Ah, the elusive “delete” button. (Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)
Back in the day — or at least a decade or two ago — we hung on tight to photo albums full of memories (even though they just seemed to gather dust). We let stacks of old mail pile up on our desks, just in case we needed that bill from last year (for whatever reason). We let CDs and DVDs occupy cabinet space, in the off-chance we had the desire to re-watch The Wedding Planner or Clueless.
Things are a little different today — well, kinda. We may have less material stuff, but now we hang on tight to photos on our smartphones. We let hoards of emails go unopened, afraid to get rid of a potentially important message. We leave music and movie collections in our digital libraries, because we might want to check them out again at some point… in… the… future.
Before we know it, we’re hoarding — not physically, but digitally. We’re cluttering our desktops with junk and filling our hard drives with files we’ll likely never look at again.
Organization expert Jen Cohen Crompton, editor-in-chief at The Neat Company, says most people don’t realize they’re digitally hoarding because they’re not physically hoarding. But all those files can still create a mess while we’re moving around our digital space.
“People tend to hoard because they have an emotional attachment to their digital assets,” she tells Yahoo Health. “They often have the mentality that they don’t want to get rid of something they might need. They may review their documents with the intention of paring down, but end up not deleting something because they think, ‘What if I need this one day?’”
These digital dilemmas are similar to the ones that arise from actual hoarding, a mental-health condition that is still a bit of a mystery, says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
“It’s still in its infancy in what we know about it,” he tells Yahoo Health. “It’s in the same family as obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, but it’s more of a cousin. And it’s hard to know who has it. Historically, people who have it are reclusive about it. They look to the outside world completely fine, but then you get inside their home — and lo and behold, there’s all this stuff.”
To be clear, digital hoarding is an idea, not an actual mental-health disorder for precisely this reason, says Michael Tompkins, PhD, a licensed psychologist and co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy. Part of the diagnostic criteria for hoarding is that you’re cluttering your physical space, making it unlivable. For instance, maybe your sink has become a holding place for your books.
That said, Tompkins says he’d expect to see digital-hoarding behaviors in people who suffer from hoarding physical objects, as well. “Hoarding falls along a spectrum, from ‘normal’ to ‘not normal,’” he tells Yahoo Health. “We diagnose hoarding when the emotional response is disproportionate to the thing being discarded, or when the behaviors themselves are disruptive to their day-to-day lives.”
In addition, some hoarders might even see digital storage as a solution to their problems, Tompkins says. “You might run into someone with the disorder that tries to improve their living situation by converting physical files and photos to digital files,” he says. “But someone consumed with doing that would not have time to live and do other things.”
If clutter and saving items, in general, is causing you significant distress or overtaking your life, see a mental-health professional or speak with your doctor. But it’s worth noting: Everyone hoards to a certain extent.
We’re biologically built to assess significance, emotional or otherwise. “Most of us have reasons to hang on to items,” says Rego. “The blessing and curse of the mind is that it won’t distinguish between the material and the immaterial. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, we learned to interpret in a certain way, to fire off an emotional reaction or alarm — whether it’s a yearbook or a digital selfie at a rock concert. It’s not the thing, it’s our appraisal.”
“We all save, or hoard,” adds Tompkins. “We have our savings accounts, or keep provisions at home for when the power goes out. There are animal models of hoarding behaviors. The problem is when these behaviors are no longer adaptive, but maladaptive. And that’s true for any psychological condition that becomes highly distressing.”
If you simply struggle with the very 21st-century problem of streamlining your digital world — deciding what emails to ditch and what files to discard — our experts have some ideas. Here’s what to do.
If you can’t think of an immediate need for it, don’t be afraid to get rid of it. “There are certain documents you need to keep — financial statements, tax documents, and so on — but when it comes to photos and other documents, they aren’t always necessary to keep,” Crompton explains. She suggests thinking of each file this way: If your computer shorted out tomorrow and you lost all documents, which would you try the hardest to recover? “Those are the documents to keep and file,” she says.
Create a hierarchy of significance. If you’re experiencing some anxiety about nixing certain digital items, Rego suggests building a hierarchy and slowly start organizing. “Maybe emails are the easiest to get rid of, and then photos, and then files, and so on,” he says. “Work from easiest to hardest in terms of its potential value and your anxiety in getting rid of it.” Rego says this is a cognitive intervention; as you get rid of smaller items, “the mind will generate what it means to cope” with items hitting the trash bin — and notice the effects are not that bad.
Have a filing system, and then actually use it. Lots of us come up with handy-dandy digital filing methods, but then our desktops are suddenly drenched in documents. Whaaa? “Use an organization system that suits your lifestyle,” Crompton says. “If it’s something like the Neat Premium service, you can customize folders based on your needs and use some sort of keyword titling option that will allow you to easily search and find documents.” If you don’t know where the file is, and can’t easily locate it, you may as well discard it. And if you can’t nix it, archive it (so it’s there, but out of sight and out of mind). “Archiving files you won’t need in the near future will create less clutter in your active document files,” Crompton says.
Keep your desktop free of clutter. If your desktop is simply gobs of photos, documents, and files overlapping each other in a mash of nonsense, you’ve got a digital headache on your hands. “Just like your physical desktop, keep your virtual desktop clear and tidy,” Crompton says. “Eliminate icons for programs you don’t use frequently, uninstall those you never use, and keep file folders organized based on what is needed most immediately.”
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