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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are You A Digital Hoarder?

External hard drives that can store more than one terabyte of digital information. (Flickr/mrebert)

We know what physical clutter looks like–stacks of newspapers, dusty knick-knacks, piles of clothes. But digital clutter is also becoming an increasing problem.

Josh Zerkel,  Certified Professional Organizer®, told Here & Now‘s Robin Young that his clients’ computers can be as messy as their offices.

Tens of thousands of emails, old photos, and even e-books take up hard drive space and often make it difficult to find needed information quickly.

“I see people hoarding photos, movies, music files–that in truth they’ll probably never look at again.”
– Josh Zerkel, professional organizer

Zerkel says it goes beyond just lack of organization– it turns into a disorder. For instance, many of his clients don’t delete emails because they’re afraid of parting with them.

“I see people hoarding photos, movies, music files–that in truth they’ll probably never look at again,” he said.

He also has clients who “are keeping hundreds or thousands of photos from events that they may not even recall.” He says they may not even like the person who is in the photo with them.

Zerkel says the problem has gotten worse since storage on hard drives has become less and less costly.

“You can buy a terabyte hard drive for under a hundred dollars now,” he said.

Zerkel says you know you have too much if your hard drive is full and you just got a new computer!

How To Simplify Your Digital Life

1.) Make Choices: “You are not obligated to be on every social network or receive every email newsletter… the people that are best able to manage these things are the ones who decide which things make the most sense for them,” he said. When it comes to what you’re saving on your hard drive, think about what is driving you nuts and start deleting there, Zerkel says.

2.) Sift through emails: Delete those you won’t need, archive others, and develop a strategy for moving forward.

3.) For computer files, use the same category names on your computer as you do on paper. “The more you use the same structures and folder styles, the easier it will be to find and put things away in both places,” Zerkel writes.

4.) Label your file methodically. Even though each individual paper in your filing system doesn’t need a name, each computer file does. A file name should contain a description, the version number, the date it was created, and who created it. You should be able to find what file you’re looking for without having to open it.


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  • dunedin15

    Great segment. Hard to disagree with anything said,
    but what about all the *time* required to do the deleting?
    Robin had it right with the broomstick analogy…new
    stuff is always coming in. I find it easier to move email
    to an archive every year, and this keeps my searches for
    recent stuff fast.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542696413 Joshua Zerkel

      @2bb7ab4286496ccbc1875e1edcba498f:disqus Glad you enjoyed the segment! You are right – it does take some time to do the deleting, but it doesn’t have to be a HUGE time commitment. I recommend taking a few hours every six months to do a big edit of all your digital (and physical) information, files, etc. Additionally, it’s a good idea to set aside 15 minutes a week to clean up that week’s digital files – delete old drafts of current projects, emails that you know you don’t need, ebooks that are outdated, etc. Staying on top of your digital information on a regular basis is the best way to keep things a bay.

      • Freddy

        I have  200 total  days of music. 45,000 comics. 4,000 feature-length films. 12,000 ebooks.  I have 4 HDDs totaling 8 TB.

        Yet it’s all organized as you would find it in a bookstore, in categories/genres and tagged by year. No repeat copies, and I use database programs like coollector and comic collector to keep track of what is what.

        I watch the show hoarders and while I’m similar to them in that I have a lot of stuff I probably won’t ever even access, I could find anything I was looking for in a matter of seconds, without even utilizing the windows search feature.

        I think it’s nonsensical to spend time each week organizing. As you acquire data, file it accordingly. If I download a new mystery ebook, why wouldn’t I just rename it appropriately and put it in the proper folder right there and then?

        • http://twitter.com/joshuazerkel Joshua Zerkel

          Freddy, that’s fine too. Each person has to do what works best for them!

  • http://www.360ideas.com/ Jmartin

    This was a great topic, Robin, Joshua: Came back to my office after lunch and DELETED a whole bunch of tired email from 2008-2009. Took only minutes and poof! Feelin’ a little lighter…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542696413 Joshua Zerkel

      @6ab8f477606b21d429230127fe43a8eb:disqus Great progress! I love seeing when people take immediate action!

  • Anonymous

    I’m going to email this link to myself and save it so I remember to delete more.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542696413 Joshua Zerkel


  • Marc Lamphier

    I am probably a digital hoarder, but my mom was a real-life hoarder, and there is no comparison. I have a server full of movies, most of which I have never looked at. I saved 10 years worth of emails and photos, most of which I don’t look at, but old photos simply should not be thrown away. My real-life world is a relatively uncluttered, and all this digital stuff is cheap to store and getting cheaper all the time. So maybe, as long as one doesn’t actually make any attempt to organize (which would be a big job) it is pretty harmless

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542696413 Joshua Zerkel

      Marc, you’re right in that digital hoarding and “traditional” hoarding are not the same thing, of course. The commonality is that sometimes the same underlying causes are in place, they just play out in different ways. As for your personal situation, it sounds like what you’re collecting is not a problem for you, which is totally fine. It’s a problem for people when they start feeling overwhelmed by what they’re storing, or moreso, when they can’t find what they need anymore. 

