The Most Important Step in Simplifying Your Life

Clear space

And without a long introduction, the most important step is elimination.

Eliminate the unnecessary. Delete the obsolete. Cut out the excess. Remove the redundant. Destroy the useless. Get rid of clutter. Use any verb you’d like, and go for it.

Mastering elimination leads to a cleaner, clearer, and more peaceful life. I’d say it’s the foundation of simplicity.

“We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” ~Henry David Thoreau

I used to think organization was the most important step. But recently, I realized that I could organize a lot of redundant stuff and keep organizing.

Having a place for every item is a good thing. It’s much better than a big mess that keeps growing. But that doesn’t mean I have more free space (physically, mentally or emotionally).

Organizing the unnecessary is inefficient—why would I want to organize stuff that I want to get rid of? It’s more work … and that’s not simplifying.

Elimination comes before organization. Elimination is what creates space. Organization makes things look better and more accessible.

So I have been doing my best to cut down. Last spring I got rid of half my wardrobe. It felt really good. I plan to do it again soon. I did not miss one item of clothing. And the good thing is: I started paying more attention to what I have and wore clothes that I enjoy wearing without worrying about having to wear the other stuff (to get my money’s worth).

It is much better to admit that I don’t need something (regardless of how much it cost me), get rid of it, and move on.

Currently I’ve been moving through papers. Here is a process I’m using right now that seems to be working well for me. I hope you find it useful.

The process of elimination and an example

If you determine that you have way more stuff than you need, consider the example and steps below.

1- Identify the areas of excess.

What do you have too much of?  It can be books, magazines, gadgets and trinkets, clothes, shoes, papers and receipts.

For me it I have excess papers and files.

2- Choose the area that bugs you the most.

Which of the areas above eats at you the most? If you don’t have a specific area, choose the one that you have the least emotional attachment to.

I identified medical records as an area with a lot of documents that keep piling up. I’ve kept prescription drugs receipts for every member of my family for about 10 years.

3- Why did you choose to keep this stuff?

We usually keep things for a reason. Our why helps us in moving forward when we realize that we don’t have a good reason (like just in case or I’ll get to it later), or the reason isn’t valid any more.

Financial records are usually kept for tax purposes or to meet legal requirements for business ventures. Other than that, a summary will suffice.

I can think of two reasons to keep prescription receipts:

  • For tax purposes, and
  • As a reference to track the prescriptions every individual has been taking over the years.

4- Are you reasons still valid today?

If for example you kept books on photography because you wanted to pursue it as a passion, then later changed your mind, you don’t need to keep the books any more.

If you still have valid reasons, think of a simpler way to meet your requirements.

In my example of medical receipts, my reasons are still valid. But I can do things differently. Realizing that:

  • I only need 6 years of receipts for tax purposes.
  • As for keeping a record of each person’s prescriptions over the years, it’s much better to have a spreadsheet with prescription details for each individual. This way I can filter the data and get the information I want without sifting through hundreds of receipts.

5- Define what is enough. What would happen if you let this item go?

Once you know your why, it’s time to think about how much—how much stuff you want to keep and in what format. The less you keep, the better.

If you’re not sure, question your feelings. What’s the worst that could happen if you lost the stuff? How would you feel?

If the feelings are fear based, you know you’re better off throwing the stuff out.

I decided on keeping one spreadsheet, and archiving the receipts required for tax purposes.

6- Do the work: eliminate, eliminate and eliminate some more—one small step at a time.

Once you know what you want to keep, go for it, and get rid of the excess.

I recommend throwing out as much as possible. Only sell or donate items that can be of use to others (clothing, shoes, books, electronics in good working condition). Don’t donate old stuff that doesn’t have a functional use.

When it comes to papers and files, shredding and recycling are the best options.

I copied to my excel workbook all the details of prescriptions, archived the last 6 years with tax records and shredded all the other receipts.

7- Create a maintenance plan and stick to it. Revise if needed.

After you’re done eliminating the excess in the chosen area, create a simple system that deals with items that will be added in the future.

If, for example, your area was clothes or shoes, you can give away (or throw out) one item for each new item you buy. This way you will maintain the same level.

If you want to cut down more, you can eliminate two items for each new acquisition. The same applies to electronics, books, furniture, and other physical objects.

For my example of incoming new prescription receipts, I will do the following:

  • Copy the prescription details to the spreadsheet once the medication is paid for.
  • Keep the receipt in the payment folder and check it against the credit card statement.
  • Move the receipt to the current year’s tax folder.

After filing taxes (for example 2012 tax year), I’ll archive the latest tax year and shred the oldest (2006 and prior) without a second thought. I’ll always have 6 files (one for each year).

The more we do something, the clearer we become about the process and our needs. We can revise our approach to cut down on steps or the things we need to keep.


The reminders below might be of help when going through the process.

If you can’t decide, do a test run.

If you feel attached to certain items and can’t decide, put them in a box and move them out of sight. Add a reminder to your calendar a month (or two) from now. And let it go.

If the deadline arrives and you haven’t missed or used the items, take the box and give it away (or throw it out) as soon as you can. And don’t look back.

Keep going till you’re done. If you stop, don’t give up. Start again as soon as you can.

Don’t jump from one area to another or stop midway. You’ll lose your momentum and complicate things because you have to go back and restart.

I made the mistake of clearing some of the medical receipts but then stopped for a couple of months and had to restart the process to remind myself where I stopped. Lesson learned. I stuck with it to completion the second time around.

Make elimination a habitual practice.

As you move through your day, pay attention to anything that you’re adding. Decide if it’s worth keeping and for how long. The simplest way to reduce clutter is not to have it in the first place.

For example, if you get a new magazine, throw out an older one right on the spot. The same applies to digital documents. If you receive a new article in your inbox, delete an old one.

After you complete one area of excess, move to another and repeat the process. You will get better, faster, and more confident with regular practice.

We all strive to be and do the best we can. I truly believe it all starts with eliminating the noise (in all shapes and forms), creating space and opening up to life and what is yet to come.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry