Create Your Own Decluttering Process

What's in my backpack?

How many laptop bags does one person need?

Minimalism is about auditing your life and reducing it to the essentials. It's about letting go of possessions bought merely to satisfy some momentary urge or knee-jerk response to an ad. Minimalism is about curating possessions so that the ones that remain are in your life because the serve a specific purpose and bring you joy.

The work of decluttering can be a bit overwhelming when you first tackle it, but it so worth it. Reducing your possessions to the essential frees you mentally. Getting off the consumerist borrow-and-spend -to-acquire-stuff-you-don't-need treadmill frees you financially. In order to give yourself the best chance to succeed when you first start editing your possessions, have a system ready for how to make these decisions so that you end up with the best possible result.

What I mean is that it is very easy to attack the challenge of decluttering by simply throwing a whole bunch of stuff away. In fact, getting rid of things feels so good at first, you may overdo it. Three days after a purge, you might be feeling regret about some of the things that mad edit in the pile.

Or, on the flip side, some people meet resistance the moment they start purging their precious *stuff*. It's difficult to hold a gift someone gave you, no matter how useless, and let it go. Hanging on to things for sentimental or emotional reasons can leave you not much better off than when they started.

To help you avoid either of those pitfalls, it's important to prepare yourself in advance. Know what you want your final outcome to be an have a process for dealing with the task of decluttering.

We all find our own way, but this is the system that works for me:

  1. Target - I first Identify a category or area of possession that I want to declutter (Closet, Garage, Laundry room, TV cabinet, etc.).
  2. Remove - I then pull everything I own in that category or place out so I can see it all at one time.
  3. Analyze - I try to understand what led me to each of the choices in that pile. Which items bring me joy? What about them works for me? What about them gave me challenges? I get clear in my mind what the ideal thing(s) are in that category.
  4. Separate - I separate the pile into thirds - trash, give-away, and keep.
  5. Review - I review the keep pile one last time and hold each item in my 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.
  6. Return - I place the keep items back into the space in a clean, organized way (I 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.

We used this process on our bedroom closet, which was a crowded mess of things we never wear overwhelming the ones we did. We have a six-drawer dresser in the bedroom that was the the same. When we were done running through the decluttering process, we ended up with a lean, organized, half-empty closet. And no dresser at all! And I think we can go through one more time and trim a few more things out of what we kept.

I understand that this is a first-world problem, but I am sharing this next experience, this example of how  applied the logic above to declutter one small, personal area of my life, to help someone who is looking at an area of their life they would like to streamline.

Decluttering the work bag; a post-mortem

For as long as I have been working, I have carried some kind of bag or briefcase. The essential tools of work for me are laptop, notebook, pen, and the miscellany associated with daily working life (charger cable, headphones, spare ink for the pen, maybe a file folder or two). When I drive to work, that bag sits on the passenger seat of my car. When I travel, that bag serves as my carry-on. When I (occasionally) ride a bicycle to work, it sits on my back and is filled with a change of clothes on top of my work gear. When I ride my motorcycle, locally or long distance, it carries these same essentials at high speeds, in all weather.

In the past fifteen years, I had accumulated a number of work bags. Each one arrived in my life for a different reason. Each one had strengths, but each one also had weaknesses. So I never settled on one bag. I was always searching for the next one. For fashion reasons. Because the one I used at the time was imperfect in some way. Because I saw something someone else had and Just Had To Have a New Bag! When we decide to declutter, this is one of the areas of my life I wanted to fix. Here are the bags I owned and why (and this does not take into account the ten or fifteen backpacks bought on impulse or acquired as giveaways at trade shows and events.

  • Courier bag - roomy, my Timbuk2 courier bag was my favorite. It made a great overnight bag for travel. But, it was so roomy that when I needed to carry only my laptop and a notebook, it was too big. It was also not so conformable on the bicycle as you'd expect; the weight would shift awkwardly on my back and the strap pulled into my shoulder.
  • Leather briefcase - I had a beautiful leather satchel I bought over a decade ago. At the time, I was in a phase where I thought I had to class up the way I dressed. Suits, ties, expensive shoes. This was the bag I thought fit that mold I was trying to fill. It is a really good bag, but awkward to carry on a strap (impossible to carry on a two-wheeled vehicle). It fit the basics and had room for files and notes, but wasn't suited to carry clothes for overnights.
  • Backpack - The company I work for gave me a backpack the last time I visited the factory. I love the look of it and it was currently in use at the time of the decluttering. But, it is compact and the material thin so I found myself being careful every time I set it down because the padding for the laptop compartment felt insufficient.
  • Thule laptop case - My most recent purchase was an $80, semi-hard-sided laptop clamshell bag made by Thule. I liked it for everyday work, but again, it would not take an overnigt-trip's load. Also, the configuration of the single shoulder strap was awkward and unbalanced.
  • Chrome reporter's satchel - during one of my I-must-solve-my-work-bag-problem phases (or maybe just a caught-up-in-a-desire-to-buy-a-new-bag phase), I purchased a Chrome reporter's satchel. When I whittled my workday carry to the minimum, my other bags were way too big. I wanted something slim and sleek. This bag, with a single shoulder strap and lean, canvas pouches, made it into the collection. But, yet again, I quickly realized that I valued the extra space other bags afforded and hated the sharp-edged single strap. Also, this bag had no other handle to grab, so it was awkward to carry.

Hopefully, you get the point. I spent $1,000 trying to buy a solution to the challenge of what I needed every day to carry my working tools around with me, but every purchase fell short in some way.

Taking this declutter through the process I laid out above, I examined the pros and cons of each bag and built a profile of what I actually wanted. I wanted the lifetime quality of the courier bag with the design elegance of the leather briefcase and the Chrome reporter's satchel. I wanted a backpack configuration for carrying while riding a bicycle or motorcycle. I wanted significant protection for my laptop. I wanted room when I needed it to add more than the essentials when traveling.

Since none of these bags fit my essential needs, I let them all go. Which was tough, but I was determined to minimalize my life and this was the most glaring example of how I was holding onto things for all the wrong reasons. Then, armed with my ideal work-bag profile, I went online and opened myself up to find the right solution, determined to make no purchase until I felt completely sure I was buying my One Bag.

Based on the lifetime quality of my courier bag, I ended up on the Timbuk2 website. I picked a dozen models at first, adding anything that fit the basic criteria. Then I stared drilling into the details. I whittled the list repeatedly, making sure only bags that fit my every criteria remained in the pool of possibilities. Then I found myself with only one bag. I waited 24 hours to look at it again with fresh eyes, to again make sure it met all my criteria, and I purchased.

The bag is a backpack model Timbuk2 calls the Parker. At its core, the Parker is and everyday working bag for a commuter or bicycle couriers - weather-proof, high end rip-stop Cordura fabrics, heavy zippers and buckles; an industrial-grade product. It has reflective panels so I can be more visible when riding. It has a tight, well-padded laptop compartment. It expands so I can stuff it for overnight trips. It has multiple, organized pockets for all the small stuff I need to carry. It is, hands down, everything I needed.

So after tackling the decluttering of one small area of my life by having a system, by being thoughtful, intentional, and uncompromising, I went from a $1,000 pile of bags taking up a space in my bedroom to one, minimalist, full-time backpack that is perfect for my everyday needs.

What about you? What's the area of your life that is closest to you, where maybe you've overpurchased but have the most resistance to making tough decisions about what you truly need and what is superfluous?

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