How to Systematically Declutter Your Life

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Note: This is a guest post by Mike Donghia of This Evergreen Home.

Since starting to write about intentional living, I have heard from many people a desire to change. They recognize that their life is too full of the wrong things and that it’s distracting them from giving their best time and energy to the things they value most.

But many of these same people never get started on the journey of decluttering their life. Why is that? 

While it’s not completely established why people don’t follow through with their ow plans, there are typically three contributors at work:

  • Lack of Clarity – They are unclear about the details or path to achieve their goal.
  • Low Confidence – They have doubts about their ability to follow through or finish the job.
  • Not worth it – They don’t feel the effort is worth the reward.

In all three instances, what we’re really talking about is motivation. While this blog post doesn’t have the space to go into the myriad of research being done on the topic, I wanted to highlight these reasons, because they are at the very heart of the discussion—and the literature is showing that figuring out how to move these levers is critical for making change.

What it boils down to is this: the more clear the path, the more confidence in the outcome, and the more enjoyable the journey… the more likely you are to succeed.

Since so many people desire to declutter their lives and begin to live more intentionally, I believe the most useful thing is to direct my own energy in helping people to solve the pressing motivation problem. 

Clarify Your Path

If you’re serious about decluttering your life, don’t approach it casually. You can’t assume thinking or reading about the problem will keep it top of mind and trickle down into action. One of the best things you can do is to have a crystal clear plan for how you’ll reach your goal of a less cluttered life. I recommend thinking through each area of your life systematically, and planning to focus on each area for an entire month. 

You want to apply as much focused effort on the smallest possible area— this will ensure that you experience plenty of progress, which as you’ll see below, is a key part of keeping motivation high.

While your list might be different, here is a list that my wife and I created as part of our own decluttering journey each month.

  1. Declutter your home
  2. Declutter your spending
  3. Declutter your day
  4. Declutter your habits
  5. Declutter your wardrobe
  6. Declutter your room
  7. Declutter your digital life
  8. Declutter your mind
  9. Declutter your soul
  10. Declutter your priorities
  11. Declutter your desires
  12. Declutter your space

Increase Your Confidence

In the long run, your confidence increases as you accumulate victories across a variety of life’s obstacles. Your history of reaching goals and finishing jobs will inform your subconscious belief that you’ll be able to do it again.

Increasing your confidence in the short-term is a bit different, and it’s actually simpler. All you have to do is make the task smaller and easier. Instead of setting a wildly ambitious goal, try one that you’re 95% confident you can accomplish, and then go out and do it. As you grow in confidence, you’ll naturally want to try harder things, because the easy things will begin to seem boring. 

But in the beginning, don’t get ahead of yourself. Start smaller than you think you should, and build momentum.

As my wife and I designed our year of decluttering with monthly challenges, we aimed for consistency over intensity of effort. So on most days, the task only took a few minutes. But string togethers those efforts over the course of an entire month—and then a whole year—and you’ll really feel a sense of progress.

Celebrate Success

Everyone loves the idea of accomplishing their goals, but much fewer learn to enjoy the journey. But the difference between the two is huge—the excitement of a new goal might fuel you for a few days, but it’s the pleasure you derive from the pursuit that keeps you going until the end.

One simple, but powerful lesson I’ve learned from my wife is the intrinsic joy of tracking your progress visually. The effect is even stronger when the tracking is done physically, as opposed to on a computer, and when the sense of progress is a constant visual cue for how far you’ve come.

For our monthly challenges, my wife made custom printable trackers for each month of the year that we taped to our refrigerator and filled out each evening after dinner. The habit, the ritual, the visual accumulation of filled in circles—they all combined to make the challenge more vivid and real in my mind, and subsequently helped us to follow through.

Don’t Wait (Plus, a Shortcut)

A lot of people like to start goals on January 1st, or even the first day of the month. I say, why wait! There’s always a reason not to get started, why invent arbitrary ones? One of my favorite life hacks is to take action before I feel ready.

The system my wife and I used this past year has been great for us, and it can be easily adapted for nearly anyone’s circumstances. It doesn’t require any special equipment or knowledge. Just follow these 3 simple tips:

  • Have clear, simple goals. Break down your decluttering goals into 12 parts, and target 1 each month.
  • Start small. Keep the commitment on any 1 day as small as possible. Direct your ambition towards sticking with the plan for a year.
  • Track your progress. Do this visually, and at the same time each day.

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Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally. If you want to expedite your decluttering journey, and save yourself a bit of administrative work, consider signing up for their premium newsletter, Declutter Your Life. It includes a new challenge each month to help you live a less cluttered life–inside and out.

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