Monday, May 8, 2017

Spring Cleaning Your Mental Clutter

Can I confess something to you?

I have a tendency to clutter things up. My office, my desk, my phone, my email inbox.

But it has been several weeks now since Spring has officially arrived, with sunny days interrupted by occasional rainstorms. Flowers are in full bloom and trees have filled out their foliage to provide some shade for summer.

It's a symbol of rebirth and new growth, and a fresh time to take a look at your life and world.

It is also the time for spring cleaning, decluttering the household and giving the home a once-over deep clean. But it can also be a great time for spring cleaning your digital and mental life as well, getting rid of all of the mental baggage and clutter that have piled up over the past year.

So how do you (and I) take some time to walk through and cut all of the clutter and junk out of your life and breathe freely for a while? I've talked a little about getting rid of weeds before, but in this post I'll show you in detail how I do it by setting myself some guidelines and rules.


Let's start with apps. Chances are your phone has gotten cluttered with a bunch of apps, which gobble up your data as they update needlessly since you don't use them. But what if you need that app again? You can always download it and install it one more time. Deleting apps doesn't really cost you much in opportunity cost and can simplify your phone.

Statistics say most of you are likely reading this on your phone. If not, go grab your phone. I'll wait.

Now, open up the Play Store or App Store or whatever store you buy or download your apps from and look for a way to sort them. On Android, you can go under Installed and sort by Last Used. I'm not an iPhone guy, so if you figure out how to do it in the App Store, shoot me a quick note or tweet and I'll update the article here.

Once you've sorted by Last Used, kill any apps you haven't used in over 6 months. Uninstall them.

Don't worry. Again, if you need them in the future, you can always download them again. Chances are you won't, if you haven't used them in over half a year.

But wait! You found an app that you forgot you had that could save you a bunch of time on something? Use it now. Go ahead. Now it's within your six month window.

All in all I deleted twenty apps, one for toddlers which my kids outgrew years ago, and a whole bunch that I just never used.

Feels freeing, huh? Let's keep moving.

Email Lists

Ah, email lists. The best way for content publishers to stay in touch with their audience and keep them engaged. But how many of those email lists have you signed up for, just to get that one download, and now you wish you hadn't?

Day after day now, you go through your inbox and delete out five or ten or twenty emails that you legitimately signed up for but now never read. Time to purge!

Go through your inbox (if you use Google Inbox, it might already sort your mailing lists into Promos or Updates), and unsubscribe to any email list you have not read a single email from in the past two months. Hopefully mine isn't one of them, but if it is, finish reading this post first!

Sometimes this process will take a few days, because not everyone sends you an email every day (unlike some political candidates I have donated to that will send me twenty emails a day). That's OK.

Your inbox will start to lighten up and give you time to deal with the really important emails.

I only managed to drop off of three email lists, but that's because I just did this purge last year (and it felt so good then).


Backlogged Emails

OK, now that you have slowed the intake of clutter, time to clean house on that inbox. I'm not saying you have to chase the elusive (but sometimes attainable) Inbox Zero, but I am saying you need to do some housekeeping, right?

I'll warn you: this one is going to hurt. It will hurt because I am calling you out. If you are like me, you have a bunch of emails in your inbox, read or unread, that you are saving because you are "going to do something with them."

For me, I have recipes that I "plan to make one day." I have all kinds of marketing tips and tricks that I "want to try out." I have blog post ideas saved. I have blog posts to read. I have receipts I want to review before I mark them Done.

In all likelihood, I am not going to get to most of these things, and neither are you. So here's the painful challenge. Delete or archive any email in your inbox over three weeks old.

But, but, I have all these emails saved to go and do something with, you plead. OK, I'll budge on this but just a little. Do the thing you were going to do with it, schedule time to achieve that this week (that means add it to a specific time on your calendar, not your to do list), archive it, or delete it.

