Historically, owning lots of stuff was a sign of prosperity. The wealthiest families had the hugest homes and palatial rooms with loads of decor. Women used to wear ridiculous amounts of jewelry, so their wealth was obvious at first sight.
In ancient Rome, even a big belly was a sign of prosperity as it meant you could afford to eat a lot, which wasn’t the case for most of the population.
Yet, the past decades changed how we think and live.
By now, most people know that health is wealth and try to keep their bellies rather small than big.
Similarly, more people in western countries choose a minimalistic life, reduce clutter, and design their homes and lives in simple ways.
Today, we’re experiencing a massive information overflow because of our access to the internet and the sheer amount of advertisements we’re exposed to.
That’s why so many people shift from owning lots of stuff to simplifying their lives.
According to Jim Kwik, we now consume as much data in a single day as an average person from the 1400s would have absorbed in their entire lifetime.
This perfectly illustrates why we often feel overwhelmed and exhausted, even if we don’t do much.
The truth is you don’t need most of the things you own and keep.
You don’t need thousands of screenshots on your phone or dozens of jackets and sneakers.
Owning a lot means that you need to organize more and keep more things clean. This is time-consuming and takes up mental space.
And as we’re all busy people, we want to keep our brains clear and fresh instead of overwhelmed.
Decluttering is about minimizing the chaos in your life. By doing so, you have more time and energy to master unexpected situations. Additionally, you’ll also be able to genuinely enjoy your favorite activities.
While some people can easily ignore distractions and clutter, I find it hard to perform at my best without mental and physical clarity.
Regular decluttering helps me be better organized in all areas of my life and reduce feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.
There are three types of clutter we’re usually surrounded by: Physical, digital, and mental clutter.
Even though they all have a negative impact on our lives, I recommend starting with physical decluttering as this can help gain clarity in the two other areas as well.
“Have nothing in your house that you don’t know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
— William Morris
Simply put, physical decluttering is all about throwing things away, tidying up, and cleaning.
It’s about creating more space, so the stuff you own doesn’t stand in your way.
Most people could easily get rid of at least half of the items they keep at their homes: Clothes, dishes, old documents,…
Yet, we’re often emotionally attached to our belongings, which makes decluttering a lengthy and painful process.
Here’s what I do to declutter my physical belongings despite being attached to them:
Sort out seasonal and occasional things
You might own a lot of things which aren’t used regularly but are still necessary.
This might include equipment for specific sports (e.g., skiing) or clothes for special occasions.
Even though these things take up space, you can’t get rid of them because you know you’ll need them in the future and you obviously don’t want to buy new equipment each time you go skiing.
That’s why it’s important to sort these things out and be aware that you’ll use them occasionally. This also makes it easier to store them away in your basement, so you don’t have them in your sight all the time.
The emotional tie
Sometimes, we keep items because of an emotional tie. These are mostly things we’ll never need or use, but we struggle to put them away as they remind us of certain occasions or people.
In general, decluttering shouldn’t feel painful. You don’t want to force yourself to throw away memories.
Instead, you want to reduce the emotional tie to material things, so you have more energy to focus on new experiences.
And if you still want to keep certain items due to the emotional connection, make sure to store them properly so you can use their positive energy in your favor instead of letting them gather dust in a corner.
The six-month rule
Quite often, it’s hard to let go of things because we think we might need them at some point in the future.
A typical example is that you might lose weight so you can wear your tight jeans in just a few months.
Whenever you’re unsure about keeping an item, ask yourself: Is this something I used in the past six months?
If the answer is no, you probably won’t use it in the next six months either.
Another question that will help you sort out redundant items is: If I’d be shopping right now, would I buy this?
Organization expert Marie Kondo preaches to discard everything that doesn’t spark joy.
According to her, we should only own and keep items that make us genuinely happy or are necessary.
If you wouldn’t repurchase a particular product or piece of clothing, you could probably get rid of it without struggles.
Last but not least, ask yourself if the item you want to keep represents the person you want to be.
If you want to be a more confident person, it makes sense to own clothes that make you feel more confident. The same applies to anything else you own and use — put your items to test by questioning whether your best version would use them.
