SEATTLE -– As co-owner of RE-PC, a business that recycles and reuses electronics, Mark Dabek deals with aisles and piles of computer guts and tech tools -- the physical incarnation of digital clutter.
But it’s a different kind of digital clutter -– the kind found inside his computer -– that’s giving Dabek a real-life headache.
“I just can’t keep up with it,” Dabek said when asked about his overflowing email inbox.
He is not alone. Once upon a time, clutter piled up on our desks, out in the open. But these days, more and more clutter is stacking up inside of our computers.
Think of all the ways people can contact you: email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message, Skype, text message and more.
“Oh, and you can also call if you want,” said Clarissa Malone with a laugh.
Most people own several email accounts these days. Lora Swift, owner of Hotwire Online Coffeehouse in West Seattle, can count nine email addresses. And every account gets volumes of messages a day.
“It was 16,000 emails that aren’t read in my main email!” Malone said.
On top of that, email security firm Trend Micro said the average user has enough stuff on his or her hard drive to fill the back up a pickup truck with stacks of paper 250 to 500 times over.
Organizational expert Elizabeth Bowman believes all that clutter is clogging more than computers.
“Digital clutter’s actually creating lots of problems because it’s wasting people’s time,” Bowman said.
As owner of Innovatively Organized, the bulk of Bowman’s business centers around digital organization, helping clients like Jeanne Kirby.
Kirby has an organized business life, but struggles more with her email, which had more than 32,000 unread emails in it.
“It feels a little haphazard and I miss things sometimes,” Kirby said.
The messages dated back to 2007, and about half of them came from retailers. So Bowman told her to put everything from before 2012 into a separate folder, then create a message rule that sends future emails from retailers directly into a special shopping folder.
“Then when you’re about to go shopping, it’s all sitting there waiting for you, kind of like clipping coupons,” Bowman told Kirby.
As for the rest of the emails coming into Kirby's inbox, Bowman advised her to immediately tackle any messages that can be dealt with in two minutes or less. The rest, she said, should be saved to a folder to be dealt with by either the “End of the Day” or “End of the Week.”
Bowman also advised people to turn off the automated pop-up that notifies computer users when a new email has arrived.
“You’re essentially saying, ‘I’m living my day just reacting to every single thing that comes my direction,’” Bowman said. Instead, she said people should set times to check email -– for example, during the first 15 minutes of each hour.
Bowman also encouraged Kirby to organize her digital photos in computer folders, sorting them chronologically and creating categories like “Vacation” and “Birthdays.”
She suggested doing the same for documents.
And what about trying to keep up with all of the social media accounts many people maintain? Bowman advised using a service like HootSuite or TweetDeck, which pull multiple accounts into one place.
Phone apps can also cause clutter. The average smartphone users has 65 apps installed but only uses 15 a week.
“What we like to tell people is you don’t need every to-do list app that’s out there,” Bowman said.
Finally, a number of people have started to declare email bankruptcy, which means they are either walking away from email accounts or are deleting everything in them.
“For the record, I do not recommend it,” Bowman said.
Instead, she recommended spending time organizing and managing an email account ... because you never know when you will need an old message from a few years back.