Friday, January 2, 2009

The Four Laws of Simplicity, and How to Apply Them to Life

The problem with many books and guides on simplifying your clutter, your work life, your desk, your life, is that they are usually too darn complicated.

We need a simple method of simplifying.

It’s been nearly a decade since I first started trying to simplify my life, and in those years I’ve struggled with clutter, I’ve had surges and ebbs of complications and simplicity, I’ve tried dozens of methods of simplifying from as many sources. It’s been an interesting journey, although not one that I can recommend to everyone. If you’re looking to simplify a certain aspect of your life, you don’t want to go through that kind of confusion.

So I’ve boiled it down to a simple method of Four Laws of Simplicity (apologies to John Maeda) that you can use on any area of your life, and in fact on your life as a whole:

1. Collect everything in one place.

2. Choose the essential.

3. Eliminate the rest.

4. Organize the remaining stuff neatly and nicely.

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. - Confucius

To illustrate, let’s take a quick look at how to declutter a drawer. Let’s say this is the worst junk drawer in your home — it has take-out menus from restaurants that closed down a dozen years ago, manuals for computers that used DOS as their primary OS, tools that you have no idea how to use, more rubber bands, paper clips and chopsticks than you can ever use, mementos from your unfortunate foray into rubber stamp hobbying, souvenirs from that Mexico City trip you’d rather forget about, not to mention a funky smell that reminds you of gym class.

You could spend all day sorting through such a mess and still have a mess. (Or more likely, you’ll close the drawer and forget about it.) But let’s see how the 4-step method would be applied to our drawer:

1. Collect. Take out everything and put it in a pile. Empty the entire drawer, and pile it all on a counter or a table. Take everything out, down to the last paper clip.

2. Choose. Pick out only the few things you love and use and that are important to you. Just sort through the pile, picking out the really essential stuff. Be very selective. Put the important stuff you pick out into a separate, smaller pile.

3. Eliminate. Toss the rest out. You know you’ll never need those manuals again. Don’t be sentimental with this step. Either throw everything into a big trash bag, or find a new home for some of the items if you think someone might have a use for them — donate them to charity or give them to a friend who would love them. And yes, you have to toss out all the chopsticks.

4. Organize. Put back the essential things, neatly, with space around things. Clean the drawer out first, of course, and put the very small pile of things you chose back in the drawer, grouping like things together and leaving space around the groups. Having space around things makes everything look neater and simpler.

That’s it. You now have a very nice, simplified junk drawer, with (let’s hope) a much less funky smell.

This simple method can be applied to every area of your life. My suggestion is to focus on one area at a time, apply the method, and then move to the next area. So, if you just wanted to simplify a couple areas of your life, you could focus on one per week, but if you wanted to simplify your entire life, I’d do one area every couple of days until you’re done.

Here are some examples of how you could apply the above method to other areas of your life:

Closets. Focus on one area of the closet at a time — a shelf at a time for instance. Take everything off the shelf and put it in a pile on the floor. Pick out only the really important stuff that you love and use. Put the rest in a box to donate. Put the important stuff back on the shelf, grouping like things together and leaving space around the groups. You could use containers for groups of things, using clear containers and labeling them. Or just leave the shelves fairly empty, and get rid of most of your stuff. Move on to the next area. My suggestion is to leave the floor of your closet clear — it makes it look much nicer and simpler.

Your desk. Clear everything off the surface of your desk (excepting, perhaps, you computer and phone). For the surface of the desk, I would suggest only putting your inbox and a nice photo or two, and nothing else. Put supplies in a drawer, and file the papers. Toss out the rest. Then do the drawers of your desk the same way, one at a time, leaving space in each drawer. It’s so much more relaxing to work in a simplified environment. After you’re done with the desk, do your walls.

Your work tasks. Have a long to-do list (or a bunch of long context lists)? Spend a little time adding every task or project you can think of to your lists, until it’s as complete as you can (GTD’s brain dump works for this). Then choose only the tasks that you really want to do, or that will give you the absolute most long-term benefit, and put those on a separate, shorter list. The rest of the stuff? See if you can eliminate them, or delegate them, or at least put them on a someday/maybe list to be considered later. Then only focus on your short list, trying to choose the three most important things on the list to do each day.

Your commitments. Make a list of all your commitments in your life, from work to personal. Include hobbies, clubs, online groups, civic groups, your kids’ activities, sports, home stuff, etc. Anything that regularly takes up your time. Now pick out the few of those that really give you value, enjoyment, long-term benefits. Toss the rest, if possible. It might be difficult to do that, but you can get out of commitments if you just tell people that you don’t have the time anymore. This will leave you with a life that only has the commitments you really enjoy and want to do. Leave space around them, instead of filling up your life.

Your wardrobe. Do you really need 40 T-shirts? Or 40 pairs of shoes? How many jeans do you actually wear? One drawer or section of your closet at a time, put everything on your bed in a pile, choose the clothes you really love and actually wear on a regular basis, donate the rest, and put the ones you love back in your drawers or closet. Leave space around the clothes — don’t stuff your drawers full.

A room. If you’d like to simplify your cluttered rooms, start with the furniture. Which ones do you love and use? Get rid of the rest. Now clear every flat surface in the room, from counters to tables to shelves to desktops. Choose the stuff you love, and get rid of the rest. Leave the flat surfaces as clear as possible, only putting back a few choice objects. Now do the drawers and cabinets the same way. Also do everything on your floor that’s not a piece of furniture, leaving the floor as clear as humanly possible.

Your email inbox. Have an email inbox full of clutter? Dump all your emails in your inbox into a folder. Scan through the folder, choosing only a few to reply to and putting those in a separate folder. Delete or archive the rest.
-Leo Babauta

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