Queues. Lists. Bookmarks. Playlists. It’s not enough that we can fill our homes with stacks of paper representing stored information. Now we can even fill the intangible world of the Cloud with electronic representations of information! It follows us everywhere. Even in our sleep, the junk mail, spam, email, newsletter subscriptions, and algorithmic recommendations of new TV shows, books, articles, movies, music, and products keep coming at us. They’re etheric arrows aiming straight at our thought bubbles. What are we going to do with it all? How are we going to keep up?
When are we going to get “caught up”?
There is no “catching up” to anything. It’s the Catch-22 of journaling. The more time I spend trying to track the details of my life for posterity, the more time I must dedicate to journaling, until the day I find myself meta-journaling about my journaling habit. There isn’t anything left to write about except the process of writing. The same is true of managing the constant influx of new information. If we genuinely try to “keep up” with all of it, eventually that’s the only thing we’ll do.
This is what we mean when we talk about focusing on the past, the present, or the future. Past Self has made a lot of decisions for us about desirable ways to spend our time. Past Self loves to try to assign us binge-watching episodes, magazine articles, books, and especially recipes. We look at Past Self’s stacks, shrug, and address them to Future Self. My grandmother, for example, has been reading through all the books she already owns but hadn’t “gotten around to” yet. Some are from the 1970s. This gives me pause, because I’m working on the same project, and I have books in my stack that I bought about a decade ago.
On a scale of 1-10, I’m probably at around a 7 for information hoarding. We do paperless billing. I do my writing digitally. I’ve been working on reading through my book collection and redefining what I consider a “reference” book. I’ve been going through cookbooks (my biggest area of clutter) and winnowing them. We don’t have cable, and the most TV we’ll watch is a purchased season of a TV series every couple of months. So I’m getting better. I do, however, still have an ungainly collection of notebooks, loose notes, and more index cards than a casino has playing cards. There are about 3600 recipes in my digital recipe collection. I have 89 e-books and audio books on my digital library wish list. Well, for one library. In the interest of full disclosure, there are 560 on my other library account. As for saved articles, I have no idea, but it’s a lot more than 560.
I understand that I have assigned my Future Self at least three years’ worth of reading. That’s assuming that I never see another book or article that interests me. If snow fell in hell, or pigs flew, there would undoubtedly be articles published about these events, and I would undoubtedly bookmark them and plan to read them “later.” In other words, I haven’t yet gotten my head around the idea that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH TIME. I can only pretend I’ll be able to “catch up.” I can only pretend that time has no meaning in certain circumstances. I can only pretend that there is a wormhole, which I will find, which will enable me to read as much as I want outside the flow of years, minutes, and hours.
My areas of info hoarding are pretty specific. I have no real limits on my writing notes, even though I’ve already determined that paper notes are unsafe. My sole copies of these ideas and bits of reference material are totally vulnerable to loss, water damage, or fire. I can’t access them from remote locations, which is bad, because most of my work is not done at home. This is an example of a specific problem, with a specific solution, for a specific purpose. My issue with no-limit, no-boundary leisure reading is on the opposite end of the scale. I don’t have specific purposes for reading books and articles; I just want to. My stack of paper notes, notebooks, files, and index cards is finite and measurable. My queue of pleasure reading material is more or less infinite.
The sort of info hoarding among my clients is all over the map. Almost everyone has at least a little trouble organizing papers and electronic information, even regular folk who are not chronically disorganized. People who have no other clutter often have paper clutter. There are some common areas of focus, though.
Mail (real, important mail)
Mail (junk mail, often disguised as real mail)
Old academic papers (notes, notebooks, handouts)
Magazine or newspaper clippings
Personal letters / cards / e-mail
Invitations that need decisions
Keepsakes (invitations, event programs, favors, souvenirs, ticket stubs)
The prime question when evaluating information is, WHAT DO I PLAN TO DO WITH IT? Obviously, important mail needs to get processed. Bills need to be paid, checks need to be deposited, bank statements need to be reconciled, subpoenas need to be answered. Invitations can be ignored until the date has passed, a habit we indulge until the day we ourselves schedule something for which we desire RSVPs. EVERYTHING ELSE can sit indefinitely. That’s fine – there’s nothing necessarily wrong with owning a stack of paper – except that paper has a nefarious tendency to get on top of more important paper and hide it. It takes constant vigilance to track and process the important stuff.
