A 3-Step Cure for Digital Packrats, and How to Know If You’re One of Them

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I have a confession to make: until recently, I was a digital packrat.

While my outer life has become fairly simple, as I declutter my home and workspace, and my paper files have also become pretty simple, my digital life was a mess.

I had all kinds of files on my hard drive, just because I thought I might need them. I had all kinds of files in my email, because Gmail storage is so cheap (free) that I felt I didn’t need to delete anything. Photos, mp3s, video files, pdfs, word processing documents, spreadsheets, you name it, and I had a bunch of them somewhere.

Trouble is, there are costs to such packrattery. It can slow down your computer, it can complicate your life, it can cost you time in terms of productivity, and it can stress you out more than you know.

How do I know? Because I recently decluttered my digital life to a great extreme, and the relief and speed increases I’ve found since then have been enormous.

How to Know If You’re a Digital Packrat
The main way to know: 1) you feel that you should keep a lot of files “just in case”; 2) it takes you too long to find stuff; 3) your digital life is becoming complicated, with multiple email accounts, drives, storage mediums and either a mess of files or a mess of folders.

But here are a few symptoms:

  1. Do you have 20 or more folders and sub-folders in your documents folder on your hard drive?
  2. Is your list of Internet bookmarks long and overwhelming?
  3. Is your email program nearly full, or do you use more than one email account because of all the storage you need?
  4. Do you have multiple duplicates of photos, and is it hard to find a photo you need?
  5. Is your hard drive 75% full or more?
  6. Do you have multiple accounts for similar things, making it hard to find stuff?
  7. Are any of your digital file systems overwhelming?
  8. Do you have email from 5 years ago?
  9. Do you have project files from 2 years ago?
  10. Do you have folders of stuff to read that would take a year to actually read?

If you answered “yes” to more than one of these questions, more than likely, you’re a digital packrat. Welcome to the club!

Now, if being a digital packrat is OK with you, I am not disparaging you. But if you’d like to declutter your digital life and learn the simpler ways of a Zen Habits digital existence, see the next section for a cure and some practical tips based on my experience.

How to Cure Digital Packrattery, With Practical Tips
If you’re a digital packrat like I am, and want to be cured, there is a simple cure that I’ve gone through and recommend to everyone:

  1. Go through a massive purge. In the beginning, you’ll need to devote some time to purging files. Thirty minutes a day is a good time — put it in your calendar, and just spend 30 minutes purging everything you can. See the tips below for more details. When you’re done with your massive purge, it feels amazing! It’s worth the time you spend doing it.
  2. Aim for a simple digital life. Once you’re purged of all the clutter and junk, see if you can keep things simple. When you are tempted to file something, see if you can delete it instead. When it comes time to create another account for more storage, see if you can reduce your storage needs instead. At all turns, aim to simplify instead of complicate. This is more of a change in mindset than anything else.
  3. Develop purging routines. It’s important to do some regular house cleaning of your digital files. Just as you have to clean your house regularly, or it will become junk-ridden and cobweb-filled, you have to clean your digital house as well. Once a week or once a month, depending on the amount of stuff you amass, should be a good interval for purging. If you want to be really organized, develop a checklist of things to purge during these regular intervals.

This “cure” actually sounds simpler than it is in practice, as digital packrats face overwhelming tasks if they want to purge their files

  1. Target one folder at a time. If you can set aside some time each day for purging, then each day you should target a large folder. Start with the biggest ones and then work your way down. When I say “folders”, I mean anything that contains digital files or info. Email accounts, Flickr accounts, hard drives, USB flash drives, Internet bookmarks, My Documents sub-folders, etc.
  2. Choose only the important stuff, and trash the rest. Go through all the stuff in the folder you’re targeting (see Tip 1 above) and pick out only the most important stuff, only the super essential files. Put them in a separate, temporary folder. Once you’ve picked out the essential stuff, delete the rest. Put the essential stuff back where it belongs and delete the temporary folder. What this leaves you with is a lot less stuff in each folder — just the stuff you need. Sometimes, you can delete an entire folder — if you can, then do so.
  3. Simplify before organizing. Many people try to create complicated organizing systems for all of their stuff, in an attempt to get organized. But it’s much better to reduce your stuff, and to get it as simple as possible, before organizing it all. If you simplify enough, you might not even need to organize at all!
  4. Get organized: one place for everything. Once you’ve simplified, I suggest organizing so that everything you need is kept together, either in one place or as few places as possible. For example, you could organize all the information in your life in a personal wiki, creating different pages in the wiki for different types of info. Having one place for everything reduces the need to look for stuff. See also Monkeyboy’s 5 Ways to Manage Digital Packrattery.
  5. Reduce accounts. Same concept, but in this tip you should list out your different accounts for holding files and digital information, and try to analyze which ones are necessary and which ones can be eliminated. The fewer, the better.
  6. Simplify your feeds. If you’ve got 100 RSS feeds or more, chances are you’re being a packrat with them. Drop as many as possible, so the incoming information is reduced to a manageable amount. I’ve written about how to do that here, but since I wrote that article I’ve reduced my feeds down to 10.
  7. Clear out your inbox. Having an overloaded inbox is overwhelming. Use this method to reduce your inboxes and this one to clear them out.
  8. Clear out old emails. After you clear out your inbox, it is useful to clear out old messages. In Gmail, for example, you could create a filter that searched for all your email messages older than 6 months. Scan through this new folder, and delete all of the messages if possible. You could then do a second filter to find all types of media files (.jpg, .gif, .pdf, .mov, .mp3, .mpg, etc.) and then delete as many of these as possible. Using these steps, my Gmail account went from 25% full to the current 5%.
  9. Clear your desktop. I don’t have any icons on my computer’s desktop. It used to be littered with documents I was working on, shortcuts to applications I used, and just a whole bunch of junk. I deleted or sorted through all of those, and now my desktop is nice a clear. Simple, calming, and it makes your computer run faster. Instead, use a simple filing system where you have a folder for downloads, another for things you’re currently working on, another for read/review, and another for archives. For shortcuts to applications, use a program like AutoHotKey to make keyboard shortcuts to all the applications you use — much faster than shortcuts on the desktop.
  10. Delete multiple photos. It’s useful for both amateur photographers and pros to cull through their photos, not only to simplify but to force you to analyze your photos and just choose the best.
  11. Stop saving junk. Once you’ve cleared out your old files and emails and accounts and your desktop, the key is to keep them clear. Every time you’re about to save something, ask yourself if this is really valuable info, or if it’s basically junk. Toss the junk.
  12. Defrag your hard drive. Once you’ve gone through all your old files on your hard drive, it’s good to run a defrag utility so that your drive is organized efficiently and runs faster. See the Slacker Manager’s article for more.
  13. Put purging reminders in your calendar. To make purging a routine, set reminders in your calendar program. Every week or two, or every month, are good intervals, depending on your needs. But make it a regular thing, and you’ll be living the simple digital life from now on.