The 1, 2, 3 step remedy to becoming clutter-free

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 29, 2022.

Stop what you’re doing.

Yup, stop reading (well, read the next sentence, then really stop).

Look around the space you’re in – how does it make you feel?

…….Okay, back to the blog….

What came to mind? Calming? Inspiring? Organized? Functional? Practical?

Or, did words come to mind like: chaotic, frantic, busy, distracting, messy, cluttered?

My guess is there’s room for improvement.

And we can start by looking at the cost of distraction.

The cost of distraction

Our brain doesn’t process what we see through a filter for importance—in the instant you see something unfinished, it’s all important.

That half-read book, client files, sticky note with log-in password, cables that used to connect some thingy to another thingy, gratitude journal (last updated 3 weeks ago), and…well, you get the idea.

It’s all there, snagging your attention, presenting a false urgency and leading you to hop from task to task – all the while feeling like you’re running behind.

Researchers were “absolutely shocked” to learn how bad we are at multitasking.

Researchers at Stanford were “absolutely shocked” to learn how bad we are at this form of multitasking. Not only are we not more productive as we frantically switch between conversations, spotting an unfinished file, to our screen, to the crack in the drywall we meant to get fixed, back to the conversation – we are terrible at it.

Maybe you’re way ahead of me here (clever you) and have already jumped to the punch line: remove low-value distractions and get back to high-value work.

But, I know you’ve heard all this before. I mean, the idea of decluttering certainly isn’t new.

Well, if you’ve not heeded the warning bells in the past, let me tell you a story about letting go.

Maybe you can’t let go

What would you pay for a coffee cup?

Think about all the cups already crowding your kitchen cupboards (we could probably lose half of ours and not even notice) and it’s probably hard to imagine coughing up more than a couple of bucks.

In a clever experiment, famed psychologist Daniel Kahneman*and Jack L. Knetsch gave a bunch of unsuspecting Cornell undergrads new coffee mugs and then asked them to set a price they were willing to sell the mug for. Another group of students, after observing the same mugs, was asked to set the price they were willing to pay.

Daniel Kahneman, author – Thinking, Fast and Slow

The results were dramatic – sellers wouldn’t part with their prized mug for less than an average of $7.12 and buyers wouldn’t go over $2.87. Why the difference?

It’s called the Endowment Effect – we put more value on items once we own them. So, that shirt in the closet you haven’t looked at, let alone worn, in years, old books crowding your bookshelf, and the boxes of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1962 have all been going up in value in your mind, while going down in value in the market.

And if inflated value isn’t enough, you might also be addicted to distraction.

Addicted to distraction

We know physical clutter has a direct negative impact (the bad kind) on our ability to process information and focus. Just like a child repeatedly screaming “Look at me!, Look at me!, Look at me!, Look at me!, Look at me!” it’s snags our attention away from what we want to be thinking about to an energy-burning morass of low-value detours.

Steve Jobs – home office

So, why don’t you carve out 30 minutes a week and ‘Hoover’ your desk back into shape?

Maybe you’re addicted to busy.

Well, at least I know I am.

  • I like having 8 boulders (big projects) on the go and thinking I’m heroically juggling them all.
  • I’ve arrived at many a yoga class in a sweat, having just rushed a conference call to get there on time.
  • In a 10 minute meditation, I’ll spend the first 3 minutes wondering if everyone fakes meditation and the last 5 minutes wondering if my time is up (am I alone on this?).
  • I will make a lot of noise about taking a Friday off and then secretly hope someone books an appointment so I can feel productive.

I’m a self-confessed busy-aholic. And I know I’m not alone.

Author and speaker, Brené Brown, once wrote about this problem being is so epidemic that “when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.”

There are as many strategies for reducing clutter as there is, well, clutter. So, in the spirit of less-is-damn-well-best, I’ve got 3 for you.

The 1, 2, 3 remedy

Take a deep breath, here we go with my formula for making your life just a little bit better.

1. Zero sum adding

A simple solution to putting a squeeze on clutter is to start with a one-in, one-out policy. When we both had young, toy-hungry kids at home, my friend Greig Gjerdalen (in 2011 we competed in the Yukon River Quest) used this strategy. Here’s how it works.

If you’re temped to buy a book, you first need to pull one off the shelf to go to your local used book store. More clothing? One comes off the rack at home. Want a funky new app on your phone? Yup! Delete one first.

This rule does not apply to pets, food or small children.

2. Does it make you happy?

Purchases must either increase utility or happiness. Utility comes from fixing a problem or making life better.

I love my back roller. Sure my gym has a bucket full of them, but having a $20 back roller at home means I can flop down for a good grind on days I’m not gym-bound. That’s utility.

Happiness is a little more tricky – we know the experience of buying and anticipation of ownership can be greater than the happiness we derive from the actual purchase. So, it’s easy to get seduced by how we feel about a purchase, only to experience no long-term gain. This happens all the time—you bring new clothes, shoes, a camera, decorations or your husband home and now you’ve got more stuff, but you’re no happier.

The dopamine-destroying question I like to ask is “One month from now will my life be an iota better?” Almost every time, the answer is “Nope”.

3. The one-month test

This last strategy is the most devious. Start by collecting items of questionable, or no value, into a bankers’ box. I like banker boxes because, first I have loads of them from old accounting records, and second, they have lids. Load up your box of old electronics (like that Medusa-snaggle of old printer and camera cables), books, coffee mugs, clothing (yes! clothing), slap a lid on it, mark it with the date one month from now and get it out of sight. That’s step one.

Next, mark your calendar one month from now with a little reminder, like “Empty unwanted stuff from banker box” (do not write: “Go through banker box” – this is not a review!). That’s it! If you’ve not needed anything in the box for one month, well then, you’ll never need it (thank me in the comments).

That my 1,2,3 steps to going clutter free.

Now, it’s time for me to head to the attic and take a “Before” picture.

*If you are at all interested in why humans (of course I mean everyone else) do stupid things so predictably and the ground-breaking work of Daniel Kahneman and his famous partner, Amos Tversky I highly recommend reading:

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman) and Michael Lewis’s (The Big Short, Flash Boys, Moneyball) The Undoing Project.