we can all get behind.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worthwhiliness: High
Ah no, that is actually a bit more interesting
Ah no, that is actually a bit more interesting