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Staying organised: File deletion

The saving of digital data is a funny thing. There's often no value in keeping it (a debatable statement, and I'll get to that), yet because it takes up no physical space and virtual space is cheap, we hang onto it.

But there are consequences to saving absolutely everything, even in the digital world. If you struggle with decisions over whether to keep or delete data, from work files to photos to email, this article will help you think through your current dilemma and devise new strategies for managing the ever-growing mass of data.

The psychology of savers

Choosing to throw away or delete something is often a psychological or emotional predicament, rather than a rational decision. Very often, when our finger is hovering over the delete key, the thing that stops us from pressing it is perceived potential value, not actual value. We think: "There may be information in that email thread about the project that's been finished for two years that I'll need in the future." Or: "What if one day, I learn to use photo editing software and clean up those images that aren't very good as-is?"

When we save emails, photos, music, notes, and other files, many of us aren't assessing the data's true worth as it stands now. We're thinking about future circumstances that may or may not occur. We hang onto things because what's the harm in that? Digital storage space is cheaper than ever. You can get a lot of cloud-based storage for free. External hard drives aren't that expensive. And the amount of space that comes on a typical home computer, tablet, and smartphone – even if you buy the model with the least storage – is many times more than it ever could have been a decade ago.

One school of thought is that with all this available space, we should never delete anything. Archiving is fine, but there's no value in erasing. Err on the side of caution, and save everything. People in this camp – let's call them savers – often thrive on the concept of potential value. "What if our business figures out how to mine valuable information from all those old emails?" And they likely take a preservationist approach, too: "We don't yet know the value of the history of this data, so we ought to preserve it for the time when we do."

However, when savers try to access their preserved data, they usually run into a few unexpected real world problems. First, as a colleague of mine in the IT department put it: "Storage is cheap, but maintaining it is expensive."

There's a cost – in money, time, or both – associated with indexing and retrieving archives, depending on where and how data is archived. If you think you have all the information you'd ever need because you diligently archive your Outlook files, I double dare you to try and retrieve something specific. Sending files to archive is easy. Extracting them and finding what you want is a pain in the neck, and few people actually do it. Savers save everything not because they need their data, but because they like the idea of being able to get their data if they need to. Ask yourself whether those PST files you've refused to delete for the last 10 years are nothing more than a security blanket.

In other words, when you archive something, depending on where and how it's archived, it could become inaccessible and more trouble than it's worth to retrieve.

A balanced approach

A better approach, in my opinion, is to have a clear mental distinction between "working files" or "active data" and other kinds of data. I use the term "working files" to describe data that I need for current work in progress, or work that was completed recently enough that I may reasonably need to access it in the near future. "Active data" essentially means the same thing, but might better describe computer files that aren't tied to work, like family photos and entertainment (music and videos). There's a difference between music you actively play and music you've collected for the sake of collecting but probably won't play… ever.

The age of a file doesn't always tell you whether it's active. For example, you might consider some old photos active if you intend to share them or incorporate them into a project, like a family history or wall calendar. However, if you have 18 versions of the same photo composition and 16 of them are blurry, the chances that you will ever use those 16 shots or reap any value from them whatsoever are extremely low. When a file's value is that low, it's trash. Let go of the imagined potential value, and just delete it.

I also think it helps to think of archiving as being similar to deleting, meaning once something is archived, it is essentially inaccessible, even if it's not gone for good.

To take an example, the Inland Revenue requires you keep a number of years’ worth of tax records, so all that data is "active" and needs to be saved in such a way that it's easily accessible. Your tax records from way back when can probably be safely archived because it's highly unlikely that you will ever need to access them, but there is a slim chance you or your family, or your business partners may need or want them in the future.

How to know when to delete (or archive)

How do you know when it's okay to delete your computer data and files? The rules you put in place for yourself will likely vary by file type, so here are some pointers for typical office files (word docs, spreadsheets, presentations), email, photos, and music and videos.

Pinpoint the value. Practically speaking, when it's time to clear the clutter, pinpoint what you would need or want to know about the work, data, or file, and where you'd find it. Then look for places where it's duplicated – which very often is the same place you can start using the delete key.

For example, let's say you save the following: PDFs of invoices sent, copies of cheques for invoices paid, and a spreadsheet of all invoicing activity. At some point after payment is received, you might want to delete (or archive) the invoice PDFs. The deal is done, the cheque has cleared, and you have a good record of the progress.

Delete photos while you shoot. With photos, bear in mind that just because you have the ability to save tens of thousands of images doesn't mean you should. Get into the habit of deleting out-of-focus images and other bad shots as you take them (this is one of the wonderful things about digital photography after all).

Trash routine emails. For email, delete routine messages and quick communication that doesn't contain any information you might need later, and do it as you go along, daily. Stay on top of this and get into the regular habit of getting rid of the routine.

Save only one copy of email attachments. Delete emails with attachments, but save the attachment locally when necessary. Or vice versa if you prefer: Keep the email, ditch the file. Either way, email attachments are a good place to identify duplication, and you only need one copy.

Dump (or archive) media files you don't play. To all the music and video hoarders out there, be realistic about which files you will actually play. If you're a real heavy media user, take advantage of cloud services that grant a license to the media that you own (a la iTunes Match) so that you don't have to store local copies of stuff you think you want but never actually play.

Maybe it's just my personality, but I feel a sense of freedom when I'm not bogged down with files that I simply don't need. The exercise of deleting even a little bit of useless data, or files that have no real value, helps me feel like I am focusing more on the data that does matter.