5 Ways To Clear Out The Clutter Are You A Digital Packrat?

Spring cleaning has long passed me by. Now it's the height of summer and the email inbox that needed a serious purge months ago is still overflowing with unopened newsletters, notes that still need a reply and stale back and forths that should have been trashed months ago. Let's not even talk about the state of my iPhone photo library or the glut of texts that I can't seem to delete. It seems that I'm not alone in my resistance to organize and clear out all of this electronic clutter. When given a choice between cleaning the toilet or cleaning out their email inbox, 20% of Americans told Yahoo they'd prefer to pick up the scrub brush. Let's face it, sometimes it's just hard to let go.

It's not surprising why. The sheer volume of email that we are sending and receiving each day is hard to manage. The tech marketing research firm Radicati Group (www.radicati.com) estimates that this year, 155 billion personal and business emails will be sent and received worldwide. That's up from 139 billion last year. The company also says the average person sends out 8 emails per day and receives 31 back. This adds up to more 14,235 emails per year not including SPAM! No wonder we can't keep track of all of them.

It's the same story with photos. We are taking more pictures than ever before: 86% of US households own a digital camera. And when it comes to text messaging, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that on average, adults send 10 texts a day (teens send 50!). The overload makes it very easy for all of this stuff to get out of control very quickly and then the task of organizing it can feel daunting. Even though people know that they can back up data, they get anxious about accidentally deleting something they may need later. I think there is also something angst provoking about trashing something you cannot physically touch. You have to be ready to say goodbye or to put it aside. (If this is your situation, see the tip about the "10 day" folder below from one of the psychologists on A&E's "Hoarders.")

Now that I've identified the root of the problem, I'm starting to work on getting my own e-hoarding issues under control. Here's an action list I've put together an action list to start addressing the problem:

1. UNSUBSCRIBE

One of the biggest culprits of email overload is something known as Bacon. This is the opposite of SPAM, which is unsolicited email. Bacon is actually email you gave your consent to receive like those newsletters you thought you would enjoy or the promotional emails sent out by retailers that you get when you shop online unless you explicitly refuse them. You need to take a few moments and unsubscribe from these. The company Unsubscribe.com estimates that every person on the planet receives at least 4 Bacon emails a day, which adds up to 7300 per year! If you only delete, they will continue to clog up your account. SPAM filters will not work on these because you agreed to receive them in the first place (even if you did it inadvertently!) If you are using Yahoo mail, there is actually a new Unsubscribe tool that will contact the sender for you and take your name off the mailing list. Or you can forward the email you don't want to mail@unsubscribe.com or go to Unsubscribe.com and download software that will work with your mail system.

2. CREATE FOLDERS AND DELETE THE REST

Designate specific folders for low and high priority mail. This way all of your travel deals don't get mixed in with your job-hunting emails or recipes, etc. Put important correspondence in a clearly labeled folder where you can find it. If you're not ready to completely trash old email or remove it from your inbox, psychologist Dr. Darnita Payden (www.drclutter.com) suggests you create a "ten day" folder for these items. You can use this trick for photos, videos, or anything that's taking up virtual space in your life. Put the items into the folder for ten days. If you haven't looked for the email, photo, etc., it probably isn't something vital and you can either toss it or file it away.

3. GET ON A SCHEDULE

You wouldn't allow your home or office mailbox to overflow and spill out onto the ground so think of your inbox in the same way. Check email at specific times during the day and try to do it uninterrupted. Sometimes it helps to work off-line while you reading and composing so that you are not distracted by incoming mail. Respond, file or delete right away. Put yourself on a weekly or monthly schedule for transferring photos from your camera or smart phone and also for taking an inventory of you apps. Don't forget to delete text messages, too. Think of this as digital housekeeping.

4. PICK UP THE PHONE!

We have control over how much electronic correspondence with send and receive. Set some rules for yourself. After 3 emails back and forth, pick up the phone or walk down the hall to have a conversation. Consider a digital Sabbath or a period during the week in which you completely unplug. You will be amazed at how quickly your inbox shrinks.

5. SEND IT TO THE CLOUD

Cloud computing or the ability to store your content on servers instead of your computer's hard drive makes it accessible from anywhere. It is a very easy way to back up email, documents, photos, etc. that you really care about and it also means you can get to it from your phone or tablet or any computer anywhere in the world. Doing this with photos is really easy if you have a smart phone. There are lots of apps that allow you to upload directly from your device. I use Flickr myself. But you can choose from hundreds of others including Shutterfly, DropBox and if you use Apple, the MobileMe Gallery.

There is so much more to say on this topic. But now that I'm writing about all this, I've got to sit down and get started! That's really the key isn't it? We have to make the time to sit down and focus on it. I'm going to try hard to go over my email inboxes weekly and better about uploading photos once a month.

How about you? Are you hoarding old email, texts, apps you don't use? What's your plan?