If you find it hard to let go of certain items despite answering those questions, you can store them in a box, label the box with the current date, and put it away for a few months.
If you need anything you’ve put in the box, you can just grab and use it.
After a maximum of 6-months, you can donate or throw away anything you didn’t need. This simple rule helps you ensure you won’t need those things in the future.
Minimizing storage space
The more space we have, the more things we tend to keep.
I love buying new storage boxes that help me better organize my shelves and cupboards but keep those purchases at a minimum to make sure I don’t have more space for keeping clutter.
Most people find it unfamiliar to have empty shelves, but that’s precisely what helps us have more mental space.
If you don’t enjoy the empty space, you can use small decorative items that bring joy to your home.
Use labels and elastic bands
There’s nothing more annoying than looking for an item you’ve not used in a while and scrabbling around dozens of shelves because you have no idea where to find it.
And if there’s something more annoying, it’s loose cables.
That’s why I put all sorts of incidentals in small boxes, label those with sticky notes, and use elastic bands to tackle long cables.
Here’s an example:
I do the same for items like batteries, foreign currencies (if I have any left after trips), cosmetics, or notes and memories I want to keep.
I mostly use old packaging, but you could also purchase nice-looking storage items. For me, this is more about practicability than design as I store those in bigger, nice looking boxes anyway.
Using vertical space
Quite often, it would be possible to make better use of vertical space, but we barely think of that as horizontal storing is what we’re used to.
When storing vertically, you can pile things up, so they use up less space and look more organized.
This works particularly well with books or kitchen cabinets. That way, you can make the most out of your space and keep your countertop clean.
Apply Mise en Place
Mise en place is a French term and roughly translates to “everything in its place”.
It’s mostly used in cooking and communicates that you have all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, etc., before you start cooking.
However, mise en place can also be translated to the rest of your life and even your state of mind.
One way to apply mise en place is by ensuring your working environment is set up properly before you start working.
Once you’re done with work (or cooking), put everything back in its place and leave the area as clean as possible.
In addition to applying mise en place in the kitchen or at your workplace, you can also dedicate fixed spots for anything else in your life.
If you make sure things belong to a specific place, it’ll be easier to quickly put them back where they belong when you don’t use them.
Designating a place for certain items will help you feel more calm and confident because you won’t need to desperately search for things anymore.
What to ask yourself when buying new items
Decluttering only lasts if you consistently apply two rules:
Get rid of all the things you don’t necessarily need
Don’t buy new things you don’t necessarily need.
Even regular decluttering won’t help if you go on a weekly shopping tour.
Here are the three steps I apply whenever I’m about to buy something new:
Ask yourself whether you need or want
The point of this question is not to stop buying things you want, but to reduce the number of purchases that aren’t useful or desired.
Too often, we buy things just because they’re on sale or because we think we might need them in the future.
Most of the time, these are wrong choices and it’d be better to buy things you genuinely want or need.
Would you buy it if it’d cost twice as much?
If the answer is no, you probably don’t need or want it as much as you thought.
If all these questions don’t help you determine whether you should buy something or not, set yourself a time frame and make your decision after a few days.
E.g., if you want to buy a new shirt, take a picture of it, leave it in the store, and only purchase it if you can’t stop thinking of it.
If you forget about it within 48 hours, you know you don’t need to buy it at all.
Once you’ve decluttered your physical space, you can organize your digital spaces.
The rules below can be applied to all your devices and hard disks.
Delete everything you can
The first (and most time-consuming) step of digital decluttering is to get rid of anything you don’t need on your devices.
This includes deleting documents, photos, videos, links, bookmarks, applications, and anything else you keep on your devices.
…and organize the rest in folders
There’s nothing more satisfying than having your documents and applications neatly organized in folders.
This doesn’t only help you save tons of time, but it also gives you a sense of clarity when you look at your desktop.
Instead of having dozens of folders on my desktop, I have one single folder called “Desktop”.
The rest of the documents on my desktop are related to projects I’m currently working on, so it makes sense to keep them here for a few days before I save them on a hard drive.
The two video files, for instance, need to be uploaded online and then copied to my hard drive. Once that’s done, I’ll remove them from my desktop.
