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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?

Michael Shulver's picture

Back in 1967, I got...

Back in 1967, I got a toy machine gun for Christmas. This thing was huge, and made a hell of a noise. It had a fake plastic "flame" that popped out of the front every time it went rat, tat, tat. A couple of days after Christmas I remember I shouted at my Sister to stop playing with it as the noise was driving me nuts. In Late January of 68 a friend's house, just down the street, burned down. The local kids (the ones from wealthier families mostly) decided to donate a toy each to the two boys who had lost everything. I donated my machine gun. My family was not wealthy.

I remember my parents asking "are you sure." And remember my Dad muttering about the fact that the fire victim's were loaded anyway, and did not need the donations.

Zip forward to today. At the weekend my partner encouraged me to go through my wardrobe to see whether there were any shirts I could take to the charity shop. She was fed up with cramming clothes into a limited space. Hanging at one end of the wardrobe was a shirt she got me for Christmas in 2005. I wore it for Christmas lunch, and its been hanging there since.

The point of these stories? The fact that I can remember the first, in vivid detail after some 40 years is significant. I think back to those events and feel a great deal of guilt and shame at my ingratitude. I can rationalise all I like with my adult mind, but nothing changes, I still feel bad. Same deal today. Its really hard to take a hardly worn shirt worth £20 to the charity shop, because of the ingratitude some part of me thinks it broadcasts to my partner.

The point again? Emotional attachment to stuff is really hard to break. Its a double hit actually. You feel bad because you are not wearing the shirt, and you feel bad if you get rid of it. You feel bad because you are not exploiting that Tungsten E2 that's sitting in the drawer, and you feel bad about the thought that its now only worth £10 in Ebay. etc, etc..

So, what to do about this? I think I'll read the book, but I suspect there is something else I need to do that is more fundamental. Implicit in the earlier posts is the notion of applying full costs and values to stuff. Its too easy to look at that manual for Illustrator 9.0 as a beautifully produced book, which cost you a mint back in the day, which could be so useful one day ... etc .. but its easy to forget the cost of it living rent free on the shelf in front of my desk, not earing its keep and staring at me, creating guilt all day long. The guilt? Well, I might not be able to deal with that directly, but a "full-costing" might make me angry enough to chuck it in the bin / charity shop ... whatever. In this way, by the time the guilt surfaces the offending bit of crap will be long gone.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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