Digital Minimalism – How to simplify your digital life in Linux

Most people probably experience it: the more space you have, the more junk you collect. This applies to our houses, our garages, but of course also to our digital world. Storage is becoming cheaper and cheaper so it is becoming less and less important to monitor whether we are using our storage capacity optimally. We just buy a new hard drive when we run out of space. But lately I am becoming more and more interested in minimalism and simple living, without distraction and things I don’t need, and that includes a tidy digital life as well.

In my opinion you give more meaning to your life and you also give yourself more mental peace, by only dealing with or investing in what really matters. This is what we can call intentional living. We all allow ourselves to be tempted to purchase on an emotional basis, but in retrospect for lots of people the moment of the purchase turns out to be more fun than the purchased possession afterwards. Sometimes a few days later you don’t even know why you bought that item or you regret your impulse purchase. The same applies to our behavior as Linux enthusiasts, for example with respect to distro hopping. Most of us Linux lovers like to try different Linux distributions, but don’t we have that nice Linux operating system in the first place just to get some actual work done? Distro hopping keeps us from doing real work. But also inefficient organization of your emails, or your files and folders are keeping us from doing things efficiently and effectively. And what about our health that can be harmed by intensive and inefficient computer use.

In this article I want to look at different ways how we as a Linux user can simplify, declutter, optimize and manage our digital living space, so that we can work effective, efficient, more healthy and have more time left, so that things can be found easier and you can focus on actual work and of course your private life. This is not only about tools and methods, but also about behaviour and mindset. The following topics can help you to make your digital life more intentional:

  • Inbox Zero
  • Unsubscribe from subscriptions
  • Read your mail and social media only once a day
  • Remove duplicate messages in your mail application
  • Compact Thunderbird folders
  • Install apps intentionally
  • Remove all unused apps, folders and files
  • Find and remove unnecessary files on your system
  • Find and remove duplicate files on your system
  • Use your dock intentionally
  • Clean up your downloads folder
  • Clean up your desktop
  • Optimize your time behind the screen
  • Tag and rate your photos
  • Remove temporary files automatically
  • Automatically clean your trash

Inbox Zero

You probably recognize the following yourself. Personally, in my decades of computer use, I have received new emails in my inbox every day. Many emails were really useful or necessary, but far more of them I had never actually opened and read. But I was too scared to throw them away. Instead I left all these emails just right there in my inbox, which meant that at a certain moment I had more than 90,000 unread emails without being able to find out which ones had no real value and which actually had to be read or had to be archived. The problem is that every day again this huge list of unopened emails stared at me like an overdue to do list and it was only growing instead of shrinking. And just as you want to finish your to do list as much as possible before the end of the day, you would also like to have your inbox as empty as possible if not completely empty. An empty inbox gives you peace of mind, so you can start every day with a clean slate. The latter is also called Inbox Zero. Inbox Zero (conceived by Merlin Mann and based on Getting Things Done by David Allen), however, is more than just an empty inbox. It is primarily a method to achieve that empty inbox and to actually deal with your unread mail in the right and most effective way. With Inbox Zero you go through processing, prioritizing and organizing steps. Everyone can do it in their own way, but basically it is advisable to think about a number of focussed folders or labels that support this approach. For example, create folders in your mail program for To do urgent, To do later, Done, Waiting for feedback, etc. And make sure that you have your inbox empty every day and that you have placed the most important mails in one of the folders for archiving , follow-up actions or just have junk deleted. Processing a little every day is easier to maintain than delayed but accumulated work that you need to handle all at once.

Unsubscribe from subscriptions

Strongly related to Inbox Zero is the unsubscribing of many digital subscriptions to newsletters and websites. I myself am an information junky and interested in an enormous diversity of topics and, like so many other people, I am afraid of missing something important. This interest and fear combined led to the situation that I had subscribed to literally hundreds of online newsletters. However, the result was that every day my mailbox was filled with new news items and didn’t have the time to actually read these newsletters. There were so many of them that it was impossible for me to read them all. And if you don’t have time to read something, it’s better to only focus on the most important or interesting newsletters and get rid of the rest. Quality goes beyond quantity. Try to think carefully about which newsletters you simply can and can’t live without and click directly on the unsubscribe button for those you can miss.

