Cyberspace may seem endless, but the number of things you keep stored there can have a negative impact on your well-being in real life.
Your closets may look fresher thanks to Marie Kondo, but what about your inbox? Bookmarks? Photo library? Despite your physical tidying up, there’s a good chance that your cyberspace is as crowded as ever.
When we think of hoarding, we visualize a basement packed to the rafters with musty newspapers, worn-out clothing, and old “Frasier” DVDs. But digital hoarding exists too.
According to a survey by Summit Hosting, a provider of managed cloud solutions, the average American has 582 saved cellphone pictures, nearly 83 bookmarked websites, 21 desktop icons, and 13 unused phone apps… plus 645 gigabytes of material on external storage.
True, none of this takes up physical space in your home, but it does usurp valuable space in your mind, aka the original cloud.
We hang on to a lot of it. According to that same Summit survey, 6.6 percent of Americans are saving between 1,001 and 3,000 unread emails. 1.9 percent have more than 20,000.
“The beauty and downside of your digital life is that you can keep pretty much anything you want,” said Robby Macdonell, CEO of RescueTime, a company that helps individuals manage and get rid of digital clutter.
“Storage space is seemingly unlimited, so choosing to keep files is less of a choice.”
Still, “the more you keep, the less you’re likely to go back and use it,” Macdonell noted. “It doesn’t matter how organized you are if you’re drowning in information.”
Consider your photo library, which likely has hundreds — if not thousands — of images. If you don’t select the ones that truly mean something to you, said Jo Ann Oravec, PhD, a professor of information technology and business education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, “then you just have a “mishmash of various angles and shots that mean nothing.”
Oravec recalls how her aunt, who passed away at the age of 100, carefully curated just six photo books. This finite collection contained all the images of her life that she’d deemed important to save.
“My aunt could create a sense of reality,” said Oravec. “What sense of reality will we create?”
Oravec became increasingly interested in digital hoarding after conversations with her students.
Both undergraduates and graduates expressed feeling overwhelmed with the sheer volume of technological detritus: lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, PDFs of research, snapshots of classroom whiteboards — not to mention their own ever-swelling collections of personal and family items (including Facebook friends they didn’t know but were afraid of unfriending).
“Educational and social technologies… were designed to make it easier for students to engage in critical thinking and analysis as well as in interpersonal interaction,” said Oravec.
“Nevertheless, [they’ve] triggered a sense that ‘more is better. ‘”
She sees this, too, when her students struggle to research writing assignments.
“It isn’t that they’re asking, ‘How do I find materials?’” Oravec said. “They’re coming to me with inches of printed materials they’ve accumulated and then asking, ‘How do I find more?’”
Researchers are just beginning to explore the relationship between physical and digital hoarding.
Both involve a reluctance to get rid of things because they may fulfill a future need or elicit an emotional attachment. Both can interfere with how you function in your daily life and add to an already present sense of anxiety.
People who score higher on physical hoarding behaviors are more likely to score higher on those of digital hoarding. Because of that, said Nick Neave, PhD, associate professor of psychology and director of the Hoarding Research Group at Northumbria University in the U.K., “we think the two are very similar and involve the same kind of psychological mechanisms — firstly, a desire to get hold of files, and a strong reluctance to delete them in case they are needed in the future.”
Yet “everyone appears to be at risk of digital hoarding, especially in relation to work,” Neave said.
“Organizations bombard their employees with all manner of information that they don’t know what to do with, and just to be ‘safe,’ they keep it.”
Different generations may also have different motives for hoarding. For instance, Oravec thinks some of her younger students may simply not be aware of the options they have to archive the info they amass.
Older folks, on the other hand, may hoard due to anxiety. Anyone who remembers having to make a special trip to the library, dig through a card catalog, page through stacks of books, and make copies of relevant research, will realize that information was once “a much more rare and precious commodity,” said Oravec.
Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills and co-author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” is currently researching several techniques to see which best helps people avoid becoming obsessed with technology.
But when it comes to a tipping point that prevents us from treating the cloud as a virtual junk drawer, he doesn’t feel we’ve found it yet.
“Just like with societal issues such as smoking or drugs, I feel we’re going to have to observe some strong, real consequences before we’re able to question our own behaviors,” said Rosen.
Oravec agrees. Do nothing and it’s only a matter of time before a virus, cybersecurity breach, or physical damage to your numerous devices cleans everything out for you.
Still, “the answer isn’t to delete it all and go back to the dark ages, but to find balance and use tech in a way that helps and enriches our lives,” said Macdonell.
To start, here are a few tips:
Take a break
It’s easy to feel like you need to keep contributing to what’s in your cloud just to stay current. “But this can be exhausting,” noted Macdonell. Take a “social media sabbatical” every once in a while.
“Many people feel like they can’t possibly step away from the constant updates, but when they do, they usually find a sense of calm that they’d forgotten was possible,” Macdonell said.
Make your desktop a sacred space
Since your desktop’s the first thing you see when you turn on your computer, “everything you leave on it will pull at your attention,” said Macdonell. His recommendation: Drop files that end up there into a few streamlined folders, like “Planning,” “In Progress,” and “Done.”
Detox your downloads folder
“Your downloads folder fills up fast and can also house lots of files you don’t need, but take up space on your hard drive,” Macdonell said. Go through yours once a week and delete or archive as much as possible.
Keep your inbox clean
Set up filters that allow you to automatically move new emails into specific folders. One hack Macdonell likes: moving any email that contains the word “unsubscribe” into a “Newsletter” folder. “Your inbox should only be for personal messages,” he said.
Every month, designate time to go through all the photos, files, and so forth you’ve been holding onto. Ask yourself, “Am I ever going to actually use this?” If the answer is no, delete or archive, said Macdonell.
Prepare for feelings to come up
“When you remove things from your life, you’re creating a hole that wasn’t there before, and that can be unsettling,” Macdonell acknowledged.
“It helps to think about the things you’re creating for yourself as you free up space. Digital clutter takes up space in our minds rather than our bookshelves and closets, and by clearing it out, we gain more room for new ideas and activities.”