E-Hoarding Is Unhealthy

Psychologists are right: Workers must organize and delete their e-mails—or risk cluttering their mental space. Pro or con?

Pro: Don’t Litter in Your Electronic Yard

You say, “So what?” to hoarding gigabytes of mostly useless information. I say, “Get real.”

Information has never been easier to acquire. E-mails fly across the world in milliseconds. The average worker fields more than 100 every day, and you say e-hoarding is healthy? Is clutter healthy?

E-clutter, which results from e-hoarding, is costly, both mentally and monetarily. We have the same capacity to digest information as our forefathers, but the amount of information zinging its way into our lives is increasing exponentially.

According to the research firm Basex, information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation. It adds time to normal tasks and creates stress.

A recent survey by the technology market research firm Radicati Group reported that “the typical corporate e-mail user sends and receives about 105 e-mail messages per day.” That is a lot of e-mail to process, categorize, or store. Sorting through old messages and rummaging through our in-boxes like we’re after the Holy Grail strips hours from each day.

Additionally, the anxiety that goes with having to scavenge through thousands of pieces of information, hoping that you’ve responded to all your e-mails, can be overwhelming.

Here’s what it all comes down to: The more you save, the more you have to sift through. The less everything is organized, the more time you’ll waste and the more stressed you’ll become.

Organize your e-clutter, trash stuff you don’t need, and free yourself to work on what truly matters.

Con: Why Delete That Which Takes Up No Space?

In an age of ever-increasing computing power and ever-decreasing storage costs, is there really any harm in ignoring the delete button? The bottom line is the volume of information isn’t the issue; findability is. If you can find whatever you’re looking for instantaneously, the total volume of information stored doesn’t matter.

We can draw an analogy to the greater Web. The size of the Web continues to grow exponentially, but it causes no problem, because Google has solved the findability problem. We don’t wish for fewer Web pages out there. Instead, we care about finding the right Web page in the shortest amount of time. No matter how much we obsess about creating and organizing our bookmarks, in almost all cases, searching Google is the shortest route to the best answer.

Heavy users of e-mail see upwards of 200 to 300 messages per day. Add documents, spreadsheets, and presentations and this number balloons. How does the average professional know what will not prove to be valuable information months and years later?

As businesses continue to use e-mail as the primary form of communication, keeping a digital trail of conversations and documents is critical, making deletion an increasingly irresponsible action. Findability remains the key, and today’s impressive search and retrieval tools for e-mail and personal files make virtually any digital information available with just a few keystrokes.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

James Barringer

I've worked in data businesses for about 18 years, and you'd be amazed--honestly--at how much useful data has been deleted just to save a little hard-disk space. I delete the absolutely useless (spam), but "hoard" anything that might have even the smallest chance of coming up in the future. Our firm autosaves messages a month old, so my email is never cluttered. I have been saved many times by using the search function on company message vaults--knowing I would never have thought to save those messages if I hadn't done so through benign neglect.

Erica B

These days, keeping a clean inbox is nearly impossible. As an undergraduate, I could delete something and it would not come back to haunt me. But since I started my job, you never know what could happen! I don't think it's fair to have to practice inbox "conservation" when I deal with new information hourly. I'm with John, the name of the game is findability.

Ed Sixt

I am not getting paid to write this. If X1 did not exist, Marsha's point is "more correct" Fortunately X1 does exist; this not only makes finding things very easy but also for me, I don't bother filing (with some exceptions). I filed for years, then finally trusted X1 enough that I don't bother. Sent emails are cc'd to my inbox, so all emails are in one place (except for archive). Works great. I wish CRM systems would take note. Their queries are archaic.

Mathew Sevin

Con: There is no need to delete e-mails in this day and age. You can archive everything. Your inbox will not be cluttered, but should you need to find something you can do that too. Everything these days should live in a cloud. Things do not have to be deleted. Unless you are a politician trying to hide something, the delete button is outdated, and in fact almost useless.

Zach

Despite the clutter, email, and the content within said email these days is as good as a signature. In my current industry (financial services), one's work is constantly being audited and backup is perpetually being requested. With that said, maintaining record of old correspondence is critical. If a third party is looking for an attachment or an email chain that links to information on a 12-16 month lag, you better have that information available instantly. Thus, as mentioned above, efficient access to archived material is the ultimate solution here.

