Taming Your Digital Files

Messy Desktop Syndrome
Information anxiety
Information overload

These are a few of the terms bloggers and researchers alike are using to describe the bad behaviors and anxieties of digital records management. In the old world of paper record keeping, the physical effects of record keeping were tangible  Paper records take up visible space, and employees who failed to file and throw away incoming paper records suffered the discomfort and embarrassment of messy offices.

Desktops and inboxes—literal desktops and inboxes, that is—slowly accumulated paper piles until employees cleaned up. Paper clutter caused records not only to be difficult to find, but also threatened to make the spaces inhabited by employees physically unbearable. For most, these were motivation enough to avoid extreme paper hoarding in the office.

Research indicates that when it comes to digital files, people are far more comfortable accumulating vast collections of unorganized digital materials. One reason for this is obvious: there is simply more information to organize. More emails, more attachments, more documents, more reports, more tweets, more feeds—and easier access to it all. The volume of incoming information is simply higher, and people have acclimated to a mental state of information inflation.

Sometimes dubbed “e-hoarding” or “digital hoarding” in the press, the problem is regularly highlighted in news articles featuring individuals who may appear to keep tidy offices but who, under cover of their computers, hoard enormous collections of digital materials. “Digital hoarding is a huge problem. There is so much available storage, we don’t have to make decisions anymore,” says David D. Nowell, a neuropsychologist specializing in attention issues in Worcester, MA who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last year. “The problem isn’t that it slows down your computer–it slows down your brain.”

Along with the increase in incoming files, digital record keeping also suffers from the perceived problem of storage—or, rather, the lack of a perceived problem. Where paper files require filing cabinets and shelves that impinge on our physical environment and storage facility that gobble up budgets, digital records appear to take up no room and prices steadily drop.

“Cloud storage” further seems to imply the possibility of digital materials that require no earthly storage—whereas, of course, data in cloud storage lives on third-party vendors’ very real and very large data storage centers (which are very much on the ground). While it is true that data requires very little space compared to paper records and storage costs do reliably decrease over time, there is still a physical reality (and cost) to digital records that requires incredible resources to plan, manage, and finance. However, those tasks are often born by IT departments and external vendors, meaning that the individual sitting at her desk saving files is removed from the physical implications of her records management choices.

Look through any workplace computer or shared drive and you will find the familiar collection of ambiguously-titled files like “draft001.docx,” “Untitled(1).pdf,” and “DCIM_0001.tif.” More than likely, you will also come across folders with mysterious titles. Here some of our favorites encountered while archiving public records:

January 2008-04-29 March
New Folder
New Folder (2)
New Folder (for Marsha)

It is likely that the people who originally created these names did not intend for them to be enshrined forever in a digital archive. The names were temporary, and their creators presumably intended to come back to the files “later” and finalize their names before sharing them with others. For most of this, whether we are guilty of it ourselves or simply come across it in shared file systems, this probably sounds familiar.

When saving files, people often avoid committing to a file name and folder location out of a fear that the name won’t adequately capture the meaning of its content or out of unsurity as to what that meaning might be. File and folder names are easy to edit, which gives creators the illusion that they are likely to return to give files more permanent labels.

Here are a few basic tips to avoid the hazards of digital clutter:

  1. Always give files and folders a formal title the first time you save them. Presume you will not have a chance to return to that file or folder.
  2. Everytime you save a file, imagine whether your coworkers will understand the file name. It’s good practice to do this even if you expect no one else will see the file (in a few months, you may be grateful to yourself!).
  3. If your office has a file naming policy, print it off and put it next to your computer. Follow it without exception.
  4. If your office doesn’t have a file naming policy, ask for one. If you can’t get one, make one at least for yourself or your unit.
  5. If you are creating a truly temporary file, save it to the Desktop (or another designated folder) with the filename “temporary”. Every time you create a new temporary file, it will overwrite the old one. This will limit your ability to create only one temporary file per format extension (e.g., temporary.docx, temporary.txt, temporary.jpg).

Some helpful resources


Melinda Beck, “Drowning in Email, Photos, Files? Hoarding Goes Digital,” Wall Street Journal, 3/27/2013, Eastern Edition, D1, D5.


One thought on “Taming Your Digital Files

  1. Pingback: So…, I’ve got all these terrible file names. | The G.S. 132 Files

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