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The beginning of the year is a great time to declutter and start fresh, and many of my clients include this in their New Year’s Resolutions. Of course it’s not enough to just “clean up.” Without a method in place to keep things that way, you’ll end up back at square one in a few months. If that’s something you need, check out the T.E.S.S.T. Process in chapter 10 of my book.

If you need to quickly pare down your email inbox, you might want to check out my “four pass” method that I wrote about for

In the meantime you can start now clearing the clutter of email, paper, and “stuff.” You just need to know why it accumulates and then ask yourself 3 questions.

Cause of Clutter

Most clutter is caused by things that don’t immediately require action, but may (or may not) be useful at some point in the future. And that unknown is what makes it so hard to keep things from stagnating in your environment. Here’s how to live with the unknown and prevent the clutter.

3 Questions to Declutter

Evaluate each email, piece of paper, “thing” from the junk drawer, and ask yourself:

1. Will I Need It?

I know: you can’t predict the answer and that’s the whole point! But think about it this way: If at some point in the future, you think you might need it, but you didn’t have it, what’s the worst that would happen? When I pose this question to my clients, the response I often get is a shoulder-shrug. “Eh, I probably wouldn’t bother.” “Well, it might take me a few extra minutes.” Etc. If this you feel like you’d have a rather ambivalent attitude toward not having it, you may not need to keep it. (But move on to question two.)

If the thought of not having it makes you upset (“Oh no, my grandmother’s favorite china! I think of her every time I use it and I’d be so sad if I didn’t have it!”), then you should probably keep it.

2. Can I Get It?

If you thought you needed it at some point in the future, but you didn’t have it, would it be easy (and cheap) to get it again? Does it exist on the web? Does the relevant service provider or organization have another copy? For example:

  • If you didn’t have your insurance policy, but needed to file a claim, could your agent help you or get you another copy?
  • If you throw away that business card but need those services, could you find them again online?
  • If you needed a bank statement from three years ago, could your bank get it for you?
  • If you needed to read the details of your benefits package with your employer, can your HR department point you in the right direction?
  • If you needed all those empty cardboard boxes you’re currently storing in the garage, is there a neighborhood or group forum where you could post an “ISO” (In search of) and get more?

Anything that would require significant hassle and expense to get again should be considered a “no” to this question and you should probably keep it. But you’ll be surprised at how many things are quick, easy, and free to get again if it turns out you need them.

3. Is It Serving You?

If it’s not serving you, it’s clutter. Think about when was the last time you used/wore/enjoyed this item? If it’s been a year or more, it should get canceled/sold/donated/given to a friend. Magazine subscriptions can be canceled. SpamDrain can help you filter unwanted emails (not just spam, but newsletters, too. I love this app.) PaperKarma and Catalog Choice can help you get unsubscribed from catalogs and postal mailings.

If it’s hard for you to part with things, think about how much good it will do in the hands of someone who doesn’t have very much. Donations to Goodwill help employ people who otherwise would have a difficult time getting a job, and the low cost of their items make things more accessible to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Think about giving things away, to friends or strangers, as a deposit in your “karma bank,” and perhaps your “pay it forward” of the day. This might make it easier to declutter.

If you feel it’s too valuable to give away (even for the tax deduction), there are so many outlets where you could sell it for a little extra cash, like Craigslist, Next Door, Facebook groups, etc.

If the reason you haven’t used it is because it’s broken, there are lots of options for getting it repaired, reused, or recycled, including the outlets mentioned above, plus others like TaskRabbit. Many cities have a “bulk pickup,” where anything that can be reused or recycled gets diverted from the landfill. Also Earth 911 offers a wealth of resources for being “green” with your broken item.

Clutter Be Gone!

These three questions will help you declutter and organize any part of your environment that feels messy and is weighing you down. If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments, or shout out on Twitter to @mnthomas.

Thanks for reading!



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