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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?

Michael Shulver's picture

I agree with James, the...

I agree with James, the literature on Lean Operations: Just in Time, Total Quality Management ... et al talk frequently about the problem with inventory. Inventory being analogous to the stuff / crap we have been discussing in this post. Inventory gets in the way, gets broken, becomes obsolete, ties up working capital etc.. so the less of it you have, the lower your costs. However, more enlightened Operations Management types would point out that inventory is primarily a distraction: its presence hides the problems in your operation .. its a buffer against uncertainty, a comfort blanket almost. By reducing inventory you expose problems (like dangerous rocks being exposed by receding tide) and in exposing them, you are forced to deal with them.

Another idea from the Operations Management field is the sandcone / cumulative principle (Ferdows, K. & De Meyer, A., Lasting Improvements in Manufacturing Performance: In Search of a New Theory. Journal of Operations Management, 1990, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 168-184.) This argues, amongst other things, that there is an inescapable precedence in Operations Improvement; that you have to address fundamental quality, and dependability, before you get on to improving speed, flexibility etc.. Hopefully this makes intuitive sense. You can be as quick as you like, but if, because of, say unreliable processes you take one step back for every two forward, you are not as quick as you thought you were.

Anyway, I think these two ideas can be applied to a specific area of difficulty I've had with GTD implementation. I read GTD about a year back. I tried to apply it right away but the initial collection phase I found overwhelming. This was because my stuff, especially the physical stuff manifested itself as a queue a mile long ... and it was growing. I became conscious of the need to take a two week holiday just to do my initial collection!

Not workable really. So, while I'm using small bits of GTD that help me (ubiquitous capture, project recognition and next action principle mainly), the "whole system" is on hold until I have finished my clean-up. Or rather, I've got my inventory down to a manageable level and I've addressed several unreliable sub-processes (e.g. processing credit card receipts) which currently degrade overall reliability and in turn lengthen the crap queue.

And so we come full circle, and return to Merlin's title: Never organise what you can discard. There is a need for a front end to (and set of contingencies for) GTD. Its pointless progressing to a very slick system for processing crap. Its not that GTD is complicated, but its wasted on the overwhelming majority of the stuff in my life. A simpler set of processing rules, with simple goals (perhaps GTD contingencies) of cleanness, simplicity, minimalism and clarity needs to be applied first. So like King Canute, I'm pushing back the sea of stuff with some simple questions. Not sure what they are exactly, as I rarely verbalise them, but probably: what is this costing me, is it paying its share of the mortgage, when did I last use it, if I loose it, can I get its functionality elsewhere? I've also taken to embedding a chuck-out in the daily routine. When, about mid-afternoon my brain is slowing, and I need a Pzizz, I first fill a carrier bag with stuff to chuck, or take to the charity shop. A bag a day, and I reckon by Christmas I'll be ready for GTD again.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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