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: The Tools to Purge BIG

[This is a first-person account of what's worked for me in preparing to gut the crap out of my house; you should feel free to do or not do any part of this -- or just adjust the recipe to whatever suits your own needs, hangups, household fetishes, and budget. But you knew that, right?]

My past attempts at removing clutter have consistently bottlenecked at a few common points. Often I wasn't really committed to the idea of a full purge, so I'd ignore whole boxes of memorabilia. Other times, my goal was primarily aesthetic, so I'd end up shoveling things into pretty boxes and "organizers". But I finally realized what's really been stopping me from accomplishing anything substantial. It's so simple and so dumb that I'm embarrassed to admit it: my garbage can was too small.

Yeah, I mean that both literally and figuratively. Because part of my success in purging this time around has come from thinking much bigger in every way -- I want bigger changes from throwing out more stuff including the big dumb items that won't fit in a garbage can. Here's some tools and processes that have helped me.

Basic supplies

The Brute Trash Can
Merlin's new best friend

First, I went to the store and bought two 32-gallon Brute trash cans, ten 12-gallon boxes, and a huge-ass roll of contractor bags.

One Brute can is for straight-up trash, and the other is for recycling (primarily paper); each gets lined with a contractor bag. If you've never used a contractor bag, you're in for a treat -- these things are tough as nails and can take almost anything you throw at 'em without tearing. You can even drag them to the curb without a peep.

The boxes I use to temporarily group and store stuff like DVDs, CDs, and books -- stuff that has made the first cut of de-cluttering, but that still need to be re-evaluated once I can see all of each item in one place (more on this in Walsh's book and in an upcoming post). These boxes aren't cheap, but they're sturdy, they stack neatly, and you can see the contents without needing to mark them. To me, it's worth the dough, because speed and convenience are factors, plus I can eventually reuse a few of these for actual long-term storage once I'm done (and any remainders will nest neatly in a stack).

Establish a "dump zone"

Use red gaffer’s tape to lay down a perimeter around your Dump Zone. Make it easy to see when you’re ready to schedule another dump run or drop-off.

Next, we cleared a space in the back of the garage to use as a "dump zone." Any non-perishable trash, recycling, and large, unbagged items go straight into this area as soon as they're identified and ready to go.

I cannot overstate the importance of making a zone like this early in your project. You must know without hesitation that whatever you run across -- no matter how big or bulky -- will find a temporary home in your dump zone before quickly being whisked out of your house forever. Seriously, if you could have gotten rid of that coat rack any other way, why haven't you? Put it in the dump zone, and get back to work. Volume, volume, volume.

Schedule the funeral

Try Freecycle:
Freecycle connects people who want to get rid of stuff with people who want that stuff. Purge with a conscience, and do someone a proper. Learn more from Unclutterer.

Finally, decide on your strategy for how the stuff will get out of your house, and schedule it. Whether you plan on dump runs, putting stuff on Craigslist, donating to Freecycle, or renting a 9-yard dumpster (yeah, I did that once), do make a hard appointment in the next week for making sure that this stuff will disappear -- even if that's an appointment with yourself, get it on the calendar and honor it.

Want to know what I did? I hired SF Hauling (Yelp). Tell James that Merlin sent you. These guys were amazing. I set up a time, they came to the house, and for a surprisingly modest price, they loaded and hauled my stuff away to be recycled or dropped off at the dump. In 15 minutes their guys filled a pickup truck, and I didn't have to lift a finger. (Hint: try searching Yelp or Craigslist to find a similar service in your area.)

But why does this scheduling matter? Why is this crucial to success? Why can't you just keep a casual pile of "to donate" stuff in a corner forever? Because you must not live with the stuff you've decided to get rid of, and setting a date-certain for when it will go away gives you incentive to fill your dump zone with as much crap as you can. If you hesitate here, I guarantee that you'll end up right back where you started -- you'll have wasted your time moving a bunch of shit from one place to another, then the cycle just starts over. Trust me: I had the coat rack to prove it.

Schedule it now.

Once more, unto the breach

10 Excuses:
Peter Walsh’s book, It’s All Too Much, explores 10 excuses people give for suffering clutter. Excuse #1 is “I might need it one day.” Know what? You won’t.

Once you have the tools you need and have scheduled your crap's means of egress, then you can spend all your available time up til dump day filling bag after bag with dumb stuff -- and you'll never have to hesitate, thinking you'll overfill your city trash can or overwhelm the recycling dudes. You can just focus on moving huge volumes of junk into the dump zone and out of your life.

Drawers full of broken pencils? Into the bag. Boxes of magazines you'll never read? Into the bag. Cupboards full of "collectible" cups and baskets of single socks? Into. The. Bag.

Like I say, you should do whatever works for you, but like any life-hacky trick, remember that this works because you're setting rules and accepting constraints. If you could do this without a system, why haven't you?

These are the basics of my system, and they are working for me. More on the subtler processes of uncluttering forthcoming. But, whatever you do: think big and then get going.

freddy's picture

(Hm, I thought I posted...

(Hm, I thought I posted but perhaps it was just preview...)

Merlin, it seems like you're dealing with the big initial decluttering project right now, which is cathartic and an Event. I'll also be interested to see what you develop as small daily/weekly habits to keep stuff under control once you're done with the purge.

Here are a few things that have helped me get more of the upper hand against my stuff in the last year:

  1. Naked Lady Parties (clothes swaps). The real gift from these hasn't been the cute, free clothes (though that's nice) but the knowledge that every couple of months I can let go of clothes. Somehow it's easier because they get scheduled regularly, because it's easier to let go of things knowing that someone will be excited to get them, and because getting free clothes has given me an easy come, easy go relationship with clothes. I always keep a bag in my closet and any time I come across something that I am bored with / shrank / outgrew / replaced, I just toss it in there right away.

  2. Small Batch Goodwill. I leave a bag in our entryway and toss anything I don't want (right away! no second thoughts!) in it. Then I give myself permission to take the bag any time I'm going near a donation thrift store, even if it just has a couple of things in it. It doesn't have to be a giant trip.

  3. Cornerside Freecycle. Put it on the corner, tape a free sign to it, place bets on how long it will last. I don't put out anything that's not functional, and usually it's gone within 30 minutes.

  4. Weekly Reviews. OK, I'm still working on this one, but I do notice that if I'm regularly reviewing my systems, it focuses me on my true priorities and the tools (= possessions) I really need to achieve them. If piano lessons haven't shown up on my active projects list for the last 156 weeks, maybe I can let go of the piano (or at least purge most of my music books and pack the piano away).

  5. Love Your Library. This is the biggie for me. A few years back I decided to stop buying books. Our local library is wonderful, so I just decided to view all those books as my very own, that my own personal librarians do me the favor of storing and organizing, and retrieving and delivering to my local branch at the drop of a webform. I only buy reference books and cookbooks (and these only after trying them out from the library first to make sure I need them, and doing my best to enforce a one-in/one-out policy). This simple action has freed me from so much stuff, not to mention saving me money and bookshelf space. I suspect I pay for most of a vacation every year with the money I'm not spending on books.




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. »