What do we think we’re going to do with our old academic papers? I scanned mine and put them on a thumb drive. I have never needed any of them. I think I thought they might come in handy one day, if I met a younger person who wanted an example of a certain type of academic paper. I saved scanned images if they had a grade I liked scrawled on them. “Looky, an A!” Needless to say, though I tend to have a lot of college-aged kids in my life at any given moment, none of them has ever asked to see my old papers. I suspect I’m keeping them as proof that I put myself through school. The point, though, is that we learned that material. Education should be a starting point, not an ending point. It’s true that I’ve gone on to read and learn a lot more about history since I got my degree. I can’t learn much from reading my own papers or my own notes. If I went back to grad school at some point, I wouldn’t be pursuing a master’s in history; I already made that decision. I save my old notes because they fit on the thumb drive, and I don’t have to make the decision to delete them based on space.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the photographs? At a certain point, I transitioned to digital photographs. Everything I have in a hard copy is old. I have at least 100x more photographs of the people I care about now than I did 20 years ago. They’re of better quality and they tend to reflect moments of daily life rather than artificial poses and awkward smiles. I also take scads of photos of random things, because it’s so easy and because I always have a camera in my pocket now. The aluminum box that contains my photo collection is almost never opened. I seem to remember looking through everything in it about 7 years ago, when I did a burning ceremony, but those photos are not a part of my daily life. If they were, I would have put them in frames. (Frames, not flames).
What do we think we’re going to do with all the recipes? I’m probably the worst offender in the world when it comes to clipping recipes. Not only do I have the 3600 digital recipes, I have no fewer than four recipe apps on my phone. I also have a box of recipes on index cards and a collection of roughly 50 cookbooks. I’m not going to run out! The funniest thing about this is that I don’t always use recipes anymore. We tend to cook the same vegetables in the same ways. I probably only test out a new recipe about once a month now. Every now and then, I freak out about how many untested recipes I have. Even if I had done one a day since then, I still would not have made a dent.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the magazine or newspaper clippings? This is a big one for a lot of people. My issue is that I think I’m going to read them all one day. Since I always bookmark more each day than I read, I could only “catch up” if I quit bookmarking anything for the rest of the year. I’m better off giving up on the older stuff and limiting myself to a certain amount of reading time per day. I have yet to make that happen. For many people, the issue is rather one of preserving information they’ve already read. They want to save it. For what, though? What are they going to do with the information? How are they going to let it change their lives? Are they researching a specific project? If not, well, my philosophy is to ‘read and delete.’ I tend to want to forward everything to everyone, but I can’t force other people to be interested in things they aren’t. If I read it and it doesn’t make enough of an impression for me to remember it, change my mind, or change my behavior, eh, easy come easy go.
What do we think we’re going to do with the letters, cards, and email? It turns out that a lot of people get these personal missives and freeze. We can’t bring ourselves to return the favor and write back. When we do this (talking to myself here), we’re effectively rejecting the other person’s gesture of love and connection. They don’t see it as shyness or a desire to wait until the proper attention can be summoned to do it justice. They just see it as a disconnect. Old letters often represent a broken love affair, vanished friendship, or family connection that could have been made stronger. We hang on to these tokens out of grief and regret. Far better to reach out by other means, rebuild connections, and let the tokens go.
Invitations that need decisions are in the same category. Delay the decision too long and the decision has been made. REJECTED AND DENIED. We let ourselves off the hook. Often, our default response is ‘no.’ We have to double check and make sure that ‘no’ is really the setting we want for life. We’ll never know what would have happened if we had shown up, unless we do show up.
Business cards also represent potential connections and decisions that need to be made. So much of the time, we take someone’s card, and then never follow through. That’s fine – a business card is a very inexpensive, low-risk form of advertising – but perhaps we can start making the decisions earlier in the process. We don’t have to keep these cards forever. Most people have some kind of web presence if we look.
What do we think we’re going to do with the souvenirs and mementos? This can be a dangerous area. Almost anything can be construed as a souvenir. I saved an all-day lollipop from a trip to Disneyland for about 10 years. For some reason, I thought that would be a great souvenir, even though I had also saved the ticket stubs. Then I found this sucker again. (See what I did there?) It was melted and stuck all over everything. It had in fact ruined other things I had intended to save. I’m really lucky my papers weren’t swarming with ants. As with many things, keeping clutter left me worse off than getting rid of it.
Dealing with the flow of information is a problem that will never end. It’s like laundry, except that laundry doesn’t follow you into the Cloud. It helps to make categorical decisions. Why would I want to keep old school papers? Why would I want to save clippings or recipes? How often am I going to dedicate an hour of my life to looking through old photos or yearbooks? Which types of events am I never going to miss, and which will I always avoid? When we have figured out why we’re tracking or keeping information, we can start with what arrives from that day forward. Whether we ever get around to going through the older stuff is more of a philosophical question.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.