Simplicity 101: reducing clutter via minimalism

One thing I’ve learned to appreciate more as I’ve gotten older is simplicity. Less confusion, less clutter, less distractions can yield less stress and more productivity. (Note: I appreciate it much more than I am actually successful at doing it.)

One area where simplicity is important is in web design. A recent article by Smashing Magazine, “Principles of Minimalist Web Design, With Examples,” does a fair job at illustrating the importance of simplicity on the web, even though it’s focus is more on graphical design (not my specialty!) than interface design.

A link in the aforementioned article goes to an article, “The Minimalist Principle: Omit Needless Things,” by zenhabits, which is the source of the remainder of my comments in this post.

An exercise in minimalism: reducing clutter

To do this exercise, you’re going to need a medium-sized box. Take your box and go into a room in your house (or office) that you want to simplify. Take a deep breath, and…

Step 1: Identify and Collect

Take a look around the room. (Don’t look inside drawers or cabinets; only take note of what you can see without interacting with anything.) Consider the importance and value of the items in it. After surveying, pick the item that you feel has the least importance and value and put it in the box.

Now, look around the room again. Pick the next least important/valuable item, and put it in the box. Repeat this process until the only items left in the room are ones you can not live without — they are too important or valuable to let go of.

To illustrate this exercise, I did it in my office at work. Looking around, I threw the following items in the box:

  • A half-empty bag of sunflower seeds
  • Three honey-herb Ricola throat lozenges
  • Half a tube of Ritz crackers
  • An AM/FM walkman with no headphones
  • A used iTunes gift card
  • Five white #10 envelopes
  • An empty box for a gooseneck desk lamp
  • A pile of papers and a manila folder which have been sitting untouched for at least six weeks
  • A stack of other people’s business cards
  • A small, empty plastic container
  • An empty stainless steel thermos

Step 2: Consider and Take Action

Sit down and take one item out of the box. Ask yourself the following five questions. Consider your answers and how they impact what you should do with that item.

  1. When was the last time I needed, used, or noticed this item? If you haven’t used something in a long time, or taken notice of it, it’s something that you probably don’t need.
  2. If not for this exercise, when would be the next time that I’d need, use, or notice this item? It’s one thing if you haven’t used it in a long time, and another if you don’t expect to use it for a long time, either.
  3. Does it provide long-term sentimental value? Sentimental items are often hard to give up, so think hard about whether this one item will really be in your shoebox in your golden years (see below).
  4. If it wasn’t here, would I miss it? That 5.25″ floppy disk hanging on my wall is a cool conversation piece, but I wouldn’t miss it if it was gone.
  5. Can it be easily replaced? After all, I could always find another 5.25″ floppy disk, or another reason to start a conversation.

Depending on your answers to each question, you should start understanding how much you need and value each item. You may choose to re-purpose an item to a different room (my empty thermos goes into a kitchen cabinet), store it in a more appropriate place (envelopes in my desk drawer), or put it in your shoebox (see below).

If you conclude that you really don’t need an item, try selling it on Amazon or eBay or craigslist (if it has any resale value); otherwise, recycle it or toss it in the trash.

The Shoebox

In considering items with long-term sentimental value, I follow the shoebox principle: Everything I want to keep long-term for sentimental reasons must fit inside a single shoebox. If the shoebox is full, I must remove something in order to make room for something new.

This may sound draconian, but it yields two benefits. First, it gives you reason to visit your shoebox every now and then; second, it forces you to keep only the items that have the most value, and value the items you choose to keep.

(Fortunately for me, I wear size 12 shoes, so my shoebox is larger than average; I suggest folks with small feet get a shoebox from a large-footed friend or neighbor.)

What have you gained?

In the end, take a look around at the room you simplified. Odds are, it feels larger, is less cluttered and easier to clean, and ultimately more enjoyable to be in. Keep doing this for each room in your house and office. Taking before and after pictures helps visualize your progress. When all is said and done, you’ll have taken your first step to simplifying your life!

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