Cleaning Out Your Life and Purging Things You Don’t Need

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hoffman, American abstract painter

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” — Henry David Thoreau
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Confucius, ancient Chinese philosopher

We’ve all heard the lifestyle guru’s favorite mantra: “Simply, simply, simplify,” after that paragon of simplicity himself, Thoreau. That’s actually pretty good advice, and not just for your personal life. Simplifying has its place in the office as well; in fact, it may be more critical there than elsewhere, since it’s another part of the grand mosaic that results in increased workplace productivity.

Why It’s Necessary
Simplifying, purging, de-cluttering, or organizing—whatever you want to call it—can be a daunting task, especially for the packrats among us who fear letting go of anything just in case. But if you don’t purge, things can get clogged up, and your systems are likely to become slow and unwieldy. Something that normally takes five minutes might take ten times as long. Furthermore, it becomes difficult to integrate new items into the system, further impairing your productivity.

So every once in a while, you need to stop working, take a look around, and decide what you can safely get rid of.

Purging can be painful, no doubt about it. It’s easy to second guess yourself, because what if you make a mistake and get rid of something you need? Well, that might happen; but you can’t let yourself fall prey to the paralysis of analysis here, any more than you can with any other aspect of your work life. You have to be draconian about purging, because it will inevitably have more positive effects than negative ones.

And honestly, it doesn’t require any earth-shattering changes in your life. It’s not like you have to get rid of your Blackberry and email, although I do have colleagues who recommend that!

What To Purge
Precisely how you need to simplify your work life is up to you to decide, as it varies from person to person. But certain things that can often use a de-clutter session are found in nearly every organization or workplace. They might include your:

• Desk
• Storage system
• Bookshelves
• Filing system
• Email
• Computer
• File structures of your handhelds

The basic method is very much the same, whether you’re dealing with the electronic or the physical: you go through everything, look closely at each item, and decide whether you need it or not. If not, it should go. If it’s an old contact on your Blackberry or a program you never use on your computer, delete it. If it’s old paper—outdated contracts, meeting notes from 10 years ago, whatever—recycle it. Some things you may even be able to sell. For anything else, either give it to someone who needs it, or throw it away. Incidentally, if you give anything to charity, keep track of it, so you can take it off your taxes.

The Rules
Decisions, decisions. It may seem like an über-pain to purge, but here’s the deal: if you set up a series of hard-and-fast rules for handling your purges, those decisions will become much more automatic. The precise rule set is something you’ll have to formulate on your own, based on your needs, but the experts recommend that you ask yourself these questions:

• Do I really need this?
• Have I used this lately?
• Am I likely to use this anytime soon?
• Will this help me achieve any of my goals?
• Instead of owning this, could I borrow or rent it—or use something else instead?
• Do I have similar or identical items that work better?
• Can someone else get more benefit out of this than I can?
• What’s the worst thing that could happen if I get rid of this?

Once you’ve developed your criteria, it’s a lot easier to decide whether or not to keep something, especially if you hold this overriding guideline in mind: when in doubt, throw it out.

Beyond the Basics
You don’t have to limit yourself to electronics or physical objects during your purging spree; you can also work to clear the deadwood out of your work-flow and managerial systems, and cut fiscal waste where you find it. Needless to say, the purging criteria will have to change to fit the situation.

You can even purge unprofitable projects. The primary consideration in this case is whether the project is ever going to be profitable, or if it’s just sitting there eating up resources better spent elsewhere. Don’t keep the project running just because it’s someone’s baby (even yours) or because you’ve already invested so much in it. It’s never smart to throw good money after bad.

This is where you have to be especially harsh in applying your criteria, because more than just wasted time is involved (and that’s bad enough). If you maintain too many unproductive, unprofitable projects, your bottom line—and potentially, your organization’s survival—is at risk. So cut away the fat and serve up the lean. Once you give unproductive projects the boot, you can focus better on what really needs to be done.

Moving Forward
Don’t hesitate to purge. It may hurt somewhat at first, and you may worry a bit, but if you’re cautious and reasonable about what you keep and throw away, it’ll all work out in the end. Plus, once you’ve put your rules in place, you can use them on a daily basis to decide what to keep and what to toss, and your purging sessions will become much less frequent and intense.