Digital Declutter December!

Digital Declutter December!

November 26, 2020

While time will tell whether or not a need to physically clean our homes in preparation for guests arriving over the holidays will be necessary this year, it’s safe to say that our digital lives need a decluttering after the year many of us have experienced!

With most staff and faculty having moved to remote working and teaching in 2020, the files being created, copied and updated, and email moving back-and-forth has increased exponentially. And while we may be aware that our digital files and emails desperately need to be sorted through and cleaned up, perhaps the thought of tackling such tasks feels overwhelming. With so many other things to accomplish and deadlines to meet, this feeling is completely understandable.

So what can be done?


First, on an individual level, start with your UBC email account. Specifically transitory records within your saved emails. A transitory record is a record of temporary usefulness that is used to create another record. Barbara Towell, Electronic Records Manager, University Archives explains that, in terms of email, drafts, back-and-forth messages to setup meetings, notifications from list serves, and carbon copy messages where the recipient is not the main actor in the email, are all examples of transitory records.

While a piling up of emails may seem like a relatively minor issue, Barbara confirms that it’s much more than that. “It is inefficient to have a lot of emails that are of a transitory nature bulking up your inbox, your sent items, your junk mail…And the other thing is cost. It costs the University money for maintenance and backup.”

If we were to run some simple math to calculate the cost in searching for multiple documents and emails on a daily basis, then averaging that time and cost out over a monthly and annual period, Barbara’s comments become that much more eye-opening.

Thankfully, the initial cleanup of your email doesn’t have to take hours. In fact, with some simple steps, your email can go from overwhelming to completely manageable in less than 60 minutes.


Start by mass deleting (or archiving) any messages you are certain that you don’t need, like notifications and reminders for past events, confirmations on sent items and newsletters you have already read.


Next, focus on organizing messages that you need or want to keep.

How you label things is entirely up to you, but a proven method is to name folders based upon topics or types of email that you commonly receive. Things like: Tasks, Projects, Team, and so on. You can always modify this process as you learn what works best for you.

If you are using Microsoft Outlook, try taking advantage of the “categories” feature to add more information to your messages. You can even apply multiple labels to one email. So, that email in your “Team” folder can have a main label for messages that apply to your whole unit and sub-labels for each member of your team. If you find that there are still messages leftover that you will need time to categorize, use Outlook’s follow-up feature to have them show up in your inbox when you’re ready.


After taking the time to perform this initial clean-up, Barbara Towell recommends emptying the trash regularly and “making it part of a daily routine. Even the last ten minutes of the day can really make a big difference” to ensure your transitory records are properly deleted and your inbox remains manageable.


Staff and faculty will be happy to know that there are currently plans underway to assist individuals with the ongoing maintenance of transitory records in their email. The Email Retention Working Group is investigating tools to automate the cleanup of deleted items, draft messages and junk email. Once decided, the automation tool or tools will be recommended to UBC IT for implementation at a future date.

Barbara states that it is the intention of the Email Retention Working Group to “help people with the burden of having to go through and look at item-by-item transitory emails.” The working group also understands that users need to feel confident that whatever automation is ultimately in place will need to assist in getting rid of the right kind of email only. There will be much more communication about this initiative as it moves further through the discovery phase and on into implementation.

For those that would like to know more about the Email Retention Working Group, please visit the University Records Management Office website.


The other category of digital declutter in dire need of attention, is departmental shared drives and folders. Chances are that your teams shared drive and folders feel like the virtual version of that back room storage closet that no one wants to open for fear of all the loose items tumbling out.

We asked Barbara Towell, what the average state of record keeping is on a departmental level at UBC. “Every couple of years I do a survey, and in that survey I ask some general questions around where users feel is the biggest problem in terms of record keeping, and…typically their shared drives are a mess,” and users “don’t even know where to start.”  Barbara adds that often there is no unit level governance and users are confused about where things are and where to put things.

Fortunately, the University Records Management Office is available to help. Their staff can work with units to assist their record keeping practices, ensuring that records are retained securely, in a cost effective way, while meeting compliance requirements. Some of the services that they offer include:

  • identifying record keeping issues and concerns
  • providing guidelines on best practices
  • collaborating on records management projects, and
  • training staff and faculty on topics related to retention periods, management, storage, and disposition.

To take advantage of these complimentary services, contact the University Records Management Office for a consultation.

You can view the full interview with Barbara Towell by visiting Privacy Matters On Demand.

Through conversations, knowledge sharing, and storytelling, the Privacy Matters @ UBC team hopes to provide a venue to share inspiring ideas to improve privacy and information security, both at home and at UBC. For further assistance please contact the Privacy and Information Security Management team.