43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

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?

Phyll's picture

To Michael Shulver and anyone...

To Michael Shulver and anyone who puts GTD on hold until all clutter is purged and/or organized:

I put everything on hold for years. Then I decided to implement new systems for the stuff that happens going forward and just let the clutter get older and dustier until I formed new habits. IT WORKED!

Whenever I had to find something in the clutter, I would incorporate it into the new systems without sending it back to the clutter. After only a few months I began having thoughts like, "What IS all that stuff? Maybe it would be entertaining to look at some of it." I started looking at the clutter like I was at someone else's garage sale. There was no pressure to finish a decluttering project or to make decisions. I kept everything that I felt an attachment to.

Now here's the best part. The more times I looked at clutter items, the less attachment I felt. Previously when I had stored things and only looked at them every few years, I would think, "Wow, I remember this!" Now those things were starting to bore me. Also, I read somewhere that you should only keep memorabilia that gives you good feelings. If you feel attachment to something that gives you unpleasant feelings - get rid of it. If you feel guilty that you never used it, either use it now or get rid of it. If you kept it because someone else liked it, but you don't, get rid of it.

I have not completely uncluttered my life, but the clutter is no longer stopping me from getting things done. I have categories that haunt me - photos, music, recipes - because I want them all and organizing them is tedius. But I have purged clothes I don't wear, old dishes I don't use, broken equipment, other people's stuff, knick knacks that I no longer like, gifts I don't use, catalogs that are out of date, old magazines, archives of every bill I ever paid, reference books about old technologies, manuals and parts for equipment I no longer own.

My new GTD systems are working and my clutter is getting smaller. I will never be a minimalist, but packrat is no longer my middle name.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »