Is digital hoarding your thing?

We’ve all seen the TV programmes about compulsive hoarders – houses full-to-overflowing with decades-old newspapers, toys, books, rancid takeaway containers and pizza boxes. People living in such cramped and overcrowded conditions that they have to literally burrow their way around their own homes.

It’s all too easy to laugh off these folks as crackpots – it would never happen to us, would it? Well, perhaps it already is happening, but not in the way you might think. Digital hoarding is becoming an increasing problem for many of us.

Digital hoarding – retaining ‘unnecessary or irrelevant’ electronic data

Digital hoarding is defined as “an excessive acquisition of and reluctance to delete electronic material no longer valuable to the user, including the mass storage of digital artefacts and the retention of unnecessary or irrelevant electronic data.”

Those 500 emails in your inbox? That’s digital hoarding. The thousands of photos in your iCloud account? Digital hoarding.

Other tell-tale signs: email newsletters or subscription mails you never check and leave unopened for weeks, perhaps months; desktop shortcuts, images, random files used only once; a bursting downloads folder you haven’t the heart (or stomach!) to clean up; dozens of browser tabs open at once or a bookmarks/reading list which knows no bounds. The list goes on.

Cloud storage – out of sight, out of mind

Cloud storage (and indeed storage space on your local hard drive) is readily available and relatively inexpensive, which allows us to avoid confronting which digital ‘assets’ we actually need. Photos, emails, documents, memes, videos all squirreled away, never to be looked at again, no longer useful or relevant for many of us.

Even more visible content – unused apps on your phone, myriad desktop icons – are signs you are a digital hoarder. Not to mention that drawer full of old phones, USB drives, cables and chargers you haven’t used for years, retained ‘just in case’. In case of what?

Duplicate files on the same device? Signs of being a hoarder, not to mention utterly pointless – backing up files on the same device is a huge waste of time, if the drive fails, you lose two copies instead of one and still end up with nothing backed up! (You’d be surprised how many people do this!)

Is digital hoarding a disorder?

Digital hoarding is not (yet) recognised as a disorder in the same way as tactile hoarding disorder but it’s definitely a ‘thing’. And more importantly, it can make us feel just as stressed and overwhelmed as physical clutter.

“When you talk to real hoarders and say, ‘Look, why do you find it difficult to get rid of stuff?’ one of the first things that they say is, ‘Well, it might come in useful in the future’ – which is exactly the same kind of thing that people in work are saying about their emails,” says Nick Neave, director of a hoarding research group at Northumbria University.

But why are we in this mess in the first place? According to Jo Ann Oravec, professor of IT at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, platforms like Google Drive are “open temptations” for hoarding because they make it so easy for us to accumulate files and almost never prompt us to review them. “The sense that something is retrievable if we just store it somewhere provides a false sense of security.”

Fear of missing out?

The fear of deleting an important document affects many of us, as well as an inability to organise our digital content. It’s far easier to simply store files on an out of sight/out of mind basis rather than actually having to take the time to review, evaluate and delete unnecessary content.

A survey by Summit Hosting, a provider of managed cloud solutions, has shown that the average American has 582 saved smartphone pictures, nearly 83 bookmarked websites, 21 desktop icons, and 13 unused phone apps… plus 645 gigabytes of material on external storage. Extrapolate the world over and you can see it’s becoming a big problem.

Every 90 minutes, 150,000 TERAbytes of new data is created across the world. Each of the terabytes is equal to around 310,000 photos or 86 million pages of Word documents.

Tips for a streamlined digital world

So what can we do about this? How can we do a digital declutter without driving ourselves around the bend?

Take a break – take a social media ‘sabbatical’ once in a while. Forget FOMO, there is no need to keep adding to your cloud – step away from the updates and embrace the new-found sense of calm.

Clean up your inbox – set message filters to move new emails to specific folders, go through and unsubscribe from never-read newsletters or special offer emails and delete read mail or historic archived stuff you have no more need for.

Schedule a regular audit – make time every month to go through all of your files, documents, photos, bookmarks and apps and ask, “Am I ever going to use this?” If the answer is no, get rid – simple.

Detox your downloads folder – go through every week and get rid of documents, installers, anything you have already used or no longer need. This stuff takes up valuable space on your hard drive.

Check for duplicates – download a free duplicate finder app like CCleaner to trawl your system and safely dispose of duplicate files, again reducing clutter and freeing up space on your device.

Clean up your desktop – every time you log on, your desktop is the first thing you see, together with all the dozens of files, folders and shortcuts you’ve checked on there without a second thought. Go through and reorganise, dragging files into appropriate folders or create new ones – ‘Pending/In Progress’, ‘Correspondence’, ‘Financial’ or ‘Done’ for instance, and delete anything no longer relevant or which you’ve already dealt with and no longer need.

Do a social media audit – have you acquired a vast collection of social media “friends” that includes people you don’t really know or have very little interest in? Followed Twitter accounts you no longer care about or have never really looked at in the first place?

What about the random person who accepted the friend request that you sent by mistake? Now they keep popping up on your timeline but you’re too embarrassed to unfriend them.

A clear out of your ‘friends’ may seem a bit mean to old friends you intended to stay in touch with, but it’s been years and you still haven’t. It’s time to ‘unfriend’.


Don’t be scared to confront your digital clutter. Removing things will likely create a psychological hole which wasn’t there before, which can be unnerving, but just think of it as freeing up space in your mind to create room for new ideas and you’ll have a sense of liberation to boot.

We want to help ourselves to make sure what we see as the ‘good’ stuff rises above the ‘bad’ or the ‘unnecessary. When you cycle through your photos on your phone, you’ll only see the ‘good’ ones. When you open your email, you’ll only see the ones you want or need to see. And you’ll find it much easier to locate files, photos or documents when you cut out the chaff.

Go on, give it a whirl…

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