SINGAPORE: When one thinks about clutter, the first thing that comes to mind is physical mess. But we often do not think about the thousands of emails, photos and documents we hoard on our electronic devices and online.
This mountain of digital clutter can affect us in other ways, and even creates anxiety.
Dr Jessie Chua, a senior clinical psychologist with the Resilienz Clinic, compares digital clutter to physical clutter: Both can cause a similar amount of stress on one’s mind.
“It takes up that same amount of space that you can use for, say, creativity or for focus on work,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s visible or not visible; it’s still in the brain.”
The brain’s frontal lobe sometimes needs space to help one think and plan. But when it becomes overwhelmed, it triggers another part of the brain called the amygdala.
“This is the part of the brain that generates emotions — the most dominant one is anxiety,” she said.
When there’s so much clutter, for example emails, this would continue to fire to a point where the body gets overwhelmed with anxiety.
Digital clutter not only affects an individual’s well-being, but also constitutes a cybersecurity risk, as the programme Why It Matters discovers. (Watch the episode here.)
RUNNING OUT OF SPACE
A research paper presented last year said the emergence of digital devices like smartphones, engagement in social media networks and access to affordable digital storage has increased “the propensity of an individual to acquire and store digital content without carefully considering its repercussions”.
Globally, the digital data generated each day amounts to at least two to three exabytes (two to three billion gigabytes), according to Associate Professor Anupam Chattopadhyay from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Computer Science and Engineering.
“We’re sending more than a few thousands of tweets every minute (and) uploading hundreds and thousands of photos on Instagram,” he said.
At this rate, the world will run of storage space in future, he warned. “I calculated … this number to be 200 years at most.”
Data storage also places a burden on the environment. A significant amount of energy is used in running a data centre, including the cooling equipment to maintain the facility’s temperature.
It is estimated that by 2030, data centres in Singapore will account for up to 12 per cent of the country’s total energy demand, ST Telemedia Global Data Centres states on its website.
According to the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the 10 largest data centre operators in Singapore consume as much energy as 130,000 typical Housing and Development Board households.
Worldwide, data centres account for two per cent of greenhouse gas emissions today. That is the same carbon footprint as the aviation sector’s 895 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. But the information technology sector’s emissions are projected to exceed that.
Having too many digital files also creates cybersecurity problems, given that many people store private documents and photos on their devices. The danger is that information can be compromised in a data breach.
Horangi Cyber Security chief executive officer Paul Hadjy said one must be cognisant when granting apps access to things like the camera roll on one’s phone.
The best strategy is to update one’s apps every so often and remove apps that one is not using.
“Sometimes app companies go out of business, and if you keep those older apps … over time, vulnerabilities get discovered,” he explained. “Those apps become more susceptible and allow access to things like your photos.”
So here are five tips on organising and minimising digital clutter:
1. CATEGORISE AND DELETE
Decluttering queen Marie Kondo tidies up physical spaces like no other, and one of her KonMari consultants in training, Amanda Ling, suggested the Konmari method for digital clutter too: Put everything in a similar category into a single folder.
This could help one to realise how much data one has accumulated. From there, one can sort out the items to delete from the ones to keep — the ones that “spark joy”.
For example, she suggested to Why It Matters host Joshua Lim that he delete the apps he does not use regularly, as his smartphone contained many apps, of which some were similar.
“If you find that you really need (an app), then just re-download it. It’s just a click away,” she said.
“Sometimes when you limit the choices a little bit, it can give you some clarity in deciding which is best for you.”
One should review one’s digital files and delete those that are no longer needed also to avoid being compromised by hackers, the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) says on its website.
This includes files stored on devices as well as online and portable storage.
2. KEEP YOUR EMAIL INBOX CLEAN
Email accounts, too, can contain sensitive information such as reset passwords. So the CSA advises: “Deleting emails that you no longer require would reduce the amount of information that would be compromised, even if your email accounts were hacked.”
Beyond deleting emails, Ling suggested taking the time to also unsubscribe from emails that are of no value, since being bombarded with many emails, notifications and content each day can affect one’s focus and productivity.
“It really is about keeping track and being more intentional,” she said.
People might think digital minimalism is too extreme. It’s actually more extreme with the way … we’re exposing ourselves, day to day, (to the consumption of digital content).
3. ARCHIVE OFTEN
Haw-San Au-Yong, a professional organiser with Edits Inc who helps to people declutter their physical and digital spaces, suggested taking the time to create folders and archive items.
“Alerts can be set up with filters to go directly into a folder, instead of them cluttering up your inbox, so you can see the more important things that you need to take action on,” she said.
Folders and archiving also make a difference to the number of things seen on one’s desktop, as well as the number of electronic bookmarks.
4. SEND THEM TO THE CLOUD
To reduce the amount of digital baggage on one’s devices, one can turn to cloud storage, such as Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive, advises the Government Technology Agency. But remember to categorise things properly in cloud storage too.
5. CLOSE UNNECESSARY ONLINE ACCOUNTS
Finally, delete online accounts that one no longer accesses, as well as the data stored in the account. And revoke any prior permissions granted to the company that provided the service, says the CSA.
This reduces the risk of information exposure if the company suffers a data breach. For the remaining accounts, it is advisable to review the privacy settings and permissions, especially if the service is accessing information it should not require.
Watch the episode here. Why It Matters is telecast every Monday at 9pm.