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Virtual clutter removal

There has been a lot of talk about de-cluttering our physical space. Our houses, garages, closets or drawers all need a clean-up on a regular basis, otherwise they will overflow and make our lives stressful.

The same thing is happening to our virtual lives. Virtual clutter can drag us down and create stress and anxiety like physical clutter can.

These days, many people not only live in the physical world, but also in a very active virtual world.

We bank online, date online, make purchases online, register classes online, check our medical records or kids' school records online, track our investments online or reserve books online.

People also use different Internet social networking tools, such as MySpace, YouTube, Second Life and Flickr.

We have e-mail accounts and some employ multiple accounts. We use e-mail to correspond with others, to read e-newsletters, etc.

I have so many user names and passwords for different accounts that I get overwhelmed and sometimes I don't remember what is what.

The messages in my e-mail inbox had grown to more than 1,000 at the end of last year. It reached such a level that I knew I had to do something about it. I couldn't let them keep growing and get out of control.

An overstuffed e-mail inbox, with thousands of unread messages, a desktop covered with files and images, are all forms of e-clutter that distract and overload us unnecessarily.

So, over the past Christmas and New Year holidays, I spent a lot of quiet free-time on cleaning up my Yahoo e-mail inbox. I call it virtual de-cluttering.

I went through my inbox.

For the old messages, I either moved them to an appropriate folder or delete them. I have 30 folders to store old e-mail.

Some of the messages were e-newsletters I received regularly that I had, or had not, read over the years. I quickly read and deleted most of them.

I confess, I am a hoarder in all aspects of my life, physical or virtual. As a cyber-packrat, I keep lots of old messages. I have about 2,000 e-mails in my 30 folders.

I think I am very good at responding to messages right away, but I am an e-procrastinator who thinks I'll deal with old e-mail tomorrow. That's how my inbox keeps expanding.

Here are a few things I have done or learned that can help you keep your e-mail and virtual life more organized and less cluttered:

• Don't respond to pop-ups

Once I made the big mistake of allowing my son to use my Yahoo e-mail address to respond to a pop-up request. Since then my inbox has been flooded with spam mails that made my virtual life miserable.

• Create a spam folder for junk mails

Luckily, I was able to create a spam folder in my Yahoo e-mail. All the spam mails now go directly into the spam folder. A few times a week, I delete one or two hundreds of spam mail by simply empting the spam folder.

By filtering the incoming mail, my inbox has become very manageable again.

• Create and label folders

In order to be organized, we have to have a filing system, whether it's for traditional mail or e-mail.

For my Yahoo e-mail, I created a filing system by having labeled folders. So I have a place for everything I want to save from inbox. If there is a place for everything, then it is easier to organize and later to find things.

Moving e-mail into folders by subject is a good way to pare down an inbox.

• Different email accounts for different activities

Even though I registered for more than one free e-mail accounts, I basically use my Yahoo email for everything. In addition I also have a work email through my employer.

I know some people use more than one private e-mail account for different activities or purposes. They might use one for families and friends, another one for business or online purchases, etc.

This strategy could keep things separate and more organized, but for me it is also more time-consuming to have to deal with more accounts.

• Compress several messages into one

If I have a message that has generated several follow-up or response messages and I want to keep all, I copy all follow-up messages into the original message. This way I only need to save one message instead of several messages related to one topic.

• Declare e-mail bankruptcy

Sometimes to regain a sense of order and to start fresh, people may have no choice but to declare e-mail bankruptcy and kill all old messages.

If you ever feel you are drowning in e-mail and see no way out, the only solution might be to empty your inbox by deleting everything in it and start from scratch.

It does take more courage to do so.

As we begin the year 2009, maybe you also want to take some time to clear your e-clutter for a fresh start in the New Year.

This I know -- you will feel lighter and better once you de-clutter your virtual environment, just as you de-clutter your physical environment.