5. The First ‘S’: Simplify

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Previously, I introduced a simple and effective three-step approach to organizing which I call “The Three S’s of Organizing.” The three S’s are simplify, sort, and store. Let’s jump right in with the first S, simplify.

Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify, our life is frittered away by detail.” It’s been my experience that most people, not everyone but most people, have more possessions than they need to live a full and vibrant life. At least 90% have more possessions than they can get any benefit from, and even more than they believe are important. I’ve heard people say many times “I have so much stuff that’s unimportant I can’t get to the stuff that is important.”

Simplifying means eliminating anything that’s not serving you. It means asking yourself the question “should it stay or should it go?” Does it support what’s important in my life, or does it get in the way of what’s important in my life? I call it simplifying because eliminating unneeded items makes the organizing process, and life in general, more simple. It’s easier to access, organize, maintain, clean, keep track of, and use a smaller number of items than larger. It is possible to keep everything you have, and just arrange it so that you can find everything, however simplifying is often an important part of the organizing process.

I was deeply touched by a client named Vicky. When I asked her to look at what was really important in her life, it became really clear that she was passionate about being able to spend time and share activities with her family, which included two young children. It brought a tear to her eye when she described how the 90 boxes of stuff in the garage were interfering with that. The time she spent looking for things was taking away from the time she could spend with her kids. Also, even when she was enjoying herself with family, the image of the unpleasant situation in the garage and her unhappiness with it was always in the back of her mind. It was unfinished business that became a burden to her and interfered with her ability to enjoy herself. I was honored to support her in a tremendous amount of simplifying. Through this process, she felt lighter, more positive, and more empowered to act on her passions.

Simplifying can be easy and fun, especially if you’re in touch with your goals and what is truly important in your life. It can also be very satisfying to know that the items you are letting go of may be of tremendous benefit to someone else.

William Morris, a 19th-century textile designer and writer about interior design, recommended “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, said something similar. “Have nothing in your home that is not beautiful or functional.”

Those are some very broad, general guidelines. I’d like to offer some more specific suggestions to help you decide if something should stay or go. The following characteristics indicate that a possession may be ripe for simplifying:

• The object, as is, is unusable. It is broken or doesn’t work. Perhaps you have the idea that you might fix it someday. This is an example of what I call a project, something in which you must invest time, effort, money, or all of these before you can get any benefit from the possession. I’ll talk specifically about projects in a future podcast.
• It is not being used. Objects, like muscles, tend to atrophy from lack of use.
• It is out of date or obsolete. For example, old computer equipment may no longer be usable. Information about getting a real estate loan from 2006 will no longer be useful because that industry and the regulations governing it have changed so much in the past few years. It’s been my experience that having an out-of-date map can sometimes be worse than having no map at all. An out-of-date map can actually point you in the wrong direction, whereas if you didn’t have that map, you would be forced to get the information from a more current source, like asking for directions or using an online map program.
• It contains only information accessible via other sources. Print outs of websites are great examples of this. If you let go of the paper, you can still access the information. Furthermore, a paper printout is never updated and may get out of date, while the corresponding website is more likely to be updated and therefore have accurate information.
• It is redundant with other possessions. If you are disorganized, you may have had a situation where you bought something even though you already own one just like it. Either it was easier to buy a new one than to find the one you already have, or perhaps you forgot that you already own it. In any case, as you get organized it’s common to find redundant belongings, like 10 staplers, for example.
• It no longer matches your taste, your decor, or your lifestyle. For example, you may have a light fixture which doesn’t look good in your current residence. You may have rock climbing equipment but have no intention of ever going rock climbing again.
• It has relatively low value compared with everything else going on in your life, and all the other stuff that you have.

All the above are characteristics of the possession itself. But beyond that, you also want to look at your relationship with the possession or your opinion of it. Here are three good questions to ask:

• First, does it support what’s important in your life? For example, it might enable you to do activities that are important to you. It might empower you to reach goals that you want to reach. My first two podcasts address this question in detail.
• Second, does it “uplift” you? In other words, do you love it? Does it bring you joy? Does it make your heart sing? Does it make you feel good about yourself?
• Third, if this thing were gone from your life, what’s the worst thing that could happen as a result? This could range from “I would never miss it” to “I would deeply regret that it is gone.”

I will discuss simplifying more deeply in upcoming posts. I’ll look at gifts, projects, stuff you “might use someday,” our emotional relationship with our possessions, and “The Hidden Cost of Stuff,” coming up next.

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