zenhabits : breathe

The Clean-Slate Guide to Simplicity

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jeffrey Tang of The Art of Great Things.

When we think about simplifying, we usually think about subtraction. Getting rid of excess stuff. Clearing away obligations. Deleting old emails.

We simplify by paring away the layers of something until we find the core. Too many books on the shelf? Give them away, one by one, until you’re left with a manageable number of the volumes you really enjoy.

But decluttering this way is hard. For example:

Do you really want to pull dozens of books off the shelf one by one, trying to decide whether to keep or sell each one?

Do you have the time to go through hundreds of backlogged emails, choosing which to save and which to delete?

And there’s another obstacle. When you’re forced to choose to keep or discard something, uncertainty rears its ugly head. “Can you really afford to throw this away?” it whispers. “Are you sure you won’t need it eventually? Sure, you’re on a simplification kick now – but will you regret it later?” Playing the willpower game with uncertainty gets exhausting.

Simplifying Backwards is Easier

If you’re having trouble deciding when to hold on to something and when to let it go, try doing things backward. Learn to add responsibly instead of subtracting.

I call it the clean-slate approach to simplifying. Here’s how it works, in three steps.

Step one: Take all the clutter you’re facing, useful or not, and put it away. All of it. Put the pile of clothes in a box; put the old emails in a hidden folder. Now you have a “clean slate” to work with, but you don’t have to throw anything away. Yet.

Step two: Go about your business as usual. As you discover a genuine need for something (genuine being the operative word), take it out of storage with a clear conscience. No more agonizing over what to keep. Life will show exactly which things you actually need, and which things you only thought you needed.

Step three: When you’re ready, sell, donate, or throw away the stuff in storage. It’s easier now, since you’ve had weeks or months to overcome your attachment to it.

And here’s a bonus: if you develop the discipline to only put stuff back in your life when you absolutely, positively need it, you’ll find it easier to keep from buying, collecting, or accumulating unnecessary stuff in the first place.

4 Ways to Simplify with the Clean Slate Method

How can you put this method to use? Here are a few ideas:

1. Clean Out Your Email: If you’re staring hopelessly at an inbox full of read and unread messages, email drafs, and spam, consider declaring email bankruptcy.

If you use Gmail, the archive feature lets you easily move all the mail out of your inbox and into a separate folder. Instant inbox zero. If you use a desktop mail client like Outlook, you can export your mail data to a separate folder, then clear out your active inbox.

Worried about missing obligations to friends or customers? Send an email to your important contacts explaining your email bankruptcy and asking them to remind you of anything vitally important.

And now? Go about your business. If you need an old email, move it from your archive folder into another, active folder. Simple. Don’t stress, don’t agonize – just go with the flow.

2. Pare Down Your Library: Clear off your bookshelves and put all the books in a box. Now you have empty shelves to work with.

If you discover you need a book to read or reference, pull it out of the box and put it back on the shelf. Books that you need and love will naturally come back into your life; books that were just nice to look at or think about reading will stay out of your way. This also works well with DVDs, CDs, or cassette tapes, if you have them.

Eventually, you may feel ready to donate or sell that box of old books entirely.

3. Reformat Your Computer: The easiest way to do this is with a secondary hard drive or USB flash drive. Take all your files and programs and copy them to your secondary drive. Then reformat (wipe) your primary hard drive and reinstall your operating system of choice.

Going forward, only allow yourself to download a file or install a program if life shows you a genuine need for it. Try to avoid overlaps: do you really need that fancy word processor – or is the simple text editor you already have enough?

On the other hand, when you do find a genuine need for a new program, you can install it without feeling guilty.

4. Simplify Your Closet: Take all your clothes and put them aside. Most items can go in a box or a drawer. If you’re worried about your nicer garments, just push them to one side of the bar or use a placeholder hanger to divide your “storage” section from your “useful” section.

You may also want to commit to a regular laundry schedule – waiting three or four weeks to do laundry is a sure way to fall right back into a cluttered closet.

After a while, you’ll develop a cycle or routine of clothing that shows you exactly which clothes you actually need, and which clothes are just closet eye candy.

Setting a Purge Deadline

To really make the clean slate method work for you, it’s helpful to set a purge deadline. This deadline is how long you allow yourself to keep all your old stuff in storage before you get rid of it for good.

When you set the deadline is up to you. You might decide to eliminate anything you haven’t found a need for within 60 days, or 90 days, or a month. Whatever your number is, it’s a good idea to commit to it in advance, so there’s no second-guessing yourself later on.

The clean-slate method is just one way to simplify your life and your stuff, but it’s worked very well for me. If you find it difficult to simplify the “normal” way, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Jeffrey writes about simplicity, great work, and lifestyle leadership over at The Art of Great Things. Read more by subscribing to his feed or following him on Twitter.



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