If you have hundreds or thousands of unread messages in your inbox, you might be a digital hoarder.
Americans lead messy digital lives. About half of U.S. adults delete email regularly and we only open a bit more than half of the messages we receive, according to a report on cyber-hoarding from HighSpeedInternet.com, which offers comparison shopping for internet service.
Email is only part of the digital clutter taking up space on our devices and in our heads. The mess accumulates as families grow and amass medical records, school communications and digital photos. (So many digital photos.)
It all adds up to stress, with 62% of the survey’s 1,000 respondents reporting they feel anxious about all their digital stuff. Too much digital clutter can also slow your internet performance, according to the firm.
“People hold on to digital things just like they hold on to that pair of pants that might come back in style—because you never know,” says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University who studies the effects of clutter on our well-being. (He wasn’t involved with the survey.)
While some people hang on to digital files because they fear they might need them someday, others let them accumulate because they just don’t want to deal, Dr. Ferrari says. Even people who have more virtual storage than they will ever need could benefit from a better organizational system, particularly for photos and important documents.
If you suspect you’re overdue for a digital cleanse, you’re probably right. Here’s what to do next.
Choose a system. Figure out a system for organizing your emails, photos and documents. Whether you choose to upload photos to Dropbox or save documents in a Google Drive, pick one system for storing each category of digital life and stick to it.
Take baby steps. As with any kind of organizing, start small so you don’t get overwhelmed. Begin by going through the unread emails or old documents from the past month (in Gmail, you can pick a date range). If you get through those and feel you can keep going, continue working backward.
Block out time. Set aside 30 minutes a day to clear out the clutter. (You can do this while watching TV.)
Reinforce the behavior. Choose a task you enjoy, such as playing a game on your phone or scrolling social media. Spend 10 minutes deleting old files then reward yourself with the same amount of time on that activity, says Dr. Ferrari.
Once you have a plan for getting organized, experts suggest focusing on one category of digital management at a time.
Cull your accounts. You might have an email account for work, one for personal emails and one for spam. Delete any other accounts. If you’re afraid you’ll miss a message sent to an old account, keep it but set an away message saying you are no longer checking it, says Justin Klosky, chief executive of the professional organizing firm O.C.D. Experience.
Make folders. Emails should be sorted and saved to folders outside your inbox. Mr. Klosky says your inbox should contain only emails needing a response.
“When you walk to your mailbox to get your mail each day, you don’t open it, check your mail and throw it all back in the mailbox,” he says. “You bring it in and deal with it immediately.” (Maybe not everyone: I often let the mail pile up for days. But goals, people, goals!)
Mark as unread. If you’re like me and forget about responding to an email once you’ve read it, you can mark it as unread so you remember to come back to it later.
Find and delete. Search your inbox for online subscriptions you no longer want, such as newsletters or magazines, and unsubscribe from them. (For more tips on how to manage digital subscriptions, read this column by my colleague Nicole Nguyen.)
Automate your inbox. Gmail and Microsoft Outlook offer automated ways to help manage email, including silencing notifications and snoozing messages until you want to read them. There are also services to manage your inbox, including Clean Email.
Save to the cloud. First, make sure the photos on your phone or computer don’t reside only on that device, because if something happens to it your photos could be lost. My colleagues recommend Apple Photos backed up to iCloud. They also like Google Photos, which is available on iOS and Android. Both charge fees for storing large collections. Alternatively, you could use a basic storage service such as Dropbox.
Create albums. If you’ve ever tried to search for photos of specific people so you can create a slideshow for someone’s birthday or wedding, you know it can be cumbersome. Make use of the smart identification tools in Apple Photos and Google Photos, or take time to add labels to your favorite photos. Once you’ve sorted them, you can add them to digital albums for easier access.
Delete duplicates and bad shots. We all take numerous photos of the same thing, hoping to capture the perfect shot. Get in the habit of deleting the duds right after you take them.
Cull categories. Screenshots, selfies and videos take up a lot of space. If you’re an iPhone user and don’t want to keep them, go to albums in the Photos app, select media types, then go through your screenshots or selfies and delete what you no longer want, says Andrea Harvey, outreach specialist with HighSpeedInternet.com. Google Photos users can follow similar steps.
Save backups. For really important documents, be sure to save backups somewhere, such as in the cloud. And for the files you keep locally on your computer, tuck them away in folders where you can easily find them again. The HighSpeedInternet.com survey found that 20% of respondents had more than 100 items on their desktop.
File under the right name. When creating folders for digital documents, name the folders the way you refer to them, says Alex Brzozowski, CEO of digital organizing service Be Organizing. If you refer to your car as a Lexus, rather than a car, name the folder associated with car maintenance “Lexus” not “car” so you’ll find it easier. (This applies to email folders, too.)
Create subfolders. Compile similar documents into digital folders, such as “Medical” or “Insurance,” then create subfolders (“Dermatology,” “Dental,” “Home,” “Auto,” etc.).
Purge paper documents. A major benefit to organizing your documents digitally is being able to get rid of physical copies. You might find you don’t need nearly as many paper files as you thought, as I explained back in 2021.
Once you’ve organized all your files, Ms. Brzozowski says, plan to review and update your digital filing regularly. Just like laundry and dishes, your files will pile up if you slack on the housekeeping.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on January 10, 2023, and written by Ashlea Ebeling.
- Image courtesy of Bloomberg
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