“Unsubscribe From Mailing Lists” once was a great tool available for Linux users to simplify this unsubscribe activity. This was a free extension for your Thunderbird email application. This plugin is not available anymore and to my knowledge there is at this moment no real alternative available (please let me know via my contact page if you know about a good alternative solution for Linux). If you don’t want to do the finding and cleaning of subscriptions manually, although not a Linux solution, you should for example have a look at and consider the mobile app Edison Mail (https://mail.edison.tech). This mail app simplifies cleaning your subscriptions by analyzing and gathering all your subscriptions in a list and offering a one click unsubscribe mechanism without having to go to each individual website to unsubscribe.

Read your mail and social media only once a day

Technology is fantastic and offers many benefits. But when in many of the meetings that I attend or chair every day, I see people constantly looking at their phones to check their email or social media, I think technology and its use is tumbling to the wrong side . And it also seems uninterested and a bit rude when people are looking at their screens when you are giving a presentation or when you are brainstorming with a team. For myself I have now established a schedule in which from a professional point of view I only check my mail three times a day and from a private point of view I check and process only once a day my mail and social media. I do the latter at home after eating and enjoying time with my wife and for a maximum of 30 minutes a day. Of course I can look at the clock to determine if those 30 minutes have passed, but I like to integrate the monitoring of my time into an overall time management strategy supported by tools. We must be wise and consciously think about what is good for us. Excessive computer use without breaks is bad for our eyes, our back, our neck, but also for our weight. Sitting behind a desk looking at a computer screen the whole day is the new smoking. But for us Linux users, a nice application is available, namely SafeEyes. In a separate article I have described how to reduce eye strain and body strain with SafeEyes for Linux. This same tool can be used to plan your email checking time. And of course to change your mail checking behaviour you should disable your notifications.

Remove duplicate messages in your mail application

Because of your maybe not so efficient and effective organizational behaviour in your mail application Thunderbird, it is possible that you end up with lots of duplicate emails. But also because of server issues you can have multiple versions of your emails in your mail application. If you have tens of thousands of emails like me when you started to think about digital minimalism and decluttering, it is almost impossible to find these duplicates manually. But luckily there is a plugin for the Thunderbird mail application called “Remove duplicate messages (Alternate)”. This is a new version that works with the most recent Thunderbird version. To install the plugin do the following:

1) Open Thunderbird.
2) Click on the hamburger menu to open the main menu and select Add-ons.
3) Click on Plugins.
4) Search for Remove duplicate.
5) In the plugin “Remove duplicate messages (Alternate)” click on Add to Thunderbird.
6) Click on Install Now.
7) After installation restart Thunderbird.

Now if you right click on a folder, for example Inbox, you see the extra option Remove duplicates… If duplicates have been found you have the option to keep the first copy, last copy, all copies or no copies and you can choose to delete copies or move them to your Trash.

Compact Thunderbird folders

In thunderbird you have the option to compact your folders. When you delete emails in Thunderbird, initially you only mark emails for deletion instead of actually deleting them. In Thunderbird there is an option to compact your folders, which actually means that you physically remove unwanted emails and regain precious disk space.

Install apps intentionally

As a Linux blogger, I have a strong need to try out everything related to Linux. But even in the period that I didn’t write about apps, I had the same need to explore. However, the result is that at a certain point your system fills up with applications that you might never use again after a couple of weeks or so. This results in too much clutter on your system. Always try to think carefully about which applications you really need and make sure you have no more than one application that supports the same function to simplify your digital workflow. Do not install three word processors, or four different mail programs. You can try different applications, but then make a choice and work with that application for a considerable period of time until you may find an even better alternative later. And delete the rest.

Remove all unused apps, folders and files

Of course clearly related to the previous point is the removal of unused applications. But not only that, also unused or no longer necessary files and folders are candidates to be deleted. Make sure your system only contains what you use and need now or will need in the future. The rest is only superfluous and therefore ballast. It makes your life easier to find what is really important. There are various options that can support you in your search for unused or little used applications, folders and files, but it will be mostly manual cleaning. But the following can help:

1) Use the command find -atime to find few used applications. The following example shows all applications that were not used in the last 200 days:

find /usr/bin -atime +200 -exec ls -ltu {} \;

2) Via the command line you can install popularity-contest, which helps to find the most and lesser used applications.

>> Type “sudo apt install popularity-contest” to install popularity-contest.
>> Type “popularity-contest > out.txt” to write a file out.txt, which lists all programs from most recently used to least recently used.

