The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 2: Purging

In part one of this series I talked about the principle of using all you have. To begin living a simpler life, it is necessary to use as little of something as possible at at time. I talked about the example of chapstick and pens, but this principle applies to anything that is used up over time. The necessary focus that it takes to accomplish this principle is also a useful exercise in mindfulness. Restricting yourself to one pen at a time or stocking your pantry only with food that will actually be eaten requires you to be more aware of yourself and your actions.

The second essential of simplicity is purging. Simplification requires the expulsion of everything that doesn't matter, materially, psychically, spiritually, etc. in favor of what does. Depending on the amount of stuff you own right now, this step could vary in difficulty and time to achieve. When I first started thinking about living a simpler life, I had a multitude of things to purge. I had to reduce my wardrobe from the ridiculous state it had become. I had to get rid of the absolute mess that had become my book collection. I tried to reduce the amount of stuff I owned from every aspect of my life. This can be a tough principle to adapt if you are particularly attached to your material belongings. I won't bother giving you a step-by-step process for reducing the clutter in your life (it has been done many times before). What I can tell you is what worked for me.


I would make three piles as I went through my stuff, a "Keep It For Sure" pile, a "Toss It" pile, and a "I'm Not Really Sure" pile. What you do with the first two piles is obvious; it's the third one that causes problems. I would take everything in the I'm Not Really Sure pile and put it in a box, and I'd put that box somewhere out of sight and out of mind. If I ended up needing something from that box in the next 6 months, I would go get it. Anything left in the box after 6 months was officially removed from my life. I think this tactic is helpful because you can take a sort of trial run with less stuff in your life without completely committing to getting rid of everything right off the bat.


I would be remiss if I ended the discussion on purging without talking the non-material component. Purging our physical possessions is important and often gives the most visible evidence of living a simpler life. However, purging our minds of distracting projects, doubts, worries, and fears is just as important. My experience with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system was the starting point for purging my projects and getting my life under control. It doesn't matter if you use a system like GTD or something of your own devising, the principle is the same. You need to sit down and write down every single thing that is on your mind. A complete mind dump. Once you have everything out and on paper, you can start clarifying your commitments, tossing out irrelevant projects, and planning. The act of putting every worry and every project on paper is very refreshing; purging the stuff that doesn't matter from that list is even more so.


One final word of advice from my own experience: err on the side of over-purging. I have found that there is very little in life that I cannot replace if I find that I end up needing it. It is disturbingly easy to add more components to your life, but very hard to remove them. Start on the side of over-removal and you can slowly add back complexity if you so desire. Most people I have talked to about this aspect of living a simpler life all have the same experience in that they were initially doubtful of purging their hard-earned possessions and commitments. However, shortly after doing so they realized the amazing draining (yet almost unseen) power that a life of excess has.

I encourage you to take a hard look at your surroundings. Ask yourself if everything on your project list is as necessary as you think it is. What can be reduced? What can be purged?