The process of decluttering is a lot like GTD. For the uninitiated, GTD or Getting Things Done is the time-management process taught by David Allen, but I like to think of it as a decision-making process instead. In GTD, you make choices about what things that come into your life mean, whether and where they’ll find a place in it or not – a process that comes in very handy when you’re cleaning up your clutter.
Why Get Things Decluttered?
David Allen, the founder of GTD, likes to make the point that the stuff in your life occupies psychic RAM – the problem is that most people don’t process that stuff properly and so it creates unnecessary stress.
In the same way, the stuff you own doesn’t just occupy psychic RAM in your head, it occupies real physical space in your house. But is that stuff relevant to who you are and who you want to be? Do you still have copies of CDs you haven’t heard in over 10 years or books about subjects you’d never be interested in again?
Besides organizing your time, GTD is also about defining what things mean to you and placing them into appropriate places (the GTD contexts). You don’t need to be reminded to buy milk when you’re in the office, so in GTD you have specific to-do lists for different places and times.
Getting things decluttered doesn’t just mean deciding what to do with your stuff, but also what your stuff means and where it belongs. Giving things a proper place helps you file and find them easily, which also cuts down on the stress in your life.
Step One: Where To Put Your Stuff?
It helps to have what GTD calls a single collection point, or an inbox for your incoming stuff that you can continuously clear. GTD strives to have a clear inbox because that means the incoming stuff in your life has been clearly put into the places they belong, and there they can be easily maintained.
I know it’s strange to think of something as ethereal as an email inbox in your room but just think of it as a place you put all your incoming stuff. It has to be in a convenient place (so you can use it easily) and easily seen (so you can’t escape it).
For example, I have a couple of nice plastic trays I got from MUJI (one of my absolute favorite stores) for my inbox. But after a few weeks, I realized it wasn’t working, they looked great on my desk but after stashing stuff inside the trays I would forget about them.
I stumbled upon a much easier hack, the nice big table space in front of the trays. It was easier to use, I would just dump all my incoming mail, documents and stuff on it. Because it was right in plain sight, I couldn’t escape any growing piles of clutter. And because I’m such a neat-freak, I knew it would compel me to act on them, and I do.
Step Two: Is This Actionable?
Stuff comes into your life, whether it’s a proposed meeting, a stray piece of paper or stuff that’s already there like the old clothes in your cupboard that you hardly put on anymore. What do you do about them?
In GTD, the first step you take whenever you approach stuff is to ask if it’s actionable: can you, or do you want to take an action on this? When decluttering, what action can you take on your stuff to clear or organize them?
For example, with bills, I act on them by stashing them in my daily bag, so I will pay them the next time I’m out. With old clothes, you can ask if you’ll ever act on them by wearing them again.
Sometimes the ‘is this actionable’ question doesn’t apply, then I like to ask myself another question; ‘does this item add to my life or take away from it?’, or ‘does this thing help me move closer to the vision I have of my life?’
It’s not about the stuff -– it’s about the life you wish to live. Sanctimonious neatfreaks are unbearable and are usually caught up in their own self-importance. It’s important to remember that what you own and where and how you live is a reflection of the person you are. A clutter-free, organized life is about living in a way that helps create your best possible life – happy, stress-free, creative, motivated and enriching. Happiness can’t be found in the quantity of stuff we own, it’s in the quality of relationships that we form. What we own should foster that life, not be a hurdle to it.
This is the way I decided to throw away a whole collection of old books that were about subjects I was no longer interested in anymore. If you have something that you won’t act on again, or don’t add to the quality of your life anymore, then move them to the next step of GTD: trash them or stash them.
Step Three: Stash or Trash?
In GTD, after deciding something isn’t actionable you can either trash it, file it in a Someday/Maybe corner or keep it for useful reference.
When decluttering, I like to add in an additional, environmentally-friendly step: recycle it. So instead of just junking something, stop and ask yourself if you can sell it, give it away or bring it to a recycling bin.
If you decide to put it away because it still has relevance for you – you might maybe someday use it – or for reference like old books or mail, the most important step is to have handy, defined places to keep your stuff. Clothes go into a clothes drawer, old bills go into a clearly-labeled file, old CDs go into the same box.
GTD to Getting Things Decluttered: The Summary
At its heart, the GTD process to Getting Things Decluttered is a way to decide and find out what the things you own mean to you. Are they still relevant? do they help you move towards the life you want, or do they belong to an older vision of you? How can you clear it from your inbox – do you act on it, find a place for it or remove it entirely?
Some people think that a decluttered life means a life utterly devoid of belongings, but I don’t think of it that way. To me, a decluttered life is pretty lean, but only because you keep things that are relevant and add color to your life. You put them in places that make sense and where you can find them easily, and you don’t allow irrelevant things to take your space and time – a very GTD philosophy, don’t you think?
Whatever system you create in your life to handle your stuff, keep it as simple to use as possible. Like a machine, anything that has more parts will have more points of failure, the easier you make it to declutter and organize your things the more you’ll be sure you’ll do it.
Useful Ways to Get Things Decluttered
Unclutterer is the blog about getting and staying organized, and one of the favorites on my lean reading list. Erin from Unclutterer has also written posts for Zen Habits, which has more than a few useful posts on decluttering and the mindset behind leading a simple life, like a guide to creating a minimalist home and a minimalist’s guide to fighting (and beating) clutter entropy.
To find out more about GTD, visit David Allen’s official website, 43 Folders’ Best of GTD series, or buy the book Getting Things Done : The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.