Unclutter Your Life

by Stephanie Denton

Getting rid of clutter is not about cleaning. It is about increasing focus and decreasing interference. Far from a low-level task best relegated to the night time janitorial crew, it is a process whose return on investment grows exponentially the more potential value you have to contribute.

The benefits of getting rid of it are physical, financial and emotional:

Physical because you have more free space, and it's easier to find what you're looking for.

Financial because you zero in on targets, accomplishing what's important in less time. You don't purchase items you already own but forgot you had or couldn't find and you allocate fewer dollars to unnecessary storage. Emotional because you have more energy and less stress and a reduction in the overwhelming feeling there's not time to do it all.

When you are drowning in clutter, the cost to you and/or your company is great on many levels. Once clear, however, you can more easily access the resources, physical and mental, that you want or need at any given moment.

So What Is and Isn't Clutter?

The bottom line is that clutter is "things that are not where they are supposed to be." Making this classification is an individual judgement. After all, sometimes the optimal location for an item is the garbage can (or recycling bin.) But who's to say what belongs in the garbage? As the saying goes ... one man's trash is another man's treasure.

The key is to remember that it's only clutter if it interferes, and it only interferes if it's not where it's supposed to be. Think of it in these terms:

Clutter Is Unrelated Things Mixed Together

It's certainly not realistic to expect that you will never have papers out on your desk. After all, you have work to do. But clutter is not one project all spread out; it's when you get unrelated projects mixed together - or various thoughts muddled together. Think how hard it is to move forward when you feel your brain is jumbled.

Clutter Is Things You Neither Need Nor Want

Remember the 80/20 rule: Eighty percent of the value comes from 20 percent of any group. Think about your closet: You wear 20 percent of your clothes 80 percent of the time. Eighty percent of your income comes from 20 percent of your clients. It is even estimated that 80 percent of the papers you file, you never need look at again. There is more information and opportunity available to you or thrust upon you than ever before. That doesn't mean that you have to keep a copy of all of it.

Clutter Is Things Left Out Because They're Unfinished

How many times have you said to yourself, "I'll put it here for now because I'm not finished with it?" As soon as these words leave your lips, you're challenging your brain to remember this temporary location. Even if you can remember it, why use your creative energy in this way? You have more important things to do. Another oft-recited phrase is "I'm leaving it out to remind me to do something." Leaving things out doesn't alert you to what needs to be done. Instead, it distracts you from what you're doing at the moment.

Clutter Is Things You Haven't Made a Decision About Yet

Often, clutter results because you've postponed making decisions. Like cars being driven down the road, if they all get to the intersection and no one decides which direction to turn, they're going to pile up. Does that mean that when you first set out on a journey, you know all of the turns you're going to make? No. It's just saying that each time you have the opportunity to make a decision, make it.

Where is your clutter? It may be anything from notes stuck to your computer monitor to the extra, ummm, you know, words you inject into conversations to the thoughts and worries buzzing about in your head. It may be in your memos, on your desk, in your computer or in the manner in which you structure your day. Whatever the area, uncluttering it positions you to soar.


Since clutter can be physical and/or mental, these strategies are most effective when put to use in both venues.

Know What's Important

It's hard to decide what to get rid of if you don't know what is important to you in the first place. Imagine sorting through boxes in your basement. How can you possibly decide what to keep if you haven't set any parameters? And consider the fact that, at last count, research showed the average corporate worker sends and receives over 175 messages and documents per day. At that rate, the amount of potentially important information can quickly become overwhelming if you don't have a triage method.

A mission statement, a strategic plan or simply knowing that you are going to keep only good photographs and pitch the blurry ones - any of these is a statement of what's important. Without such a statement, anything is potentially important.

Group Related Items Together

Doing so gives you an overview. It alerts you to purchases required, and saves you from wasting time and money acquiring goods you already have.Group your thoughts together too. Merge those "things I gotta do" that keep coming to mind with the million dollar ideas you've scribbled on napkins into one master list. It's only by seeing it all together that you can begin to appropriately prioritize.

Get Rid of What You Don't Need or Want

If it's hard to part with things, do it in stages. Divide piles into three categories: Keep/Maybe/Pitch. Immediately get rid of "Pitch" items. At your next uncluttering session, again divide what you have into three categories and get rid of the "Pitch" pile. Gradually, you'll pare down.

If a bulky item holds a special memory for you, perhaps because your child created it, consider photographing it. You can preserve the memory without hanging onto it. Keeping something because you "paid good money for it"? Realize that it has served its purpose. After all, when you pay good money for an elegant meal, you don't expect to hold onto that forever. Don't forget that sometimes the garbage can you need is a mental one. So while you're uncluttering, get rid of "what ifs" and "shoulds."

When you catch yourself thinking, "But I might need that someday," refer back to your statement of what's important. Remember, everything is potentially important, and if you keep everything you're going to need a warehouse. Rely on the instincts that led you to create your statement of importance.

Designate One Logical Place for Everything

When everything has one "home," it's faster to both put things away and find them later because there is only one place to go. The designated location should be logical. Avoid "Where can I put this," "Here's an empty spot" and "I'll stash it here for now." These rationalizations encourage you to select a location you won't necessarily remember later. Instead, think "Where would I look to find this?"

Keep items in their designated home, no matter their stage of completion. Don't leave a project out just because you don't want to forget about it. Remind yourself of what needs to be done with a list system.

Retrieve resources only when you are going to work with them.


Compartmentalizing is an extension of the principle "designate one logical place." Imagine shopping for groceries if all of the items are somewhere in the store, but not separated into aisles. Even though you know the logical place to go for food - the supermarket - it is hard to find what you want if the space inside isn't appropriately allocated. It's only by compartmentalizing a larger area that you can locate specific items.

Apply this concept to everything from your closet to your desk drawer to your computer files. Even use it for your to do list. Separate tasks from phone calls from outside errands to be run. These are distinctly different activities, most efficiently accomplished if batched together. When they are listed this way, you can quickly see all the tasks in each category.

It's always easier to find what you want if you only have to look in one compartment, as opposed to the entire space.

Uncluttering your life is a powerful experience. It creates space for you to transform data, information and opportunity into knowledge, wisdom and action. It creates clarity.


  1. Don't mix the paperwork of unrelated projects together. Keep your activities separated.
  2. Keep only the paperwork in permanent files that will be of value to you after you have finished the project.
  3. If you haven't finished a project, put the materials away in the proper place until you can complete the work. Don't stash them in a place where you will be reminded of them - put them away.
  4. Every time you have an opportunity to make a decision about a stack of papers, a letter, a correspondence, etc, do it. Get it off your work area.
  5. When getting organized: Group related items together. Get rid of what you don't need or want and allocate a logical space for needed items. Follow and other clients.
This article came from PRIORITIES Magazine and is reproduced here with their permission..  To read other articles like this go to http://www.franklincovey.com/priorities or click here to Shop Franklin Covey: Products For Highly Effective Living

Copyright 1999-2002, Work&Women.com, All Rights Reserved. WorknWoman, WorknMom, the Work&Woman logo and the Work&Mom logo are all trademarks of WorknWoman.com. The contents of this site are the property of the respective copyright owners.