Digital Spring Cleaning: A Step-by-Step Guide

Office spring cleaning may make you think of clearing out supply closets and reorganizing paper files. Perhaps your inbox and computer files also need attention? Use these steps to streamline the cleanup process.

Electronic clutter may seem inconsequential, but in a recent Staples poll, a whopping 80 percent of administrative professionals said it has kept them from finding important information when they needed it. Digital disorganization also presents risks: Nearly 10 percent of admins said they’ve encountered a compliance issue because an important file was inaccessible.

Spring cleaning your email and files can help you take control of your work life and actually make you better at your job. While there’s no single approach that’s right for everyone, these tactics can help.

Clear Out the Old

Just as with physical cleaning, a good digital cleanup starts with a purge. Begin with easy wins, such as deleting unneeded folders and files from your desktop. Then, dig deeper by going through your folders, beginning with the ones you access most. If there are items you no longer need but are afraid to part with entirely, create a “transition” folder. Set a calendar notification to check it again at a future date — e.g., three months or six months. If you still haven’t accessed the files or emails, delete them.

Try shortcuts to help you save time. For example, you might search for emails and files from a particular time range (e.g., more than three years ago) or sender (e.g., a vendor you no longer work with). Then, you can quickly review and delete them if they’re no longer relevant. Make sure to abide by retention and compliance requirements when determining how you store and discard messages and documents.

Rethink Your Email Subscriptions

More than half of administrative professionals in the Staples poll said their biggest source of digital clutter is email. Email subscriptions can be a major contributor. Unsubscribe from email lists that no longer serve a purpose or that you never signed up for. If you’re not quite ready to take this step — perhaps some emails from a particular list are still useful — have them directed automatically to a folder that bypasses your inbox by using a Microsoft Outlook rule or the filtering feature in Gmail. You could also try editing your subscriptions so that you receive emails less often or stop receiving certain types of messages.


Evaluate how you currently organize your electronic files and messages. Start with your desktop — are your folders arranged in a way that lets you get to files quickly? Would moving less-accessed folders off your desktop help limit distraction? Think about whether subfolders could help you access documents faster. For example, if you keep separate folders for each of your vendors, perhaps adding subfolders labeled by year could make specific files easier to find. Use this approach to organize documents and folders in other locations, such as in a shared document management system.

Look at your email folders and consider whether reordering them makes sense. For example, instead of alphabetical order, you might keep your most frequently accessed folders up top, if your email program allows for this.

Make Clutter Control a Priority

Dedicate a few minutes each day to organizing your emails and files, perhaps in the morning or at the end of the day. Or, choose a time during the week that tends to be quiet to sort through email, organize files and delete outdated items.

You can also try some hacks to automate your organization efforts. If you use Microsoft Outlook for email, try these tricks recommended by your peers and other experts:

Email files directly from Microsoft Office so you don’t need to save them on your computer.

• Use the AutoArchive feature to archive messages after a set numbers of days. That way, you won’t need to see them whenever you log in to your inbox.

• Use the rules feature so that non-urgent messages (e.g., those containing a specific word in the subject line, or from a certain sender) go directly to a designated folder.

Controlling digital clutter requires continual effort, but the payoffs are many: fewer distractions, easier access to information and a stronger sense of order. The time savings you gain by decluttering will help you get more done each day.