It’s possible I have a problem. A little one. I’m getting ready to upgrade my electronics, and in the process, I’m realizing that there’s an awful lot to migrate between devices.
...sorry, where was I? I just stopped to download another ebook I had on hold. Oh, yes! Information hoarding! Let’s see some metrics.
6,152 photos and 56 videos at 5.81 GB
14 ebooks checked out and 42 on hold
A wish list of 1,693 books between five libraries
20 audio books at 12.16 GB
795 podcast episodes at 35.89 GB (I played through an entire episode while counting)
574 bookmarked articles
69 open tabs
The most interesting thing about this list is that it’s all basically imaginary. Well, everything we think we have to do, use, consume, read, or otherwise perform is imaginary. It’s in our heads. I’m not going to cease to exist if I skip a podcast episode. The point is that my information hoarding does not take up any more physical space than the confines of my phone. It doesn’t weigh any more just because I’m using over 100 GB of data. It doesn’t cost any more, either. As far as indulgences go, it’s pretty tame.
Information hoarding usually does take up space, and quite a significant amount. I started realizing this when I started digitizing everything. It occurred to me that almost everything I own can be digitized:
Movies, TV shows, and workout programs
Business cards and address books
Check registers, bank statements, receipts, all other financial info
Keepsakes and mementos in photographic form
Almost all office supplies
All I really need is basic furniture, clothing, housewares, cleansers, and a week’s worth of groceries. Oh, and some power outlets, of course.
My chronically disorganized clients struggle with information management more than anything else. It starts with the junk mail. My clients “scoop and stuff” on a regular basis. They’ll have boxes full of plastic grocery bags, and at least 80% of the contents of the bags will be junk mail and those stupid coupon newspapers. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that about 20% of the contents of those bags consists of truly important, urgent mail and papers. It’s hard to find the important stuff when it’s surrounded by junk that should never have been brought through the door. The junk mail is disinformation, actively detracting from the value of the good stuff.
Indecision is a huge part of chronic disorganization and hoarding. My people have a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to go to social functions or accept invitations. Due to this, they’ll keep all the invitations, calendars, flyers, and other papers on their bulletin boards, or scattered on the countertops, until the date has passed. They won’t realize that these notifications can be discarded once they’re obsolete, because those papers will have already been buried under a snowdrift of new paper.
The junk mail and pending invitations are unintentional information hoarding. It’s the intentional stuff that’s particularly stubborn.
Magazines. If you carry all your old magazines out to the recycling bin and dump them tonight, PM me and I’ll feature you in an article. Photos please! My people refuse to get rid of old magazines, whether they’ve read them or not. For some random reason, old magazines are perceived to be the most valuable type of object. They’re heavy, they’re half-full of advertisements, nobody ever reads them, and they smell like mildew. WHY do you people love them so much?? You can get them at the library or online anyway! That’s especially true of that particular yellow geography magazine, the complete archives of which are available in full color on their website.
Books. Lord love a duck. I read at least as much as the next person, but I don’t see why we need to keep so many physical books around. If you haven’t read it, then you don’t get any credit for owning it. If you have read it, then you don’t need it anymore. I say this just to taunt people, because I know how sacrosanct the books are. You don’t have any free shelf space, there are probably books piled all over your bedside table, and yet you’ll never be satisfied and you’ll always think you can fit another sack of books into your house. Have it your way.
Old notebooks. People freak out about their old school notes, even if they haven’t touched them since graduation and they’ll never read through them again. I just scanned all mine and recycled them years ago. On the rare occasions when I feel inspired to pop open one of those files, I’m mostly embarrassed at my relative ignorance and poor writing skills. I got my degree in history, and I’ve read far more about history since graduation than I ever did beforehand. Education is the beginning, not the end. It’s just supposed to be training for a life of learning. I think most of us keep our school notes because that’s our identity. When we’re not challenged in our jobs, when we’re not satisfied in our careers, we cling to that time when we felt supported in our intellectual self-image. It’s easy to figure out how to get good grades, but not so easy to figure out how to take initiative and shape a professional career.
Recipes. I’m worse about this than most people and I’ll freely admit it. I’ve been digitizing my recipe collection for five years. I just checked, and I have... over 18,000 recipes in my collection. There are still half a dozen cookbooks to go, too. Am I ever going to feel like I have enough? No, I’m sure I won’t. This is true even though I have enough recipes to cook three new meals a day for 92 years. I’ll just clone myself 91 times, and then each of us can cook three new meals a day for a year. How many more recipes will we have collected by the end of the year, if each clone also likes to save recipes?
To-do lists. List makers! Why do we add stuff to our lists just to cross it off? If we love crossing things off of lists so much, why do we always wind up with old lists with incomplete tasks on them?
Little notes. Buying a smartphone changed my life. I started recording all my random little notes into my phone instead of writing them on paper. Gradually, as I started to trust the system, I started recording more of my old notes and digitizing them, too. My desk used to be constantly covered with stacks of notes, plus several inboxes and sorting mechanisms. Now I don’t have a desk at all; it all lives in my pocket.
There’s a manuscript in our fireproof safe. It’s an obsolete version of my novel-in-progress. I think I’ve gone through at least three major plot shakeups since then. I don’t even work on paper anymore! It’s only still in there through entropy.
I have over 100 GBs of information hoarded on my phone. If this existed in physical form, I’d be in trouble. Fortunately, through consistent effort, I’ve managed to keep it all down to one file box that measures 11”x15” and three shelves of books measuring 55 inches.
I’m trying to reframe my information hoarding in two ways. One: How likely am I to need this information? Do I want it for active reference, for future entertainment, or am I keeping it due to inertia, FoMO, or pure anxiety? Two: How long will it take to consume this information? How many hours of podcasts are these? If I read fifty pages an hour on average, how long will it take me to read through this stack of books? What’s my track record of actually reading through these queues? Does the list stay about the same, or has it consistently been growing longer?
The thing about information is that it doesn’t exist until we have it processed into our brains. I mean, just because I have internet access doesn’t mean I’ve memorized the entire internet. It was already humanly impossible to look at every photograph ever taken or click through every page of every website twenty years ago. More is uploaded in a single day than we could ever hope to skim in a lifetime. We have to let go of the idea that we can somehow “keep up” with everything. We can’t watch every video, listen to every song, read every article and every book, or watch every movie. We can’t even do it if we cut out all the other categories completely and focus on just one.
Far better would be to see it all as a massive buffet. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. I’LL NEVER BE BORED! Pay attention now, Future Me, because we’re going to have to chillax about all of this. It’s okay not to read every single thing. It’s okay because every time we finish reading something, there’s something else waiting. Our favorite artists will put out more books and albums and shows in more formats. If we aren’t ever going to get through this playlist or all of these bookmarks, we can at least slow down the rate at which we add more.
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.