  • Digital Hoarding: Not so Bad

    I am certainly a digital hoarder. I copy movies onto dvd’s and now have almost a thousand. I save tons of emails and have all the digital papers I ever wrote in high school and college. Every picture I ever took is on my harddrive. I have 3 externals.

    With that being said, I think it is completely beyond reason. Digital discs will be out soon enough and every movie you will ever want to watch will be online at your fingertips. So one of these days all of my dvd’s will be trashed. Im fine with that. I have sub-folders in my Gmail for personal stuff from my family or work or rent or fun because that stuff you should keep for future use and it will always be there. I have the same set up in My Docs on my PC. FYI, Apple computers have an outstanding search feature which allows you to absolutely find any file super easily on your computer. Its simply way more difficult and sketchy on a PC. Macs are becoming more popular, especially among the young adults prospering in this digital age.

    I do subscribe to minimal email newsletters. Read em and dump em. Save the friendly little emails from your family and friends. Swap to digital banking statements instead of tossing them in the trash or keeping them in your filing cabinet at home. It isnt going to hurt anything. As Long As You Keep Them Where You Can Find Them. Come up with a system. Then they will always be there when you need them and it is zero clutter in your house and on your desk.

    Buy a 1 Terabyte harddrive. You will never run out of space with files or pictures or even movies, If you save them the right way. What most people dont know is that the pictures you take on your cameras (including cell phones) are literally the size of a HUGE poster. You will never need to print them onto a poster board, so convert them with a free program to smaller file sizes for viewing on a PC. Put them all in a folder called “Photos” and then separate into individual folders called “Cancun Vacation 11 April 2007″, etc. Now you can always search for “Cancun” or “Vacation” or “2007″ and find what you need. ‘Search’ is one of the very most useful tools when looking for anything digital. You search for whatever you want on Google, now just search on your computer for whatever file you want. Do the same with videos and documents. Its easy.

    With the organizational ease and virtual nonexistence of a digital files over stacks of papers
    and file cabinets, I highly suggest to keep whatever you think you
    may need on your computer. Just organize it as you go. I also suggest to back up that info on a
    separate external hard drive. I have 3. Two of them (1TB) are exact duplicates
    in case one fails. My other (500GB) is for portability. Remember, the most
    expensive hard drive could still fail. Thats why I buy 2 cheap ones and
    keep them updated with the same material in case of a failure. Total cost: $300 to save everything you will ever want to save. Forever.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542696413 Joshua Zerkel

      Thanks for the detailed description of how you’re managing your media, files, and email. It doesn’t really sound to me like you’re a hoarder at all – rather, you have a large collection of media and other information that you are able to access easily and that doesn’t seem to overwhelm you in any way. Hoarding is more about when things are out of control – which, in your case, it sounds like you have things under total control, which is awesome!

      Keep in mind that while keeping most things works well for you, for some keeping most things will spiral them into total overwhelm. It varies tremendously from person to person.

      As an aside, I almost always recommend that my clients have both local backup to a hard drive and offsite backup (typically to a service like CrashPlan, Mozy, Carbonite, etc.) – doing both types of backup really helps you in the event of a data disaster.

  • http://www.baytobaytech.com Jeannie Shea

    The Facebook link to this article popped up while I was happily deleting hundreds of messages from Gmail … so easy when you type in a search word and get rid of, say, all the Fandango messages. But I have to admit I find it difficult to delete pictures, even if I know I don’t want them. I hate taking the time to do it! 

    As an IT Consultant, I sometimes see computers that have, of course, data, then another copy of the data, then yet another, and so on, and so on. I like a PC program called “TreeSize Free” to unravel this type of mess.  Had one client with literally 100 gigabytes of space taken up this way. Saved her from having to buy a new computer.  Thanks for the great tips!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542696413 Joshua Zerkel

      Jeannie, thanks for the great resource in “TreeSize Free!” 

  • milky1018

    Im starting to actually. I got obsessed on all these new gears coming up.

  • INeedANew3tbHarddrive

     I have 10 terabytes of data. 30000 ebooks (larger than most libraries) , 600 bluray movies (more than most video shops), 80 complete tv shows,  600gb of full FLAC album music collection.

  • Mr Eight-not-Eight

    Digital Hoarding is not that mess. Whenever you feel mess start a new digital life. So you can more confident in this ratherthan modifying your trash.

  • Kim

    Digital asset management is another way to solve this problem. My company just moved our assets into a DAM & we’re loving it.

  • Omar

    Most of these can be fixed with tools not by deleting. Why are you recommending that your clients delete their emails? That sounds like the bigger problem.

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