Paper is wonderful stuff. Even if it’s just a circular or a bill there is a thrill in opening a letter. There’s a joy to a document waiting for your highlighter and scribbled notes. You are obviously a fabulously important person if you have trays of documents on your desk. Someone who has so many exciting things coming his or her way that they must be contained. Filing for me has always had a sense of mystery, and history about it.

However, one of the disadvantages of paper-based systems is that they take up space. Even if you stay on top of incoming items and filing one must dedicate floor space to cupboards, file boxes, and cabinets.  If one doesn’t deal with things they pile up making desk space unable (unless the offending items are dumped elsewhere).

There is, one must note, an advantage to these towers of paper.  One glance gives a reasonable indication of how well you are doing with keeping up. Alas, electronic systems are sneakier. Empty inboxes can be deceptive. The folder function allows you to hoard emails you no longer need.

The six-month method

I’m currently using what I call the six-month method to keep my email in shape with minimal effort on my part.

It works like this:

  1. Select a day each month. Don’t worry; you won’t need anything like the whole day, and you should need less and less of it as time progresses.
  2. Look at emails that you received (and sent if appropriate) six months earlier. So in November I’m looking at emails from May.
  3. Repeat for as many email accounts as you have.

It’s a long time from May to November, and it’s amazing what becomes irrelevant over that time. Directions, invitations, discussions about plans long put into action – they can all go. Any important information can be stored somewhere else, or the email can be kept without the surrounding clutter of other correspondence.

I often open emails and think the article or link looks interesting and decide that I will read it at a later date. That date rarely came around, but now it does. I find that I’m more likely to actually follow up links and read articles that I’ve saved. If they’re still relevant six months down the line then it’s definitely worth my time reading them.

It’s also worth considering other places you could apply this or variation to. Saved posts in Feedly? Unassigned tasks in Wunderlist? Virtual sticky notes on your desk top? Files in Dropbox?

If nothing else a boute of virtual de-cluttering leaves one feeling virtuous, and with far fewer bags for recycling than the analogue equivalent.