Minimalism: Declutter? Simplify? Or Both?

A simple green, striated leaf on a white background

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” 

– Albert Einstein

Creating Rich, Simple, Successful Lives

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.

It’s Not You. It’s Your Structure

In an 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 Returns

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!

White feather floating in the air, with a deep blue sky behind it.

Create A Simple, Minimalist Life As A 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.

One of my clients who suffered reoccurring bouts of “too much clutter,” created a simple, calming meditation nook in a corner of her living room. The clutter never came back.

“Before I meditated every morning, I’d tidy up whatever was out of place or unnecessary in the room. It became a kind of pre-meditation ritual that I enjoyed doing.”

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, 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 desired result, it is more likely that you’ll create that result than if it is driven merely by the intensity of a problem.

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 his business 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.”

Creating A Rich Profound Simplicity

It is best to see decluttering as a process—an action within an organizing framework 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 current mess that upsets you is best seen as reality as-it-is. Not as a “problem” you must solve, or get rid of.

When you hold your vision and “the mess” in mind together, you set up a “creative tension” that energizes and guides your action in the direction of what you want.

“The ability to simplify,” wrote Hans Hofmann, “means to eliminate the unnecessary so that necessary may speak.”

Decluttering is about “eliminating the unnecessary.”

Simplifying is a way of creating the necessary—that which you would love to see exist in your room, home, life or business … world.

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.”

Bruce Elkin

Life Design Coach. Personal Life Coach. 25 years experience. Clients on 6 continents. Author of 5 books and ebooks. Cares about the Earth and living in harmony with its natural systems.