Pay that bill. Add the recipe to your upcoming meal plan. Review the receipt. Read the blog post. Do whatever it is that you intended to do when you saved that email the first time, then get rid of the email or archive it. Get it out of your inbox. It is taking up space where new work needs to exist.

How did you do?

I did not get to Inbox Zero, and struggled with several emails that I just didn't want to archive yet (so I scheduled some time to work on them). I did, however, get rid of over one hundred emails in my inbox. In my "Recipes" folder, I used the handy little "Mark all unpinned items as done" button in Inbox to kill over 25 tasty emails that I was just sitting on. Even now, the pain of not completing all of those things I thought I would do is fading, and I'm moving on to complete other things. Deep breath and move on.

To Do Lists

Another area of clutter for me? To Do Lists.

I create to do lists all of the time, and they just seem to get larger instead of smaller. This pile of clutter is a little harder to cut through with a standard rule, though. Chances are, most of your to do list items are things you actually want or need to get done. But we will try.

For starters, find a way to organize your list. It doesn't matter if you use a fancy software solution or sticky notes, but get a way to organize.

For me, I find Habitica is a fun game-style to do list for basic daily stuff.

Trello is my detailed project go to. Join with this link and you'll get added to my team. It's basically a giant board for tracking your progress on things.

Then of course for my big goals that I adjust on a weekly basis, I'm using my 2017 goal planner spreadsheet, which you can get through this link. If you've already filled that out, look for any to do that is behind and move it down enough weeks that you can start on it today. Repeat weekly.

Once you have a way to organize the list, block out time on calendar this week to complete items. Don't just add to the list, add to specific times and dates that you will do them.

Split out anything that's a wishlist item, where you think "Maybe I will do this one day" to a separate list and track it as such. Don't let those things you would like to do someday get in the way of things you want to do this week or needed to do yesterday.

Ongoing, try using the two minute rule to keep your to do list minimized. Anytime you are about to add to the list, consider if you could complete the item in the next two or three minutes. If so, go ahead and do it rather than adding it to the list.


Now we're moving from digital clutter to physical clutter. Do you have a bunch of files and papers lying around the house or office? Time to kill that paper, too.

Several years ago, I stumbled across the IRS recommendations for keeping records, which is a great resource when trying to decide if you should keep that piece of paper or shred it. There are also some great guideline lists out there for how long to keep other things, but if it isn't tax-related or banking-related, you can likely toss it or shred it.

If you don't have a shredder, you should get one. This one might be an option, but it is not exactly the one I use (though if you buy it with that link, it does support this site). I've killed a shredder or two before, but my current one is a Staples beast that has stood the test of time for several years.

If you are buying a shredder, I recommend you get one that takes several (8+) sheets at a time, has a big wastebasket so you aren't emptying it out all of the time, and has the ability to shred credit cards and even CDs. You might not need the CD-ROM shredding piece if you've already moved everything to the cloud, but if not, it comes in handy.

Then set aside a day (or two) as shred day and clean out those old files. Make yourself some mail-mulch out of all of that paper. You'll feel better.


The last thing to declutter this week are your books. Do you collect leadership and management books like I do, thinking you'll plow through them next week? Is your nightstand a mini-library of tomes unread?

If so, clear them out. Decide which ones you are going to read in which order, and start reading them. Meanwhile, take all the rest and donate them to a library or your favorite charity.

We pretty much moved to mostly ebooks several years ago, and my Kindle is now the clutter place for books, but it is also much easier to sort them into readable piles. If you need another way to track your "to reads" I recommend Goodreads. I use it to tell me what I am reading next.

Find What's Really Important

The moral of this humongous post is simple: get rid of your clutter.

Find out what's really important and then decide whether or not you can make it actionable. Otherwise it is just junk taking up space in storage.

Take action and move yourself forward without being surrounded by junk, both physical, digital, and mental. You'll breathe easier.

Need help clearing the clutter? You can use my goal planner to try to help organize your big goals for the year.