Reducing Clutter - Think About the Outputs

by Mike Shea on 12 June 2009

For a long while now, I've been on a kick to reduce things in my life. Everything from methods of communication to the crap I carry around in my brief case, I'm constantly trying to see how I can cut things out of my life so I can relax and focus on the things that really matter to me.

I have a checklist of ten things I try to do every day that are important to me. Ten direct actions I want to take every day of my life. I actually accomplish about five to eight of these each day, not ten, but rather than have loose ideas about what I should be doing, I try to keep concrete actions of the important things in my life in the front of my mind every day.

One of these ten actions is "simplify". Every day I want my life to be simpler than the day before. Every day I want to take some action to make my life easier. The easiest way is to get rid of stuff. I haven't read the book It's All Too Much, but I'm betting I'd love every word.

The easiest way to reduce crap is to never let it in in the first place. I'm not very good at this. I buy a lot of stuff I don't really need. Best is to seriously consider not only the cost of the stuff, but the cost of keeping the stuff - your physical and mental space.

One of the ways I help reduce the amount of crap in my life, once it has entered, is to think about the outputs. Every time some new thing shows up, I consider how that thing will leave again. How can I get rid of something when it is no longer of value to me? Am I prepared to throw it away? Is it easy to do so? Can I donate it or sell it when I'm done?

Books, movies, clothing, video games; all of these have a pretty easy output - donate them. Other stuff, especially larger stuff, isn't as easy.

Think about the stuff that comes into your life as part of a system. How do things leave that system? When piles of mail show up every day, what system do you have to get rid of it? What is your plan for handling those Asimov magazines that keep showing up and never get read? Let them pile up until they collapse on you, kill you, and then your family comes and throws them away? That doesn't seem like a very good system to me.

There are a few other simple philosophies that can help people reduce:

  1. For every item that enters your house, two items must leave. This constant reduction may take a long time, especially if you're a pack rat, but the overall effect is constant reduction.

  2. For every pound of stuff you bring into your house, two pounds must leave. Much like the first idea, you will see constant reduction and your moving bill will go down a lot. Which brings me to a third idea.

  3. Move. Living in a 690 square foot apartment didn't leave me much room for stuff. When I finally moved into our townhouse, I had thrown away so much junk that I never wanted it to collect again. Moving is a great cleanser of crap. The key is to leave your pack rat behavior back in your old place and start living like a monk in your new place.

Not everything fits well into this ideal, but this sort of thinking - thinking about your life as a system of inputs and outputs, can be very freeing. The next time you see something coming into your world, ask yourself how it will leave it again.