Ask the Expert: Delete and declutter to avoid digital hoarding

About a year ago, our world was shifted online. Meetings, classes, work and everything in between were suddenly on the computer, which means that most documents became electronic, too.

To prevent a computer document clog, Indiana University Libraries University Archives director Dina Kellams gives her expert tips on how to steer clear of digital hoarding.

Use the delete key

Whenever a new email rolls in, one strategy is to read them right away, Kellams said, so they can be deleted, filed or responded to shortly after.

"Try to take care of any files or emails as quickly as you can," Kellams said. "If it's something you can take care of in two minutes, do so, and then delete it if you do not need to retain that document or email."

This creates a cleaner and more organized email inbox. Kellams said it's a good idea to spend five minutes a day cleaning out documents and emails.

Email can also be set up so incoming messages are automatically sorted into folders based on user preferences. When related emails are all in one place, it's easier to mass delete or navigate through the inbox.

The delete key can also save your computer space. Delete any unnecessary apps that take up data and space on your desktop, Kellams said.

Photos

Most people love to capture their memories and have easy access to them on their phone. However, having thousands of pictures can take up space and make it more difficult to find your family photos among all the screenshots and Twitter memes.

Kellams recommends picking out the best photos and deleting the rest.

"That's a real challenge for archivists," Kellams said. "Do I really need to keep photos that show a slight shift in position from the original?"

Kellams said to erase duplicates, which can add up over time. Go through your phone periodically and decide whether the pictures without people in them -- such as memes, screenshots, etc. -- are worth taking up phone storage.

A student wearing a mask sits at a table working on a laptopView print quality image
To prevent digital hoarding, start by filing through emails as soon as you get them, and decide whether they need to stay in your inbox. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Document damage control

For remote workers and students taking virtual classes, PDFs and other documents can constantly pile up from professors, co-workers or friends. It can be difficult to organize these electronic files without a proper system.

"Archivists organize collections into series of like materials, and you can do the same," Kellams said. "Think about your project as series. Try to get everything organized so it's as clean as possible. Not only does it make it easier for you to find it, but it also might get rid of anxiety you might feel when you look at your desktop or this huge folder of documents."

Kellams said that starting with separate long-term and short-term project folders can be helpful. Within each of those folders, create additional folders for each project so they can easily be found.

As soon as a new file comes in, save it to its designated folder to avoid being overwhelmed by a cluttered desktop.

For important documents that you want to keep safe, back them up on the platform of your choosing to ensure that they won't get swallowed up by computer clutter.