Starting The Year With a Digital Cleanup

As the end of 2019 came closer, I was starting to feel overwhelmed. I had too many feelings of being all the over the place. Distraction was a daily obstacle. On top of those feelings, I was also keenly aware of ethical concerns over my usage of certain platforms. This was on my mind constantly. Within the months leading up to the end of the year I withdrew from a lot of activity on social media and other online discussions. I was contemplating whether or not contributing to some of the work I was doing was really essential to my future plans.

Contributing to all of this, burnout was a prime factor. I was working on too many things that weren’t bringing me to where I wanted to be, either professionally or personally. The start of January also saw me revisiting the book, “Essentialism”, by Greg McKeown. There were a lot of things that were not essential to my life and it was time to cut them out. One of McKeown’s key arguments is not just focusing on what the important things are, but actively eliminating the things that aren’t important. So that’s what I started to do with my online presence.

In starting this process, I did a brain-dump in my journal of everything I was thinking about. As I made my way through this l started to formulate a plan to tackle each area. The goal is to start 2020 with less distraction and (hopefully) to enable me to focus more on the things that matter. Here are the areas I decided to focus on to start minimizing my digital life. If this is something you’ve been contemplating, I hope this can provide a bit of advice.

Declutter iPhone and iCloud

I wasn’t planning on resetting my phone, but I thought it’d be a good place to start. After going through all my apps, I created a “To Delete” group off of my home screen and put any app whose future was in question into it. After this, I spent a few minutes reviewing settings for apps that I use and turn off notifications for anything that was still on. I don’t typically allow notifications from anything unless it’s time sensitive, e.g. Lyft. This includes, badges, alerts, and most definitely any sounds. A silent phone is the best phone.

I also deleted a bunch of random stuff from my iCloud account. Since I only use iCloud for application support this wasn’t too hard. However, cleaning up old calendars that had been synced from trying out different calendar apps over the past year was a bit of a chore.

De-Googling Myself

One of my primary motivations and one that is still in progress is to remove as much of Google from my life as possible. In order to accomplish this I had to deal with two Google Drive accounts, multiple calendars, as well as my personal and business Gmail accounts.

Removing Gmail

This was the big one. I’m transferring everything to ProtonMail, which I started to use a few years ago, but at the time I didn’t want to go through the effort of the transition. Now was the time. Transferring my business email to ProtonMail was easy and straightforward and went off without a hitch. Once that was up and working I removed the Gmail account from Apple Mail on all of my computers. The business email was easy as I just switched the domain MX records and downloaded all the data since I’m not importing the past emails into my new email account.

My personal Gmail account is a bit more difficult as I can’t just update the records to point to a different email service. For this, I setup a forwarding rule in Gmail to forward all my incoming mail to my ProtonMail address. I then set a vacation responder to reply with a message to the affect that I’m no longer using this email. I setup a rule in ProtonMail to put all the incoming Gmail mail in a folder so I can easily discern what is coming to that email address. Once I was sure the forwarding rules were working as I was expecting, I removed this account from all of my devices.

I’m still utilizing these forward rules for a bit longer until I’m sure I’ve gone through the laborious process of updating the email address on file with all the applications that need it.

Google Calendar

Another issue was my Google Calendars and this is something I’m still working on. At this point I only have my personal Google calendar that I’m utilizing. Since I sync my Google calendar through Apple’s Calendar app, I just moved it all over to that. I removed my Google calendar from all of my devices, logged into the web application and just copied over any events that I needed to. I also made sure to resubscribe to any shared calendars I don’t have control over explicitly in my Calendar applications.

Backup Up and Deleting Google Drive

Next, I had to deal with Google Drive which is straight forward enough. Using the Google Drive sync application, I copied everything off to a new folder for each Drive and then signed out of the sync application. I then grabbed all of my business data from Google (which also includes the Drive data), and deleted my subscriptions and account. My business is now entirely off of Google and that money is going towards supporting ProtonMail.

I’m holding off on deleting Google Drive for my personal account until I’m ready to fully delete everything. I’m just no longer using it and have no connections to it anywhere.

