Cyber Minimalist: How to Work (Almost) Completely Online

The following post is an adaptation of the Zen Habits blog post of the same name. His posts are uncopyrighted which means I am free to use it and remix it in my own blog post. Still this post inspired me so much that I decided to use it and update it for 2018 with a Chromebook flair.

Over the years, I’ve decided to simplify my computing life and my work needs by trying to work, as much as possible, with web apps, Android apps and online storage.

I was tired of emailing myself files between home and work computers, or uploading files to web storage and syncing them between computers, or loading them onto flash drives. I’d forget where a file was, I’d spend a lot of time transferring files and organizing things, my two computers were never completely in sync, and it was just too complicated for a minimalist like myself.

Enter web and Android apps, and my newfound simplicity.

Now, my computing life is much simpler than ever before. I use web and Android apps as much as possible — admittedly, my needs are much simpler than most people’s needs, but that’s intentionally so, as I’ve learned that most of the stuff I did was not essential. I’ve slowly reduced my needs, so that my web and Android apps can take care of the majority of what I do.

When Online Computing Would Work For You
I must stress that this online solution I’ve been using is not for everyone. It may not meet your needs. If not, move on — I’m not saying everybody should follow what I’m doing.

But there might be some who would benefit from this online solution. Here are some reasons you’d store your files online and use web and Android apps:

  • You use multiple computers. Chances are you do. You probably carry a laptop and a phone with you everywhere and a tablet and desktop at home. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to access whatever you needed, when you needed it, on whatever device you happened to have with you or is most convenient at the time? My solution might work for you.
  • Your needs are simple. If you use desktop software that cannot be replaced by web or Android apps, my solution is probably not for you. You might still consider online storage. If you’re a writer, however, or you deal mostly with word processing apps, spreadsheets, and other common apps, you might be able to get away with what I do.
  • You do a lot of online work. If you’re a blogger, like I am, or some other type of web worker, and you meet the criteria above, online solutions would be perfect for you.

My Online Solution – How I Work
Let me stress, again, that this is my solution. Your needs will be different. You will want to alter your solution to fit your needs. But I offer the following as an example of how you could work online with a minimalist approach to computing:

  1. Word processing and spreadsheets. It wasn’t long ago when I did a little analysis of my work and realized that the majority of it was done with word processors such as MS Word and LibreOffice, and spreadsheets such as Excel or Calc. I decided to try using Google Docs for these needs, and though it was a little off-putting at first, I’ve since learned to embrace the minimalism of Google Docs and Spreadsheets. They don’t have half the features of their Microsoft counterparts, but you know what? I don’t need those missing features. Formatting not as pretty? I’ve become all about the info, not the formatting. Printing not as pretty? I rarely print now. And sharing docs with others is so much easier now.
  2. Blogging. Of course, almost every blogger uses an online app for publishing his blog. I use Squarespace, and it’s simple to use and powerful enough for my needs. I save a post, add a photo, and those things don’t need to be saved on my hard drive.
  3. Photos. I’ve embraced Google Photos, and uploaded all my photos onto my free unlimited storage account. Yes, I’m a Google freak, and others have problems trusting a company like Google, but I don’t.
  4. Email. This is one of my most heavily used apps. I have used Gmail since it came out in beta in 2008. Boy is it so much nicer than any of the other apps I have used. And as there is a pretty large amount of storage space available for email, I doubt if I’ll ever come close to the storage limit. The nice thing is that I can store all my files on Google Drive and send them as attachments directly from Gmail.
  5. Archive and search. This is one of the most beautiful reasons to use online apps: the simplicity of organization. While I used to have a structure of directories and subdirectories for the files on my hard drive (as nearly everyone does, I think), now I don’t worry about folders or even tagging. I archive, and then search when I need a file. That’s it. It works just as well in Gmail as Google Docs as Google Photos as Squarespace. No need for filing. It took me awhile to get used to this method, but now I love it. Need to find a document I saved a few months ago? No need to root through folders to find it. Just search. It’s beautiful.
  6. Android apps. I do use Android apps on my Chromebook, for some work. For example, IA Writer for minimal word processing, Snapseed for photo editing, Squid for notetaking with natural handwriting, several Google apps, and of course some apps. However, I usually use them for a single task, save the file, upload it or email it immediately, and then delete the file from my hard drive.
  7. No hard drive organization. Again, as soon as I save a file my hard drive, I transfer it online (to Google Drive, Gmail, Google Photos, Squarespace, etc.) and then delete it from the hard drive. This means that I no longer need to organize files on my hard drive. Almost everything is either in my Downloads folder for temporary storage or in my Google Drive.
  8. Chrome. Of course, the desktop app I use the most is my browser. And for my money, that’s Chrome. (Firefox, Opera, Safari, Edge and other browser fans will disagree, and that’s OK — this isn’t a debate about the best browser.) Since I do almost all of my work online, Chrome is always open, and one thing I love is the shortcuts that give me fast computing all day long. I have keyword bookmarks for every app and site I use often, so opening up a site or app is as simple as typing a couple of letters and pressing enter. Same thing for my common searches on Wikipedia, Flickr, Amazon, IMDB, and much more — they all have very fast keywords, so searches are easy. And Chrome’s extensions have helped me tremendously, including AdBlock Plus, LastPass, and more. I even do most of my work on a Chromebook, a device designed to use Chrome as the main app on your computer. I have to say, it is awesome!
  9. Offline work. I find I'm almost never offline because I'm usually bathed in glorious WiFi all the time and when I'm not I use the hotspot feature on my phone. For the rare times I am offline however, it's nice to know that Google Docs, and many of my Android apps work offline so I can keep doing my work and it syncs back to the cloud when I'm back online. It's so seamless I don't have to worry about losing my data.
  10. Calendar and to-dos. I use (surprise) GCal for my online calendar needs, and my to-dos have found a number of good online tools. (I’ve migrated between Evernote, Google Keep, Todoist, and others, depending on my mood. Right now, I’m using Google Assistant reminders.) There are other online apps I use, most notable among them Zoho Assist for remote support.

