• Robb G. Best

Are You a "Digital Hoarder"?

When we think of hoarders, the image that likely comes to us is of a house or apartment unit piled so high with old newspapers and junk that it is almost impossible to see the walls. Some of us might find ourselves judging the people who would create such living conditions for themselves. But quick: how many emails are in your inbox? How many files are you holding onto "just in case"? Hoarding behaviors, when we include the digital world, are more common than we might think, writes Nick Neave in The Conversation.

By surveying hundreds of people, Neave and his colleague found that many people engage in what one paper described as "the accumulation of digital files to the point of loss of perspective which eventually results in stress and disorganisation," specifically in the workplace. In a second study, Neave and his colleague interviewed employees in two different large organizations and were able to sketch out four basic categories of digital hoarder:

"Collectors" are in control of their data, organizing it in systematic ways. "Accidental hoarders" don't have control over their data; they're disorganized and don't even know what it is they have. "Hoarders by instruction" retains data on behalf of their company, even when much of it could be deleted. Lastly, "anxious hoarders" worry about deleting their data because they've developed strong emotional ties to it.

If one of those types sounds familiar, it might be time to make some changes. True, with digital hoarding, you don't have to worry about getting crushed by falling stacks of old papers, but that doesn't mean there aren't serious consequences. Neave lays out several in his article.

For one thing, there's the inefficiency argument. Constantly wading through tons and tons of files to find the one file you need takes time away from other tasks you could be doing, including more enjoyable activities than file-hunting.

In addition, the more data you hold onto, the more devastating a cyberattack could be. Depending on the type of data you accumulate at your job, this could even involve the personal information of other people, which could get you into hot water.

Lastly, consider the environmental costs. Just because your files don't physically clutter your living area doesn't mean they don't take up space somewhere. Computer servers require energy to run, and even more energy to keep them cool. The more we hold onto our useless data, the bigger the computer servers we'll need.

As for how to go about combating these habits, Neave has found that simply asking someone how many files they think they have, and then giving them the actual number, can be a huge wake-up call, forcing them to reflect on their digital habits. He also notes that hoarding behaviors are associated with anxiety and insecurity, and that "addressing the source of those negative emotions" might help to clear things up. Workplaces should consider reducing email traffic to the essentials, providing clear guidelines on what should be retained and deleted, and by providing training on data responsibilities in the workplace.

With just a little forethought and organization, you can stop your e-hoarding problem before you are (metaphorically) flattened by (metaphorical) cascading files.

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