You know you have clutter.
You know it’s eating up parts of your life.
And you know it’s time to get rid of it. Here’s how.
Identify the Area That Feels the Most Cluttered
Tell-tale signs: you’re not able to make progress. You always feel overwhelmed. You continually procrastinate or avoid this area. You have feelings of discouragement, distress, discomfort, or dread about projects in this area (even if it’s something you like).
There are visual signs, of course, for physical clutter. But we can often stuff our clutter into closets, shelves, basements, cute little organizing bins… and believe that we’ve handled it. But the truth is that if you don’t need or use something in your life, why does it get any space there?
Why not just have the space, instead?
It’s okay to have space. Empty space. White, blank, wide-open space. Space in your closets, on your calendar, in your brain. Space is necessary for creativity, for rest. You need it.
Where is the clutter you need to deal with? Where is there a lack of space? What area do you avoid? What time crunch do you always face?
Think About the History of the Clutter
What’s the story? How did the clutter get here? Why did you let it in? What was the need? Has this area always been cluttered?
Have you ever had a time in this area when you felt like you were in charge, making progress, moving forward?
When was that time? What happened? What has changed? Was there a life event, a big change, a transition which caused upheaval in your life or in this particular area? Did things get cluttered then?
Or is it a story of a slow process? Has the area slowly become cluttered as you gained experience, added new things and failed to clean out, accumulated, accessed more opportunities, got more skills/resources? Have you been in a time when you felt very inept, unprepared, or under-resourced in this area, or deprived? Is your tendency to keep clutter now perhaps in reaction to that feeling of deprivation from the past?
The point here is not to solve your problems or talk yourself out of your reactions or fix your misunderstandings.
It’s simply to start looking at the clutter as something that has a beginning, a story, and has built its own place in this area of your life.
It isn’t an integral part. It doesn’t belong; it’s not a limb or growth, it’s a parasite.
It crept up and crept in and has insinuated itself so thoroughly that you see it as just part of the whole. But it’s not. The more you start thinking about the clutter as something foreign, the easier it becomes to identify it, piece by piece, and start cleaning out.
Think About the Cost of the Clutter
First, you need to know what the clutter is, specifically. Remember that it’s not always tangible. Even tangible clutter is not always the stuff you assume it is.
Think about your kitchen. Do you have stuff sitting out on your counters, piling up by your sink, stacked on your oven? Is that the clutter? Actually, most likely the stuff that’s sitting out is the stuff you actually use. The clutter is all the stuff crammed into drawers and cabinets that you don’t use, but it’s taking up the space you could be using to store the items of value.
When you’re able to look at an area of your life and see what you use/want/need and what is simply there, for one reason or another, taking up space, you can start thinking about the cost.
There are two costs to think about: the initial cost of acquiring and the ongoing cost of maintenance.
The initial cost is what it cost you to get this item: the purchase price of that juicer you never use, the time cost of that conversation with your boss about the new project.
The ongoing cost is in the resources – usually time and money – that it takes to maintain this clutter. It’s the time it takes and frustration you feel when you have to clean out the back of your car in order to give your friend a ride; it’s the extra thirty minutes it takes to clean the kitchen because a cabinet explodes and you have to cram everything back in there; it’s the emails and meetings you have to take part in because you said you’d help with this project; it’s the drama and negativity you have to deal with in order to maintain that old, outgrown friendship.
So the steps, summed up, thus far, are this:
- Pick an area that feels cluttered.
- Think about how the clutter has come into this area.
- Think about the cost of the clutter: the initial and the ongoing cost.
Those are the first three steps.
Next is the getting rid of the clutter.
Get it Out
How can you get this clutter out of your life?
Physical stuff requires that you physically remove it. Trash it, sell it, give it away.
Intangible stuff, such as obligations, commitments, projects, goals, and ideas, require that you say No to them and then remove them from your operating area/mental space.
Handling the Pain of Sunk-Cost
Physical stuff can be difficult to get rid of if it has a high initial cost. This is the sunk-cost fallacy. You know how much money you paid for that pair of boots you never wear, and it hurts you to think about just getting rid of them.
Here’s a little reminder that helps me:
The value of something is not what you paid for it. The value of something is in the use or satisfaction you get out of it. So if you are not using something, or are not satisfied with it, then it has no value for you.
Make sense? Identify the initial cost, sure, because being honest with yourself about that will help you avoid the same sort of poor choice in the future.
We have the same sort of hesitation in getting rid of non-tangible clutter.
That old friend you’ve known since high school?
That project you’ve already given so many hours to?
That organization you loved being part of, but just… don’t… anymore?
But you know what? This is a learning process. Something was valuable to you once, and it isn’t anymore.
That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t sink even more into it by extending the maintenance cost any further. Cut your losses. If this relationship, activity, item, project, dream has no value for you anymore, it’s time. Free yourself up for what does matter.
The Temporary Strategy
If you can’t quite handle a permanent chuck-it-out-the-window, create a temporary removal.
Physical clutter: fill up a box or basket with the stuff you know you don’t use but aren’t quite ready to give up yet. Label it, put it in the closet, and put a reminder on your calendar for 3–6 months from now to take the box to your donation center. If, before that time, you want something out of the box, then great: you’re using it, and that means it might have enough value to stay in your life. Whatever’s still in the box when that reminder comes up should really find a new home, because it’s doesn’t have value in yours.
Intangible clutter: call a temporary reprieve, a halt on membership, a hold on events, a time-out for yourself from the projects, activities, or relationships you might not need anymore. Take a break, in other words. Explain yourself if needed. Honesty is nice: “I’m overwhelmed with life, so I’m going to take a break from XYZ Association for the next six months.” In six months, evaluate. Did you miss your involvement? Or were you glad for the space in your life? Act accordingly. If it has value, keep it. If not, be honest enough and brave enough to cut it out of your life.
A Few Little Reminders
Clutter is stuff you don’t use. Stuff you don’t use has no value. What does have value? What could you create space in your life for if you got rid of the clutter?
Call it like it is, including your fear and hesitation. “It’s clutter but I don’t want to get rid of it because….”
What is the because?
Maybe your clutter makes you feel secure. Maybe you hang onto that negative friend because he makes you feel better about your own failures. Maybe you hold onto those extra projects because you’re trying to prove your worth. Maybe you won’t say no to that problem client because you still don’t trust yourself to succeed with the good ones.
We keep clutter because it provides something for us. Once you start looking deep into what it is you’re getting from your clutter, you might see that it’s not worth it.
You might see that you don’t need it.
You might see that opening up space in your life – however scary that may feel – is one of the best, boldest, biggest steps forward you can ever take.
Take it. It’s time.