Update: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What about backups? I don’t actually do backups for the most part. All the companies I use to store my information online backup the information themselves. However, even if there were a problem, I wouldn’t miss any of the information. However, if you wanted to backup your information, it wouldn’t be hard to do it yourself — you could use your hard drive or web storage in a different location, and just save new or modified files every day or once a week.
  2. What about privacy? This is a real issue for some people, and I won’t deny it. However, I don’t really think Google employees (or whatever company I’m using) have time to read through everyone’s files, and even if they read mine, I don’t have anything secret in my documents. If that’s an issue for you, for whatever reason, online work would be more difficult. You could encrypt files — maybe only those that you really want to protect.
  3. Capture and calendaring when I’m not at my computer. I tend to write on a sticky note and then enter the information on the next available device later. Anyway, you could use your cell phone or other mobile device to do calendaring on the go if you like.
  4. Being hostage to your Internet Provider. This can also be a very real issue for some people. It hasn’t seemed to be an issue for me. Many web apps have an off-line mode nowadays, so even if you get disconnected, you can continue to do your work. Google Docs is one of the most notable examples. Plus I use my phone's hotspot as a backup for when I need to do client work.
  5. What’s the objection to using the space on your hard drive? None really, except for what I said near the beginning of the article: I use multiple computers, and I need to access the information from anywhere. Using online apps allows me to do that. Also, having my info online makes organization much easier (see discussion above about archive and search). There’s no need for a central organizational structure anymore, whether you’re using a Chromebook, Windows, Linux, or Mac computer.
  6. But what if not everything I do can be done online? It’s true that many apps are not offered online, and also that most online apps do not have all the features of desktop apps. First, this is why I simplified my needs — I’ve learned that I don’t need all the features of desktop apps. Sure, MS Word has 27 million more features than Google Docs, and so does Excel, but I don’t use them, and for me, they just add to bloat and slowness. For others who need them, the online solution wouldn’t be ideal. Of course lately Microsoft has been getting into the Android and Web apps game so perhaps you can get most of the features you need from those apps. Second, I do use desktop apps for certain things, like photo editing, as I mentioned above. But then I upload the file online, delete the copy on my hard drive, and don’t worry about it after that. Again, this might not work for everyone, but it works for me.