Minimalism: Declutter? Simplify? Or Both?

By Bruce Elkin

Decluttering Is Problem Driven, Not Result Driven

Readers interested in minimalism and creating a simple life often ask me, "What's the difference between de-cluttering and simplifying?"

And, then, they add, "Does it matter? If so, why?"

I’ll try to answer the “what…” question first.Then take a stab at “why?”

Whether it relates to a messy room, a messy house, a messy mind, or a messy business, decluttering can be a useful process.

It can be the starting point in your simplifying process. But don’t make it the end!

By itself, decluttering often results in a temporary result, but fails to move you toward a simple, rich and flourishing life.

That’s why, every 10 years or so, we see a resurgence of decluttering books and articles.

There’s nothing wrong with sorting through your stuff and paring down, or tidying up. But be aware that decluttering is a problem solving technique, not a true, results-creating technique.

Problem-Solving vs Creating

“The fundamental difference between creating and problem solving is simple,” writes Peter Senge, best-selling author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

“In problem solving we seek to make something we do not like go away. In creating, we seek to make what we truly care about exist.”

So, typically, problem solving is driven by a desire to get rid of what you don't like and don't want. But, in doing so, you too often merely get rid of, or relief from, the negative feelings—the intensity—associated with that problem.

Decluttering, then, is often driven, not so much by the desire for a simple, neat, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing space, but more by the negative feelings—frustration, anger, even disgust— that you have about clutter.

But, here’s the rub: If your decluttering succeeds, that intensity—the negative feeling—goes away. You feel relieved. And, because the intensity that drove your de-cluttering is gone, you take less action.

The clutter can come back.

It’s Not You. It’s Your Structure

In this kind of intensity-driven, problem solving structure, you’ll often oscillate between messy and neat, better and worse, clutter and no clutter—without achieving the simple, rich and pleasing room, home or life you truly want.

If you don’t change the deeper habits—the underlying structure—that led to clutter accumulating in the first place, your house, mind, or biz is soon messy again.

Again, you feel those negative feelings. So, again, you declutter.

Here's how this kind of problem-solving looks, structurally:

A Problem (clutter) leads to

Intensity (negative feelings) leads to

Action (decluttering) leads to

Less Intensity (relief) leads to

The Problem Returning (more clutter).

Faced with reoccurring clutter, the negative feelings also come back.

When the intensity of those feelings builds to the "I can't stand this mess; it's driving me crazy!" level, you start throwing things in garbage bags and boxes, and hauling them off to Goodwill or the recycling depot.

Confused by such oscillating behaviour, and unable to see the structural underpinnings of their failure to create real and lasting results, many of my clients blame themselves, their personalities, their family, even the clutter gremlins for this outcome.

But it’s not you, it’s your structure.

To change your results, change your structure!

Simplicity Is A Real And Lasting Result

“Clutter and confusion are failures of design.”Edward Tuft

So, simplifying is not just about getting rid of what you don't like and don't want.

Simplifying is about designing something you truly care about—something you do like and do want—and taking action to bring it into being.

Whether it's a room, a house, your life, or your business or organization, when you simplify, you are designing and creating a lasting result that you deeply desire.

Effective simplifying is driven by a clear, compelling vision of a desired result.

Instead of frantically tossing things into boxes and bags, you step back.

Calmly, you imagine (envision) the kind and quality of room, house, mind, biz, or biz you most want. You begin to see it clearly in your mind.

Perhaps your envisioned room has a reading nook, or a meditation corner.

Perhaps your house has a separate room in which to practice Pilates or Yoga.

Perhaps you want your biz to be smaller but better, and take the time to define "better."

When your action is driven by a clear, compelling vision of a result you want to create, it is much more likely that you’ll create that result than if it is driven merely by the intensity of a problem.

A room. A house. A business. At any level, action driven by vision leads to more lasting results than problem solving.

By shifting from a clutter-driven, problem solving structure to a vision driven, creating structure you move, as Albert  Schweitzer said, from naïve simplicity, to a richer, more profound simplicity.”

Patagonia Simplified

Yvon Chouinard created that profound simplicity when he decluttered, downsized and restructured Patagonia to be simpler and more successful.

"We never set out to become the biggest outdoor clothing manufacture," Chouinard told his staff when he announced the downsizing, "only the best."

Driven by Chouinard’s vision, Patagonia cut back the number of items in their product line. They switched to organic and recycled materials. They dropped exotic colours so they could use only natural dyes.

Did it work?

"Every time we've done the right thing," Chouinard said at a conference I attended, "our profits increased."

Decluttering Works Best When It’s A Step Toward What You Want

So de-cluttering  cutting back, getting rid of things you don’t want is not necessarily a bad thing to do.

But it is critical to see it as a process—as actions within an organizing structure—that supports what you do want to create.

When you envision the kind and quality of room, house, life, or business you most want, the mess that upsets you is best seen as merely current reality as-it-is, and not as a "problem" that you must solve, or merely get rid of.

When you can see both a vision of the result you want and the current state of that result in mind at the same time, you set up a useful "creative tension" that both energizes and guides your action in the direction of what you want.

A useful way of looking at this connection between de-cluttering and simplifying is summed up by author Hans Hofmann when he said, "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that necessary may speak."

But simplifying can go beyond merely letting the necessary speak.

It can be a way of creating the necessary—that which you deeply desire and would love to see exist in your room, home, life or business.

This, then, is the answer to the second question. This is why simplicity matters.

And why, as Leonardo de Vinci said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."


By Bruce Elkin

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