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5Dec/180

The Physical and Emotional Challenge of Decluttering

Decluttering your life is not as simple as throwing away things. Not only do you need an efficient process to sort and classify the value of objects in your life, you also need to be prepared to deal with the mental and emotional challenges that will arise.

My wife and I are in the process of decluttering our lives. To start, we've gone room by room at our house, decluttering our closets, bathroom, bedroom, and living room. We've moved on to the kitchen. The only physical space we'll have left after that is the garage (where everything we've removed from the other rooms is piled up waiting to be picked over by our kids or donated to Goodwill).

I already feel lighter. Everything that remains is essential to us, useful, productive, and makes me happy to own. Gone are the random piles of things we didn't really know what to do with. Gone are the numerous decisions about what to wear (I pared my wardrobe down to multiple versions of my favorite jeans, tee shirts, underwear, shoes, with a few long shirts and a jacket). Gone is the head slap from tripping over things we bought but never used (with every possible movie and music album on streaming, why we held on to three copies of Old School on DVD makes no sense to me). And gone is the messy, cluttered evidence of the harder choices we neglected to make (we had 100 frames photos piled in a heap inside a coffee table purely because we were overwhelmed at removing the pictures from the frames and setting them up in proper, long-term photo storage).

We have a ways to go. Our home is not completely decluttered yet. Then we have our company office. Then things like cars and bikes. Then we plan to declutter our finances. And, finally, we'll attack the real reason why we're doing all this - to have the freedom to redefine our daily/working lives so we're living the best possible version of our lives.

So the process is worth the end goal, but is not easy. You don't just throw a bunch of stuff away and live happily ever after. It's a process. It requires work. By taking our time and processing through our home one decision at a time, we've learned that decluttering is both a physical and a mental process. Each part of the process needs to be approached differently. Here's what we learned about how to navigate decluttering your home.

The physical challenge - decluttering requires efficiency

Now that we have the experience of decluttering most of our home, we've refined the physical side of the job into a working system. It breaks down like this:

  1. Target - We first identify a category or area of possession that we want to declutter (Closet, Garage, Laundry room, TV cabinet, etc.). It may be that we're just attacking a single cupboard (the spice cupboard was a hot mess, as what our kitchen junk drawer)
  2. Remove - We then pull everything we own in that category or place out so we can see it all at one time. We brought one of those gray hard-plastic folding tables from Home Depot into the house to use as our sorting table. It makes things very easy and efficient.
  3. Analyze - We try to understand what led us to each of the choices in that pile. Which items bring us joy? What about them works for us? What about them gave us challenges? We get clear in my mind what the ideal thing(s) are in that category. Using the junk drawer as an example, we used it to house our spare keys to everything in one place. That's an essential function. As was keeping a pen and a pair of scissors close by. But the loose change, dead batteries, paperclips, and unregarded mail were all a psychic burden.
  4. Separate - We separate everything into three piles trash, give-away, and keep.
  5. Review - More accurately, it starts out as keep for sure, throw-away for sure, and consider for a minute. Items in the consider pile may shift to the keep or throw-away piles, but ultimately, we end the culling with usually 10% of what we started with in the keep pile.
  6. Return - We place the keep items back into the space in a clean, organized way (we buy storage and organizing containers and hangers only at this stage). The end result being that everything is essential, and everything has a place where it belongs.

The mental challenge - decluttering is about confronting attachment

The psychological burden of the process of decluttering your life is that you have to confront the attachment we have to the things in our lives.

In our sorting process, we have uncovered all kinds of useless objects that contribute to the clutter, but are difficult, at first, to let go of. You unpack a cluttered closet only to find a stack of birthday, anniversary, and Christmas cards. What do you do? These are the words of your loved ones, trapped in amber and preserved as archaeological evidence of their love for you? Do you just toss them in the trash?

This is the dilemma. You don't need these things, but you have strong attachment to them. Letting them go seems live a betrayal, a violation of the relationship between you and whatever you have attached as meaning to them. But, no object has any more meaning than you assign to it. Meaning, in and of itself, is a fabrication of your mind. While decluttering the house, we've learned to handle these confrontations with our attachment in a couple of ways.

First, we hold each item in our hand and ask: Do I need this? Does this bring value to my life? If the answer is yes, it stays. If the answer is no, it goes in the give-away pile. If you are clear and honest with yourself, the thing is an artifact of meaning you've attached to it. Asking yourself if the object holds the value, or what it represents holds the value, can you lead to redefine value. You may come to understand that what you actually valued about a thing is the underlying relationship or experience that you used to give the thing meaning in the first place. That discovery can put you on a path to a more fulfilled life, one with a shift in focus from the accumulation of things as a way to measure growth and happiness, to a life that values experiences and relationships. And when the things are all out of the way, your life becomes more open to new experiences and relationships, leaving you richer after all.

One last things on this. Going back to the cards as an example, there are a couple of final tricks to letting go of objects you have a complicated attachment to, an alternative to the just-throw-them-away approach. One trick is to have a temporary holding place in your garage, a bin where these objects can sit for a predetermined amount of time before they get donated or thrown away. We think we can't let go of that sweater our favorite aunt gave us nine years ago for Christmas, but if it sits unused in the holding bin for three months, you've learned that it is not essential to your happiness after all.

Another trick for handling objects you are struggling to let go of, is to just take a picture of them. Keep an album on your phone (and your cloud-based photo storage backup service) of these things. That way, you're free to let the physical object go, but have it saved permanently, with no clutter, to look at any time you want.

We're still on our journey to declutter our lives, but armed with a system for attacking clutter, and a mental process for dealing with the complex attachment issues related to our owning and collection of stuff, we feel great about the way our lives are evolving. What about you? Are you hemmed in by your physical possessions? Are you ready to let the stuff go? Have you found a system for dealing with a junk pile that works for you? How do you deal with the emotional hiccup that occurs when you hold something you value in your hands but know it needs to go in the throw-away pile? Comment below and let's share notes.

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1Dec/180

Decluttering your smartphone

I love technology. I always have. My first cell phone was a Motorolo 8000, the infamous 'brick' phone, large as a masonry block and just as heavy. My first personal computer the IBM AT 8800, replete with a green screen and floppy disks. I am old enough to see the evolution of most of the technology that we take for granted today, and some that used to seem futuristic; smartphones, personal computers, drones, robots, self-driving cars, etc.

Technology has improved our productivity and enhanced out lives. So many formerly analog tasks and media have been replaced by technology. But, along with all that productivity have come distractions. Apps designed to entertain us, to make us more productive, to encourage us to play and consume, gobble up an overwhelming amount of time. We are caught in a loop of self-perpetuating, addictive usage.

Like many of us, my biggest time-sucking technological device is the smartphone. Never more than an arms length away from me (even when sleeping), this powerful, candy-bar sized computer is a constant source of distraction and mindless consumption. I both love it and feel like I could not live life without it. We constantly check to see if there is a new email, text, or instant message for us to respond to. We fiddle with Facebook to get a dose of what-did-I-miss in a group of other people's lives. We scroll for fifteen minutes on Instagram at pretty images promoting other people's vision for their life. Twitter. Oh, God. Since Donald J. Trump became president, I would hover on Twitter in a constant state of anxiety expecting to read at any moment that society had collapsed. I log in to the websites of CNN and NPR and ABC News and NBC News and the New York Times and Fox News, not really sure what I'm hoping to read, but rattled nonetheless. Oh, I also YouTube and stream Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime on my phone. I'm stressed out just writing down the list of all the ways I use the smartphone mindlessly.

These uses of technology make us consumers, products of someone else's business, rather than a self-directed individuals using amazing new technology to empower our own lives. I hate myself for the addictive powerlessness I feel sometimes when I throw my precious life away on this device.

How can we get control our toxic use of technology? Should we get rid of our phones? Switch to a model with a limited display, one that only makes phone calls and maybe, if we're lucky, text messages? That's not really practical, right? Technology is not the problem. Our use of it is the problem. The manipulation of us as users by the manufacturer's and app developers is the problem. So we don't need to remove personal technology from our lives. We just need to minimize it.

Decluttering the smart phone

At its core, the smartphone is a computer that runs applications. Each application serves a specific function. Some are powerful computing tools, like email, which allow me to connect with people on my terms. Some are powerful personal tools; my banking app that allows me to oversee and manage my business and personal finances. Some are powerful information and entertainment tools; my Kindle reader that gives me access to all my reading material. Regaining control over the smartphone and turning it back into a tool for productivity is about curating apps and organizing the way you interact with device.

