Virtual Clutter, or The Downside of Organised and Unlimited Space

I was talking to a friend recently who mentioned that she liked to make sure she deleted old documents on her computer, things like receipts from years ago. It struck me that I almost never do this – but that sometimes virtual clutter can weigh on my mind as much as physical clutter does. I’m sure you can tell by my last post that I’m in a cleaning mood lately, and my current project is to clean up virtual clutter.

I think virtual clutter presents a specific problem for a few reasons. I was in my teens when I got my first computer, a cheap hand-me-down my dad had used for working from home for a while. It didn’t even have internet access, but I plonked away happily, and endlessly, writing. I still have everything I typed on that computer, dutifully moved from laptop to laptop over the last 10+ years, while accumulating folders of university papers, high-resolution images of art projects, letters for job applications, versions of my resume, tax returns. Unlike my bulging file drawer, my computer files never bugged me by being overly full, and therein lies one of the fateful promises of virtual storage – the promise of practically unlimited storage space. Not, of course, that it is literally limitless, but for the ordinary person saving documents, through years of increasingly larger hard drives, it’s hard to feel any sense of crowdedness. Another problem lurks as the dark side of organisation – being organised makes it much harder to perceive accumulating detritus. When someone’s file organisation is a mess, it’s easy to identify a problem, but when you have a great system, you can avoid the frustration that might prompt you to declutter.

But one important thing I am learning these days is that good organisation is not a replacement for making good decisions about what to keep. Nor is it a replacement for regular upkeep.

Emails in particular

I actually started a project of clearing out my email a few weeks ago, before my friend’s comment about deleting old files. At that point, I had a good system of labels for categorising most of my emails (such as from family, friends, church-related, etc.). However, I had no system for decluttering these categories, and anything that didn’t clearly belong in any category simply stayed in the inbox ‘marked as read’. When I started clearing my emails out, I had over 5,000 in my inbox alone – that is, 5,000 that either weren’t important enough to file, or should have been filed and never were.


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My goal is to keep my inbox at zero (something I learned from Mike, but search ‘inbox zero’ and you’ll find plenty of tips on this concept), meaning that everything that enters is either filed away, deleted entirely, or temporarily starred for action. That is, nothing is left uncategorised. This is my approach to keeping things flowing, but it doesn’t fix the problem of simply keeping too much.

Let me talk candidly about keeping emails. I used to think one of the great things about Gmail was that you didn’t have to delete anything because even the free account allows you so much space. Gone were the days of my university email accounts sending me warnings about running out of space, spawning frantic deletion sessions. And admittedly, I have often been glad that I kept an email: it can provide useful wording for a similar email in the future (job applications, for example), or might contain an address you forgot to write down, or maybe it’s just fun to read what a friend said a couple of years ago. Because of living in different places, a significant portion of my personal life has been lived through emails, so I have a lot, and a lot that are substantive. But I have begun to wonder lately if the lengthy documentation of my life that develops is really a positive thing.

For those of you who aren’t sentimental, you might be rolling your eyes, and I’m really not speaking to you – you probably don’t have the problem of keeping everything. I do have this problem! If you feel similarly inclined to keep everything, it’s worth asking honestly at what point the things you’re keeping are helping you. I have sometimes ventured through emails from 6 years ago expecting to feel pleasantly nostalgic, and instead found myself reliving unpleasant experiences, even remembering bad things I’d forgotten, being simply embarrassed that I could have said that, or feeling oppressed by the sheer amount of archival material – the past, raw and undigested, closing on top of me.

That’s a mixed metaphor, but I mention ‘raw and undigested’ because that’s the main feature of ‘personal archival information’ that makes it so unhelpful. For example, I’ve had bad experiences in the past – a bad breakup, let’s say. I would say now that I learned from that, and it doesn’t upset me to think about now, though I remember plenty about it. But I remember it in a digested, shaped, useful form, and can even feel some nostalgia towards those memories. But a few times I have uncovered old journal entries or emails from that time and read them, only to find that instead of enhancing whatever lesson I learned, they simply reawakened every bad feeling, reminded me of stupid things, filled me with self-disgust and anger. Nothing about the raw material edified me because it needs to be digested to be positive and useful, and the ‘digested version’ is what I hold in memory and in a matured perspective. The undigested stuff is what I need to get rid of; I need to hold on to the lesson, but delete the raw material if it doesn’t edify.

For the categories of things I do want to keep, for example emails from friends, I intend to edit my collections. This will take some time. But I feel it should be fine to keep a few good emails, ones that make me smile, and let the rest go. Do I even want to be a person who spends much time myopically reading emails from six years ago?

Finally, I plan to have a regular clear-out to maintain things. Some categories, like receipts for online orders, have expiration dates. For tax purposes you might keep certain things for five years, but past that, how will it be useful? Probably at least once a year, I want to cull things out.

What about you? Do you keep your email cleared out? Or is yours in need of decluttering like mine is?

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