Cleaning Up My Physical Computers

Next, was my decision to wipe my physical machines and do a fresh OS install. Over the last couple of years I’ve been utilizing two computers, a MacBook Pro and a Mac Mini. Switching back and forth between these created a mess of photos, videos, and other files across them. I also had multiple backups spread across a couple of Time Machine drives. This was always stressing me out as I was always hunting around to find something and despite my efforts to keep it sane, it was all a complete mess. Furthermore, because of my travel schedule, I wasn’t really using my Mac Mini anymore and it was just sitting there.

Backup Existing Data

My first step was to get a new 4TB external hard drive. Big enough to hold multiple Time Machine backups for both systems. I then did a full backup of my laptop and then took snapshots throughout the next few days just to be safe.

After creating a bootable Catalina USB I erased the hard drive on my laptop (eeek….). If you’re doing this, make sure to actually erase the hard drive first before going through the installation process. I forgot to do this and so wasted some time.

Time For a Fresh Install

Once this was up and running, I connected the Time Machine drive, but at this point I didn’t do another backup. I’ve never used the same Time Machine drive for the same physical machine after going through this process and I wasn’t sure what would happen and didn’t want to lose my original backup. Time Machine’s backups are file based, so I just went into the most recent backup and copied it to my hard drive. Once done, I then did a new Time Machine backup. This actually worked perfectly so I didn’t need to worry about copying the files over, but better safe than sorry.

After performing a Time Machine backup of my Mac Mini, I turned it off and stuck it in my closet since I didn’t want to spend time wiping it at the moment. Now is just the matter of getting my new MacOS install to a usable state. This I just handle as things come up, but at some point I’ll probably script it all.

Deleting Various Social Media Accounts

Facebook and Instagram

This was the part that was really looking forward to, especially removing Facebook and Instagram from my life. I’ve been wrestling with the ethics of utilizing Facebook for some time. Over the course of a few months I unfollowed everyone that appeared in my timeline, only re-following people that I specifically was checking in with. This had a tremendous help on turning my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) into JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out). This stuff just wasn’t interesting to me anymore. I logged into Facebook one final time, grabbed a copy of all my data, and made sure any other devices were logged out through the Facebook security page. I then set the account deletion process in motion and did the same for Instagram. Once done, I deleted both of these apps from my phone.

Miscellaneous Accounts

There were other accounts that I’ve only ever played around with and never really used. Snapchat being one of them. So I went through and deleted my accounts and the app if it was installed. There’s others that I’m likely to come across and I’ll be reviewing everything in my password vault to catch any long forgotten signups.

Unfollowing Everyone On Twitter

Of all the social media accounts, the only one that I’m keeping and utilizing is Twitter. However, my timeline is kind of unusable. I’d follow people haphazardly and looking through it I didn’t even know who they were and some were fairly dormant. I started looking for an easy way to handle this mass unfollow without scripting it myself and from Anil Dash’s post, I came cross the Twitter command line client. This made the process incredibly easy. I just moved everyone on my current timeline to a 2019 list and unfollowed everyone. I’m starting to follow people back, but slowly. I’m going to plan on doing this at the end of each year. I also grabbed a backup of my Twitter data for good measure.

Professional and Personal Goals

I’ve been working towards a few goals over the past year, but I’ve made slow progress on some of them due to jumping on work coming in I wasn’t really excited about and other things that would pop up. I’m not going into detail on these except to say that I’m streamlining the types of activities and work that I want to do and making sure to prioritize that and saying no to anything that is not directly inline with it. Goals are useless without solid strategies for getting there, so that’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought too.

Future Plans

I took the first couple of weeks of January to go through all of this, and I’m feeling much better already. I’m not sure where I’m going to focus on next, but Microsoft is going to be my next project. I won’t be able to fully remove Microsoft from my life, but I can ensure I’m not using Office or other Microsoft products as much as possible.

If you’ve been contemplating something similar, my best advice is to take it one step at a time. Really be honest with yourself about whether something is contributing to your life positively and meaningfully. If you’re not sure, take a break from the activity or account for a bit. Once you get over the habit of checking it all the time, you’ll probably find that you don’t miss it.

Be judicious in cutting out those things that aren’t essential and vigilant in what you allow back in.