Erik

I agree with John. It's impossible to predict today the information that people will seek tomorrow. As the saying goes, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Search engines provide tools for filtering through unwanted pieces of information relatively easily, so people can avoid those articles they don't want. The internet isn't an attic; we have space to store that information. Personally, I have never encountered any significant issues in findability using search engines such as Google.

Jacquie E

I couldn't agree more with John. I can think of countless occasions when I've need to refer to an old email I had sent or received for vital information. The issue isn't too much data, it's being able to access that data easily.

george m

Nothing is more frustrating then needing to reference an email and realizing you carelessly deleted it just to save a little bit of space. I agree with John.

Rob

You've never heard of mail filters? All you have to do is click the check mark to highlight all, and the archive.(Gmail). I'm pretty sure most of the other providers have filters too. Even inbox express had them! And gmail copied all my folders when I switched over. I don't delete anything. In fact, I needed a number off a four year old email about 2 months ago. E hoarding is bad..... just get organized.

AC

"$900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation"

... is just a big number that I don't trust at all.

I feel that old information is often very useful to me, even if, at the time after reading and not at all thinking about deleting that info, I didn't think it would be! By searching through emails by date, subject, or keyword (something you can't do with ordinary unhealthy "clutter"), I find personal info I need to know all the time that's not publicly available on the internet.

Maybe the article hints at more important advice, which is to organize important emails into categories, like "work," "extended family," "pictures," or "embarrassing emails from friends".

Find a good email provider and then use their content freely. Don't give yourself yet another organizational task.

sue

I agree that it's useful to save old emails if they can be organized. It's more important to have a good spam filter. Also, it's helpful if institutional senders of email (e.g., universities, large employers) could exercise some discretion over who gets email about what subjects or events. That way they could avoid deluging every user on the system with emails that may be irrelevant to them.

Bill Kirwin

A couple of points:
1. The price of storage is not declining faster than unstructured data (email, documents, etc.) is growing. It's not even close and certainly not free.
2. Keeping everything in the inbox is like having a huge junk drawer in your kitchen. You need a simple, intuitive, easy way to get emails into a folder system, ideally one where all your other stuff is--like My Documents. Tip: Use F12 in Outlook to store emails in folders with relevant Word, Excel, and PowerPoints.
3. It's not all about you. Your company has to bear the responsibility and cost for supporting the server and storage infrastructure, backing up all those files, deduplicating, archiving, providing security and compliance. A small amount of effort by the email community can save huge amounts of cost, risk, and liability.
4. And the benefit for you is quicker location of info, better email performance (ever notice how long email takes to load when the inbox is huge?), and most important, the latest version of the correspondence or file you are looking for.
5. You can wait for your information to become intractable or for a silver bullet to sort it out for you, or for your company to institute compliance policies to enforce better practices--or you can devise a better approach today.

The best resource I have seen on this topic is a book called The Hamster Revolution.

John

AC,

Think of the amount of time you spend each day distracted by emails, text messages, phone calls, status updates, searching through electronic folders, and writing comments on articles that have no relevance to your job. Now multiply that by every knowledge worker in the US economy and multiply that times the average salary.

The keywords are at least 900 billion. It's an underestimate if anything.

McGroarty

If one even notices that he's accumulated huge amounts of email, documents, etc, then it's time to select a new mail reader, document manager, etc. For most types of office data, searching replaced sorting ages ago.

KN

Yes, the professionals should organize their tasks and wherever necessary should delete unnecessary emails.

Monica Seeley

Bill Kerwin makes some good points. It's all well and good that Google allows you infinite storage, but that uses valuable resources to process the information.

We all send and receive far too much email, much of which is irrelevant. That's the stuff we should be deleting.

Another area to slim down the email clutter is chains. You just need the last/latest entry. For some ideas on how ot manage these see
http://blog.mesmo.co.uk/2011/10/email-overload-dealing-with-email.html

Yes, you need to keep key business emails, but what about all those which are kept just to play 'cover my backside'?

Poor email behaviour is often wallpaper over much deeper cracks in the management infrastructure. Hoarding emails to 'cmb' is in this category.

Prioritising your information needs and savvy filtering can help you achieve and keep to a slim inbox.

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!