3) Via “ls -ltu /usr/bin | pager” you can find the access time of all files in /usr/bin.

Find and remove unnecessary files on your system

One of the aspects that is important when cleaning up your digital life is finding out if you have unnecessary files on your storage media or without knowing in your system folders. Over time, after your initial installation of your Linux operating system, you build up lots of files without sometimes knowing what their actual goal is of being there and some of them are even not visible without actually looking for them. And a lot of these files probably are not required anymore, so you lose a lot of additional disk space and most of the time some performance as well for no reason at all. One of the applications for Linux that people like you and I can support in the cleaning process is Stacer. In my opinion, Stacer is the best system optimizing and monitoring tool for Linux. Well, at least with respect to my own requirements but probably also for yours.

Stacer is an application heavily based on a graphical user interface with the aim of offering an extensive set of both cleaning and system monitoring functionalities for the Linux user. By using an accessible and beautiful user interface, Stacer wants to make the process of cleaning and monitoring easier for the average user. But also the experienced user can easily make it part of his or hers Linux based workflow. In my article “Stacer is the best system optimizing and monitoring tool for Linux” you can find more about the installation process, the setup and how to use the app to clean your system.

Find and remove duplicate files on your system

One of the aspects that is important when cleaning up your digital life is finding out if you have unnecessary duplicate files on your storage media. There are lots of alternative applications for Linux that focus on finding duplicate files on your system, but most of them are command line based. But many readers of my website prefer to use a graphical user interface as it is more convenient for regular users and visually oriented people. Luckily there is a duplicate finding tool with a graphical user interface which is called FSlint. FSlint primary focus is on finding duplicate files on your hard drives. But if you found duplicate files then you probably want to do something with it. For example, collecting and then deleting the unnecessary files. FSlint makes it possible to easily identify a location, such as a complete hard disk or a specific folder, and then search for duplicate files there. When these have been found, you can determine which files you want to remove or maybe merge. You just have to select the result files and choose the option Delete or Merge. But FSlint can do much more than search for duplicate files. Think about searching for temporary files or empty directories. Read more about FSlint in my article “How to find duplicate files in Linux with FSlint“.

Use your dock intentionally

Every operating system has something like a dock. You know, those icons at the bottom or on the side of your screen of your Windows, Apple, or Linux computer. Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Elementary OS, Zorin OS and Ubuntu Budgie, have a dock where you can drag your most important applications to, so you can easily find them and start them quickly. But when I look at family and friends, their dock covers often the full height or width of their screen. Sometimes their dock contains dozens of app icons. In this way, in my opinion, you ignore the actual function of the dock, namely access to the most important applications that you use on a daily basis. Do not use the dock to accommodate all your applications. The less used apps can be found in your application menu. Place a limited number of apps that you actually use on a daily basis in your dock to bring order and clarity in your digital life.

Clean up your downloads folder

I notice that I have a strong tendency to keep all my downloads in my Downloads folder forever. Of course there are certain personal files in your Downloads folder such as downloads from the bank or other formal organizations (you should move these files to more logical folders), but all those application installation files really do not have to be saved. After all, you can download those deb, flatpak and snap files from the software manager or the internet as often as you deem necessary, so why should you clutter your valuable hard disk space with them. So go through all your downloads and immediately remove everything that you are sure you can retrieve from the internet later.

Clean up your desktop

Storing files on your desktop results in heated discussions on many internet forums. Many people believe that you should never keep your files on your desktop and others think that you can pile everything up on your desktop. Linux distributions such as Elementary OS do not even offer the option to store files or folders on your desktop. I personally use the desktop in the same way as my physical worksheet. I have stacks of documents there that I prioritize with the ultimate goal of neatly tucking away and placing them in the appropriate folders. For me, the virtual desktop is therefore a staging area as interim storage before I transfer the files to the permanent folders. In practice, however, it can happen that the pollution nevertheless starts to pile up on the desktop. Personally I like to organize (for example with color codes) and clean my desktop manually, but there are dedicated Linux apps available as well that can help to clean your desktop, like Clear Desktop and DayFolder.

