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My War on Clutter: Never "organize" what you can discard

One of the most basic concepts Peter Walsh talks about in _It’s All Too Much_ brought a total breakthrough for me. If the stuff that you accumulate doesn't help get you closer to the life you want to have, it's simply not worth keeping. Period.

Obviously (and unavoidably), this goes for a family room that's turned into a junk drawer for DVDs and books, and you can clearly see it evidenced in a kitchen where no flat surface is free of junk mail, bills, and newspapers. Those you can't miss.

But, for me, the real story is about the ways you try to solve clutter problems solely by getting more space or obtaining more containers -- jamming all those DVDs into cabinets and stuffing those newspapers into bigger volume baskets. The clutter doesn't need a prettier package; it just needs to go. Now, and in very large quantities.

Historically, my "housecleaning" has almost always consisted of precisely this kind of illusory shuffling -- just getting things out of sight with only minimal discarding. If I could cram random stuff into a spanking new "solution" from The Container Store, I'd tend to feel like I'd really made progress.

The truth is that this is like covering your tumor with a bandage, and without thoughtful paring-down, all those crates and boxes and storage spaces do nothing to improve the basic problem. In fact, in my own experience, it makes the matter ten times worse, since you generate an entire underworld of physical goods that mean nothing to you. Your home or office becomes little more than a costly bucket for dead and useless crap.

So, above all, my first change in attitude has been about making things that definitely don't belong go away quickly -- not by generating false relevance by "organizing" them. For me, this means the opposite action; disinterring every sarcophagus of crap in my house and, item by item, evaluating how it's making my family's life better. You can't believe how emotionally complex this is for a craphound like me, but once I get started, it's completely exciting -- the illusion that all this junk is making me happy melts away with every scrap of paper or broken piece of equipment I can get out of the way.

Also, I've found that something unbelievable and almost magical happens once I get into this mode: I start seeing things that I hadn't ever noticed. Like the phone cords and SCSI cables.

See: during my last attempt at "cleaning up," I (seemingly sensibly) focused primarily on organization, or the idea that most of my problem came out of not keeping like with like. So, I was very proud of myself after I'd spend the better part of two days ensuring that USB cables, ethernet cables, firewire cables, SCSI cables, and RJ-45 phone cords were all neatly separated and stored in their proper boxes.

Whoa, wait a minute. SCSI cables? Phone cords?

About half a day into my current scorched earth purge, I glanced across the office to see a box with eight different phone cords in it. Eight. This notwithstanding the fact that I have a single VoIP line and haven't used a dial-up modem in 6 years. And SCSI cables? My God! I haven't had a SCSI device hooked to my Mac in almost as long. Yet there they were, nicely organized and ready to serve their non-existent purpose.

Now they're gone.

I'm finally getting my head around the idea that organization is what you do to stuff that you need, want, or love -- it's not what you do to get useless stuff out of sight or to impart makebelieve meaning. And even though that 50-pin SCSI cable cost me a fortune in 1998, there's zero reason for me to have it today. And, yet, there's an invisible but very real cost associated with keeping it around.

As you wage your war on clutter, you will have many moments where you pause, item in hand, over the trash or recycling and feel resistance and fear. Sometimes its for cause, and you'll elect to keep it, but also be prepared to let go on an unprecedented scale. Think volume and be brutal in your evaluations.

GTD'ers know not to let pointless actions into their projects; why would you suffer pointless physical crap in your life?

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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