‘Hoarders’ psychologist helps me stop being a digital packrat

Dr. Robin Zasio

A couple weeks ago I cleared more than 10,000 emails from my primary personal webmail inbox, dating back almost three years. It’s already back up into the hundreds. It’s not that I can’t let go — I just have a hard time keeping up, and since I’m seeing the newest messages on the first screen there isn’t as much motivation to dig through the old ones.

Turns out I’m not alone. Microsoft this week came out with new consumer research in which 30 percent of respondents admitted keeping email longer than a year, with some acknowledging that they had multiple years of emails still in their inboxes. The company released the data as part of a promotional campaign for clutter-fighting features in Hotmail.

OK, so that made me feel better, but what I really needed was some help. So when the company offered up Dr. Robin Zasio, a psychologist from the A&E TV show “Hoarders,” to talk about the data, I saw it as an opportunity to get some advice.

“No judgments there, Todd, don’t worry,” she assured me after I confessed to the state of my inbox.

One of her suggestions was to consolidate accounts by no longer using secondary accounts. (The Microsoft study found that most people on average are using three email accounts, making it harder to keep up.) She’s also a fan of setting up filters, labels and other tools to automatically handle messages as they come into the inbox. And she encourages people to spend at least 15 minutes a week purely on organizing their email inboxes.

I asked about the biggest commonality between digital hoarders and real-world packrats.

“It’s fear,” she said. “When you see hoarders on TV, it always comes down to the same thing. ‘If I let this go, what if I need it?’ It’s the same thing when we’re dealing with emails. There’s a fear that if we delete it into complete oblivion, we’ll never get it back, and we’ll have so much regret that it will create an unbearable feeling.”

“We talk about people that are hoarding hundreds to thousands of emails. The reality is, probably at one point they might regret (deleting) a couple. But thousands of emails, are you really going to regret those? Probably not.”

By the way, I also asked her about the 2TB hard drive where I keep old pictures, music and data. Backups are healthy, Dr. Zasio assured me. So we’re all good there.

But after we hung up, I realized I didn’t think to tell her about the bins of old electronics in my garage, some dating back to my teenage years. Guess we’ll have to save that for another episode.

  • ECG

    I’m disappointed with the theme of the article. In the digital world, there’s just no comparison to the cost of real world hoarding. It won’t fill up your house, cause your divorce, make your family move out, and it’s not representative of the deep psychological pain felt by those who hoard in the real world. I would separate your own psychological pain from being able to “archive” in the digital world instead of purge. They’re just not the same.

  • http://twitter.com/crenelle MichaelBrianBentley

    I have archives of email dating back to the late 80s, when I started to be able to retain incoming and outgoing messages instead of relying on the service to store them forever for me. It only amounts to 20 GB or so, which is much less than 1% of a typical $60 1TB hard disk. I’m not going to any trouble or expense by keeping it; I only have to be able to access it once in a while for it to have any value. And it does have value.

    If I tried to store it all on paper printouts, it would fill a garage, but thinking of information like this as having the encumbrance of truckloads of NYC phone books is quaint and silly.

    There are many different battles in one’s war on stuff than email. Part of knowing what to keep and what to throw out is to pick one’s battles judiciously.

  • http://sureshotinteractive.com Ann Hudspeth

    I consider my box of old electronics my own personal Museum :)

  • Nrw82617

    Badly missing the dominant factor. Today’s surprisingly mediocre Email programs still lack sophisticated features for categorizing emails by their multiple dimensions. Instead the primitive “folder” concept is still used. This makes it impossible to decorate each email with the rich and highly accurate metadata that would enable me to efficiently managed my emails over time.