The Magic of Tidying Up—Digitally

Applying Marie Kondo’s organizing philosophy to the smartphone

Editor's note: The following article was published in the Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2015. Here is a link to the original, updated July 19, 2015 4:54 p.m. ET

One day, when cleaning my home using Marie Kondo’s method for organizing your stuff, I found myself wondering whether her techniques could apply to my digital life. By the end of the weeks long personal transformation that ensued, I found myself listening to a scientist who insisted that you can predict someone’s personality just by looking at how organized is their computer desktop.

But before we discuss the neuroscience of how you navigate your computer (yes, researchers are sticking people in brain scanners to investigate this sort of thing) let’s start with Ms. Kondo’s international best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

For anyone living under a rock, this slim volume has spawned a global movement, in which proponents declare on social media that they have just “Kondo’d” their closets, kids’ bedrooms, etc. The mechanics are simple: You pile up everything you own in the middle of the floor, and one by one you hold each object and ask yourself if it sparks joy. Only once you have handled everything you own can you organize it, jettisoning what doesn’t pass the joy test. Oh, and you have to do this all at once, in a single go.

Most of Ms. Kondo’s book is devoted to convincing you that her method actually works. Admonishments like: “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order,” litter the book. But in my experience, once you’ve tried it, you know.

The problem for me was, how do I apply to ephemeral digital objects a method that involves probing our emotions about a thing by touching them? On a hunch, I started with my iPhone, since it has a touch-based interface.

A funny thing happened when I touched each app on my phone and considered tapping the “x” that would delete it. I instantly knew which sparked joy. In just a few minutes, I had Kondo’d my phone just as thoroughly as my closet. I dumped more than a dozen apps from a device whose contents I thought I had already trimmed to the bone. I recommend you try it.

The next step was to reorganize my newly airy phone. But figuring out how to do that would have to wait until later in my spiritual journey.

Emboldened by this first small victory, I began consulting with experts about how they organized their digital lives. Wall Street Journal personal-technology columnist Joanna Stern confessed to me that she is “kind of a hoarder,” and then sent me a list of columns she had written on how to tame every part of your digital life, including email, contacts, photos and calendars, all of which I found useful.

Per Ms. Stern’s advice, I used the service to unsubscribe from dozens of newsletters and promotional emails, which suddenly made all those other tabs in Gmail (promotions, updates, etc.) useful again. I had also long ago switched to cloud-based services for managing all of my photos, music and documents, entrusting search and learning algorithms to manage these things for me. When digitally Kondo-ing, the cloud is essential.

But what I really wanted was to understand not just my own path toward a fully Kondo’d digital life, but all the paths. Was there a universal route to a noise and junk-free experience on the ever-proliferating family of screens in our lives?

Steve Whittaker, professor of human computer interaction at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is one of the few experts in these matters. One thing he has discovered through his research is that everyone organizes digital objects—files, emails, to-do items—differently, and is fiercely loyal to their own particular methods, even when they are shown evidence that theirs isn’t the best way.

Take email: One thing Mr. Whittaker revealed in a 2011 study is that people who file away their emails are no better at finding them in the future than those who don’t organize them at all, and simply rely on search for retrieval. For me, this confirmed one way that the digital world is forever different from the physical: Online, you have to know which organizational tasks to more or less give up on. I may have unsubscribed to all those newsletters, but I didn’t, it seems, need to tidy up the 4,572 unread emails in my inbox.

In all other areas, however, cleaning up is key. “In the personal domain, if you want to find stuff again it’s important that you impose organization on it,” says Mr. Whittaker. This is in part because humans are bad at predicting how we will want to access information as our future selves.

But organization is also a function of our personalities. In another paper, Mr. Whittaker and his colleagues discovered that neurotic people are more likely to spread files across their desktops, while conscientious people are more likely to file them away neatly. In yet-to-be-published research, Mr. Whittaker reveals that when people navigate to files in a graphic user interface, they are using an older area of their brain, evolutionarily speaking, than when they find things with desktop search, which uses the overdeveloped neocortex that distinguishes us from our ancestors.

The final stop on my journey was my own personal Yoda on matters of organization, journalist and filmmaker John Pavlus. In a blog post from June, he proposed the most radical reorganization of a smartphone I had ever heard: Just dump all your apps into a single folder and use search to navigate to the one you need at any given moment.

At first his proposal seemed crazy, but I used this method—the proof is on homescreen sharing site under username @mims—and it transformed my mobile experience. I used to let the grid of apps inform me about what to do next, but now that they are out of sight, my relationship with my smartphone feels almost entirely task-oriented and driven by my own desires.

Or, as Marie Kondo wrote in her book, “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”

—Follow Christopher Mims on Twitter @Mims or write to