Once per week, I clean up my desktop: I delete the documents and screenshots I don’t need and put the rest in the right place.
Long story in short: Delete everything you can and organize the rest in folders.
You can do this on your laptop, smartphone, your hard drives, and memory cards.
Apart from the mental clarity you gain, this also allows you to see the beautiful wallpaper you chose.
Delete applications you don’t need or use
After organizing your documents, also have a look at all the applications on your computer and phone.
Quite often, we have way too many apps on our devices. These distract us without adding anything to our lives.
It takes you a few seconds to download an app if you should need it again. So, get rid of all the applications you don’t need regularly.
Get rid of useless newsletters
I hate having unread emails.
I try to keep my inboxes as clean as possible and reply to all emails by the end of a week to start each new week with a fresh inbox of zero messages.
However, as a digital entrepreneur, being signed up for newsletters is important for me to stay up to date on market trends. Additionally, it helps me to collect ideas that I might use for my own business.
But the general rule is to unsubscribe from all newsletters you don’t read or need.
If you didn’t read a particular newsletter for the past few months, you’ll likely never read it and could also just get rid of it.
Instead, make sure you only receive messages you really need or want.
Mute all notifications
There’s nothing more distracting than push notifications on our devices. They’re not only reducing your productivity but lead to constant overstimulation and overwhelm.
On my laptop, I don’t receive any notifications at all.
I open my email inbox once per day or even once every two days — the same goes for various Slack channels.
On my phone, I only receive notifications for private messages from friends and family.
One more rule is to have all group chats muted if they’re not business-related.
Once you’ve done a physical and digital declutter, you’ll automatically also have your mind decluttered.
Yet, there are a few more things you can do to gain mental clarity feel more relaxed.
Dump your brain
A simple yet effective way to decluttering your mind is a brain dumping session.
Grab a journal or a piece of paper and write down anything that comes to your mind. Just allow your pen to flow freely.
What you write down in such a session doesn’t even need to make sense. It’s more about getting your thoughts out of your mind on a piece of paper.
These sessions can help you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings and process them more easily.
If you don’t feel comfortable writing whole sentences and doing a proper journaling session, you can also dump your brain through a simple mindmap.
Now, you can write down anything that’s on your mind.
These can be ideas, things you want to do or remember, essential deadlines, or anything else you’ve been thinking about.
The benefit of such a mindmap is that you don’t need to organize or classify your thoughts — you can just put them all on one page.
Once you feel like you’re done, you can organize them and create a proper action plan. Yet, the first crucial step is to get them out of your mind.
Reduce your daily decisions to a minimum
If you want to reduce mental overwhelm, you need to minimize your daily decisions.
Each day, we make thousands of decisions and some of them are so insignificant that they’re not worth your time and mental energy.
The easiest way to get started is by creating a weekly meal plan and preparing your clothes for the next day before you go to bed.
You can save lots of time and mental energy right in the morning before starting your day just by making these small changes.
Additionally, I highly recommend planning your weeks and days in advance. This will help you be better organized and reduce unexpected situations and deadlines.
Less growing, more dreaming
Sometimes, we get so used to the hustle culture that we forget to take breaks.
Learning, growing, and working on your goals is important, but you need breaks to perform at your best in the long run.
Instead of constantly bombarding your mind with new to-dos and information, allow yourself to take some time off to dream.
You don’t have to constantly learn and grow. Sometimes, you can just enjoy the present moment and let your mind wander.
Stop trying to make productive use of each minute. Go for a walk, listen to music instead of podcasts and audiobooks, read more non-fiction books, and allow your mind to breathe.
It’s hard to perform at your best or to be relaxed when you’re surrounded by lots of things or constantly think of all the stuff you still have to get done.
I genuinely believe that decluttering our lives is the key to being happier but also more productive.
Sometimes, we need to take it easy and keep things simple instead of further complicating them.
And the same is true for your decluttering process: Don’t try to do all these things at once. Instead, take it one small step at a time. Start with one area of your home or one digital device.
Celebrate your progress and the small wins and start looking at decluttering as a life-long process rather than a one-time event.