How to Overcome Digital Hoarding

  •    A freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia, Pa., Dinah previously worked as a staff reporter for The Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires.

Do you have 5,000 unopened emails, 500 forgotten Internet bookmarks and 50 unused mobile apps? Has your phone almost reached its data storage maximum?

If so, your computer and smartphone contain the truth about your digital clutter. While not as physically daunting and visually dramatic as the heaps of household junk shown on reality television hoarding shows, a digital hoard of useless emails, files and programs can be overwhelming and counterproductive.

Clutter does more than getting in the way in a physical sense. It can create enervating mental obstacles as well. And for a small business owner, digital flotsam and jetsam can hit your bottom line.

"The issue with digital clutter is that it can affect productivity and performance. Digital clutter can make it difficult to locate documents and can reduce the speed of an individual's work – and his (or) her computer," Jen Cohen Crompton, editor and chief of the neatology blog, which is associated with small-business organization firm The Neat Company, tells Weebly.

"Digital stuff" that serves no purpose is clutter, organizing consultant and author June Saruwatari says in an interview with PCMag contributing editor Jill Duffy. Clutter, she says, saps people of energy, time and optimism, making it difficult to move forward. Even when you're not sitting at your computer, she notes, thoughts of your crammed inbox can distract you from other activities"Without clutter, everything becomes clear," Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter: Truth. Love. Meaning. Purpose., told PCMag. Saruwatari considers the email inbox the most important digital clutter pile for "busy professionals" to clean, with the goal being zero emails at the end of the day. That means deciding to move emails to a "read" folder for later, responding to them, unsubscribing from email lists and so forth. She calls it a "spiritual, mental, emotional practice" that frees people to be more engaged in their own lives.

Clutter can double the time it takes you to accomplish something, Saruwatari told the magazine. So imagine how your digital hoarding — and its associated mental and emotional clutter — can bog you down in business, sapping you of the energy and organization you need to be your most productive.

"Most small businesses have digital clutter because they are worried about deleting digital documents, which they may need one day," says Crompton. "A lot of the clutter relates to financial documents and knowing what to do with them once they have transformed from a hard copy to a digital copy. The best advice you can follow here is to seek consult from your accountant and figure out exactly what you need and don't need."

Delete, Archive, Organize, Unsubscribe

To address your overall digital hoard, Crompton recommends that you prioritize, organize, archive and delete.

"If your hard drive crashed tomorrow and nothing was backed up, what would you work really hard to save? What would you not miss?" she asks. Once you set your priorities, use an organization system to keep what you need, then delete unnecessary files and archive old documents that you may need to retrieve, says Crompton.

"Get comfortable with parting with things that no longer serve you. Meaning, delete old, unnecessary digital content such as newsletters, spam, bad or outdated photos, and other items that aren't relevant to your business," she wrote on her blog.

In addition to causing you to lose work time looking for what you need, being disorganized can hurt your bottom line by leading to missed deadlines, which can hurt you financially and damage your professional reputation, Crompton writes in another post. It can also mean you won't be ready to take on new business when the opportunity arises, and may prompt high employee turnover.

"If you're running a business, you simply can't afford to be disorganized. Wasting your organization's time and talent could lead to the business failing, no matter how good the original business plan," writes Crompton.

Leo Babuata, author of the popular Zen Habits website, says "digital packrattery" not only can cost you productivity, but "can stress you out more than you know." Symptoms of the affliction may include five-year-old emails, two-year-old project files and a hard drive that's at least 75% full, he wrote on his blog several years ago.

Babuata recommends embarking on a massive digital purge -- a half-hour at a time -- then maintaining a simple digital life by trying to delete rather than filing items. He also suggests developing a routine of purging digital files weekly or monthly.

Certified professional organizer Sarah Buckwalter, writing on the neatology blog, says business owners can build a more productive workplace with a good digital filing system that allows them to keep company information in one place, either on their own server or on "the cloud." Use a scanner, give folders the same names they'd have in a paper filing system, and on a daily basis review mail and other incoming documents, taking care of trash and recycling immediately, she writes.

She also recommends that each day, businesses scan and digitally file important papers, take immediate action on items that can be handled quickly, and schedule follow-up tasks for later.

On his becomingminimalist blog, author Joshua Becker offers numerous tips for minimizing clutter and taming digital hoarding habits. Among other recommendations, he suggests:

  • Answering emails immediately if it can be done in fewer than two minutes, and filing it in a "work in progress" folder if it will take longer.
  • Unsubscribing from unwanted commercial email and RSS feeds.
  • Paring your email accounts if you have more than two.
  • Setting up a good computer folder system.
  • Uninstalling programs and apps you don't use.
  • Deleting from your digital library (or filing away) music and movies you no longer use.
  • Updating your contacts, deleting unneeded ones.
  • Erasing temporary Internet files.

"An uncluttered computer results in a more enjoyable, fresh and productive experience. Don't underestimate the value. The benefits far outweigh the time investment that is required," Becker writes.