Much has been written about having an uncluttered living space. A lot of it, in my humble opinion, is not very good – they may sound good in principle but are just impractical. This article is a distillation of my best practices – tried and true.
One of my obsessions is with deriving things from first principles. So, presenting: principles for uncluttered living, explained from the ground up, in sequence and in order of priority. If you are struggling with messiness in your living space, this article may help you. I recently went to the library and found books about how to declutter your life. Who has time to read those?
- If you don’t own it, it can’t make a mess. If you are a packrat like me this principle is quite difficult to follow. I like to keep boxes. One of my childhood hobbies was collecting cereal boxes and tissue boxes – no kidding! I now know that cardboard is not such a precious commodity that I need to stockpile it. So the name of the game is to get rid of all that junk you just don’t use in the first place. On a related note, living in a small space will reduce your urge to buy things – you simply have no place to put them! Smart.
- If you don’t make a mess, there’s no mess to clean. This means learning to cook efficiently, with as few utensils and containers as needed. Optimize! In the extreme, it may mean eating out of a pot instead of a separate dish. Or, cook three dishes in the same frying pan, instead of using three frying pans. It means finding more efficient and cleaner ways of performing the same tasks. For example, you could use only one cup for all your drinking needs, if you find yourself having to go on a cup-gathering expedition around the house every week.
- A place for everything, and everything in its place. If you are often spending time searching for your keys, or your wallet, or your cell phone, or whatever, then you need to live by this principle. A place for everything means you designate a storage area for magazines, instead of having them scattered everywhere. Everything in its place basically means putting your toys away when you’re not using them.
- Storage areas should have excess capacity. Many thanks to my friend Channing for this principle. He lives by the rule that storage areas should be only 80% full. What happens when your bookshelf runs out of space? You end up with books overflowing to the counter, or the desk, or… you get the picture. Horrors if you open a cabinet and find items stacked on top and behind each other. How are you supposed to find anything? So, keep your storage areas organized and not full to the brim.
- Prefer low-effort systems. Design the way you live so that you don’t have to make extraordinary effort to keep your living space clean. Design for laziness. For example, I have a hard time putting away my jacket when I get home. So instead of the usual hanger system, I put up a series of pegs. One peg for my jacket, one peg for my knapsack. Easy. Done. No more jackets on the couch or on the chair.
- Little piles are evil. Kill them quickly. Have you ever put an innocent book down on the table, and found two weeks later, that the one book has multiplied into a collection of magazines, pens, notes, candy, candy wrappers? Pure evil. The pile has taken a life of its own and now needs to be exorcised, not merely cleaned up. This happens particularly often in garages and basements. Beware! Be warned! Kill them while they are still babies! This is probably the only time you will find me advocating the killing of babies.
- Leave it a bit cleaner than how you found it. A common principle of conscientious campers, there’s no reason this principle shouldn’t be applied to all your living spaces (and indeed, all areas of life in general). It is amazing how much can be accomplished by slow, steady, tiny amounts of effort in a single direction.
- Don’t hide clutter, make it visible! This principle may seem to make no sense at all, but hear me out. If you find yourself hiding away your clutter and telling yourself you’ll deal with it “one day” (which inevitably never comes), listen up! Take that clutter and put it in the middle of your living room. Or right in the hallway for everybody to trip on. No doubt, you’ve heard of “Out of sight, out of mind”. This is “in sight, in mind”. Making it obviously a problem encourages you to deal with it.
So there you have it. If you have any tips of your own I’d love to hear about them!