Optimize your time behind the screen

Many of you will undoubtedly recognize it: severe eye strain and even whole body fatigue as a result of working too long at your computer. Many of us earn their income through their computers, others love working with their computers and many people use their computers to keep their digital lives in order. I do not know better that since I came into contact with computers as a child, I had difficulty getting away from these magical devices. But we must be wise and consciously think about what is good for us. Excessive computer use without breaks is bad for our eyes, our back, our neck, but also for our weight. Sitting behind a desk looking at a computer screen the whole day is the new smoking.

Much has been published for years about computer use and its harmful consequences if we do not implement proper measures for ourselves to limit excessive computer use. I really love computers and everything that I can do and create with it, and if my wife isn’t telling me once in a while that I am already working for hours without a break on my book, my blogs, my apps, or my photos, I keep sitting there forever. But recently I found SafeEyes which is a simple but very effective application for all Ubuntu based Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Linux Mint. The application is a reminder app that helps you to have a break once in a while to give your eyes and body some rest. In a separate article I have described how to reduce eye strain and body strain with SafeEyes for Linux.

Tag and rate your photos

In the age of digital photography and especially in recent years with photography with the mobile phone, most people collect huge amounts of photos. But be honest, how many of those photos are really unique. If you go through your photo library, you will find that many photos are almost the same. Personally, I am very interested in photography, which means that I take relatively few photos. After all, my motto is quality over quantity, or less is more. My passion is landscape photography (www.johnbeen.nl) and in that process I only take one or two photos during a photo session because I spend a lot of time preparing my compositions. People also always laugh when they ask how many photos I have taken during a vacation and I say that I have taken four to five good photos that I am really satisfied with and that may be a candidate to hang on the wall. The norm seems that nowadays you have to come back with thousands of photos to have a successful holiday. But how many of those photos are actually really good and is that really worth the storage all those files need.

To simplify the cleaning process, with the aim of achieving a nice photo selection, many photo management applications have the ability to rate and tag your photos. Through the use of ratings (0 to 5 stars) you indicate which photos are bad, better and best or simply resemble each other too much and then based on your ratings you can easily delete all photo files with a low rating. Tagging allows you to give keywords to your photos, like landscape, family, portraits and travel, so that you can easily find the photos later in groups. Even greater is to combine a rating and a tag in a query so you can find for example all your 5 star landscape photographs. Try looking at applications such as Shotwell, Digikam, XnView MP and darktable, which all support both tagging and rating. A good photo management process makes cleaning your photo library a lot easier and ultimately you only have photos that are really valuable. When you are interested in more information on a full photography workflow in Linux, read my article “How to setup a Linux and Open Source based workflow for professional photographers” .

Remove temporary files automatically

If you don’t regularly remove your temporary files your computer uses unnecessary disk space and the performance can noticeably deteriorate. Cleaning up temporary system files can be done manually, but on this website we like to do things as simple as possible whenever possible, so it would be more convenient if there is an automatic solution to schedule your cleanup. And there is. If you have a Ubuntu based distribution like Ubuntu itself, Linux Mint or Zorin OS, than you can do the following to schedule automatic deletion of temp files:

1) Go to your Settings.
2) Select the Privacy option.
3) Select the option Purge Trash & Temporary files.
4) Switch the option Automatically purge Temporary files to On and set the number of days for Purge After to your liking, with a maximum of 30 days.
5) Close the screens to enable the selected options.

Automatically clean your trash

In the previous section I wrote on removing temporary files. Here you could see that it is also possible to automatically schedule the cleanup of your trash. You use the Trash option only to be sure that you don’t delete files directly and unrecoverable, but after a while it should be safe to clean up these trashed files. Follow the same steps as previously done.

1) Go to your Settings.
2) Select the Privacy option.
3) Select the option Purge Trash & Temporary files.
4) Switch the option Automatically empty trash to On and set the number of days for Purge After to your liking, with a maximum of 30 days.
5) Close the screens to enable the selected options.

Final words

For some of the topics described above, you might think that they are mostly open doors and no rocket science. And they probably are, but often it is someone else who must point you to these open doors before you know what you can do about and with it. Clutter, accumulation of files and maintenance overdue grows over the years, because you simply do not realize the existence of this slow creeping process. Sometimes you just need a reminder to do something about all that clutter and I hope that this article has been able to make a small contribution to this insight and has made you think about ways to simplify and optimize your digital world. A simplified digital life gives a clearer and more focused mind and maybe even a healthier life. For sure there a lots more ideas and solutions to optimize our digital Linux life. When I think of useful new tools, methods and ideas, I will add them to this article in the future.