First, this means setting up the options on the phone to take away the things developers use to encourage overuse, like notifications, sounds, and available times. It then means sorting applications into three categories; keep, throw away, and consider.

The 'keep' applications are those that are essential to your everyday life, that lead to productivity, are valuable, and bring you joy. The calculator function is an example of this. I use it regularly and having access to a calculator on my phone means I don't have to possess a physical calculator. Same with the phone function itself. I wouldn't want to not be able to make and take phone calls. You want your keep applications readily accessible.

The throw-away applications are apps we never use and don't need. These could be apps installed by default with the device, apps we install to get access to a certain service, games we never play, or apps installed to support memberships and rewards points programs we can access another way. Get rid of of any app that you do not use (remember, if you get rid of anything in your life you later find essential, you can always bring it back).

Consider remaining applications carefully. They maybe important to you, but lead you to consumptive behavior. Email, Social-media apps, video apps, etc. The might properly belong in the remove pile, but we each have to make our own decisions on these. For me, getting rid of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as apps was a step (I've even gone so far to delete my Twitter account). Keep the apps you want access to, but use the phone's settings to minimize their intrusion into your daily life in several key ways.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

First, you can remove all notifications. Much of my smartphone use was triggered by the applications reaching out to me. I was getting a digital tap on the shoulder in the form of a ping or a pop-up or an icon on my home screen. My response to the tap was always to pick up my phone. I'd always check. Human Beings are wired to need certainty. Open a question in our minds and we are programmed to need to know the answer. It's a primal, base-level survival response. App developers know this and use it to manipulate us to use their apps. Removing notifications gets you back in control of one way the technology uses us rather than the other way around.

I also set my phone to automatically go into Do-Not-Disturb mode for specific hours every day. At 5pm, until 9am the next morning, only a programmed list of people important to me can reach me by phone or text. This small change put a giant border around my use of technology that gives me control of how the tool is used.

Another trick to get control over smartphone use is to minimize your phone screens. We decide where app icons appear on our phone, and we are able to have multiple screens. Put the essential apps, the ones you want quick access to, that don't lead to overconsumption or abuse your time, on the home screen. Bury other apps behind the home screen to add a layer layer of friction between the impulse to use the app (check email open Instagram) and the actual use of the app. This friction, the need to scroll to a second or third screen or first open a folder to gain access to an app, gives you a moment to challenge the impulse. I want to manage how often I check email, so I buried email in my phone. To get to my email app, I literally have to open my phone, scroll to the right four times, open a folder, scroll to the second page of icons, then click the email icon. That's enough effort that I question whether or not I really want to do this every time.

With my smartphone notifications silenced, do-not-disturb limiting access to me to working hours, and a screen layout that gets me quick access to the apps that I find essential, and adds friction to get to the apps I abuse, I feel like I am at peace with this technology now. How about you? Do you recognize the pervasiveness of this technology in your life? Do you feel out of balance, like you're giving too much time and energy to your smartphone that you want to redirect to more positive uses? How are you decluttering or minimizing your smartphone use?

The step-by-step to a decluttered smartphone:

  1. Scroll through your phone. Look at everything you've installed there. Create a list with three columns; keep, consider, and throw-away.
  2. Keep - list the essential apps. What do you need and use on a daily basis. Calendar? Calculator? Kindle Reader app? Phone, Text? Music, Podcast? These apps will stay, but the device will be setup to make them passive and readily accessible.
  3. Consider - decide which apps you use, but are habit-forming or you overuse mindlessly. For me, that's email and browsing the web. Those apps will stay, but will be silenced and placed behind a layer or two of friction.
  4. Throw-away - remove everything else that you can.
  5. Setup your screens. Home screen for need. Second screen with a folder full of the none-essentials. Maybe one screen per app (to force scrolling to find the one you typically use by habit and add friction).
  6. Setup a Do Not Disturb time.
  7. Establish your favorites (who will be able to penetrate the DND time).
  8. Turn off all notifications. All. Notifications. Except maybe the badges so long as they are not on the home screen. No push notifications.
  9. Charge your phone somewhere other than beside your bed.
  10. Leave your phone in your car when you go to the store or to a movie or to visit someone.