Thought for the week: it isn't easy to simplify.

Simplify, declutter, and breathe…

It sounds so easy put like that, doesn't it? Decide what matters, discard the rest, and then…deep self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, self-healing breath…in, count to four, and out, count to…whatever…

It doesn't seem to work quite like that though. Start with a sock drawer they tell you…but what if your socks aren't in a drawer? What if you can't find the drawer and you're not entirely sure you still have socks? What if that is the whole point? That your life is so complex and cluttered that you really don't know where to start?

Alternatively, what if you can't start with a sock drawer because basically, you have to dismantle someone else's life and clear out a whole house? Socks are the least of the issue, believe me.

Or what if it isn't about socks…or even wardrobes or bookshelves or antiques or 1,000 video cassettes or a boxful of unbuilt models…what if it's about work, paid work, unpaid work, employment, unemployment: all those annoying cluttery mind-scattery things you have to do that aren't within your control because, like, you're not exactly the boss around here?

Yet.

And someone in their infinite wisdom still thinks it’s a good idea to fill in seven forms when one ought to do it.

Or maybe you've chosen to join the gig economy – or not exactly chosen but found yourself there anyway – and now you're in panic mode because (when you were last in panic mode thinking there'd never be enough work to pay the bills) you've accepted every offer going and have no idea how you're going to fulfil them all.

Or what if the real clutter that you have to deal with is just the mess in your head? Perhaps your house is pristine. Perhaps your work-life (whether you're the boss or not) is smooth and efficient and effective. Perhaps, despite all outward appearances, you still have this unadulterated pacific garbage gyre circling in your brain – emotions you know aren't rational but you can't shift.

To be honest…that last one is one I'll have to come back to another time. For now I'm just going to focus on, like, stuff.

Simplify, declutter, and breathe…

It still sounds like a plan, but let's face it: it is a tad more difficult than clearing out a sock drawer.

What if…well, what if we tackled it from the other end? What if we started with "breathe…"?

No, I'm not going to give you any pseudo-zen instruction on how to do that. If you're still reading this, then you're doing just fine in that department all by yourself. You are still breathing.

You are still carrying out the biological process of respiration, which Wikipedia describes as "the sum total of the physical and chemical processes … by which oxygen is conveyed to tissues and cells, and the oxidation products, carbon dioxide and water, are given off"

And you're doing it without even thinking about it.

More importantly: this is a very complex process and I suggest that you do not try to simplify it – that might well give rise to, well, complications.

I suggest therefore that you simply recognise that you are breathing. If you want to be a bit Zen, then yes, by all means sit for a while and focus on the breath. Just notice it happening. It can have a calming effect. Or if you notice that it doesn't feel very comfortable, it might prompt you to go see a GP.

Assuming you're breathing fine, and whether or not you are now calm, acknowledge that breathing is a complex matter that you deal with even when you're asleep.

Acknowledge that you can do really complicated stuff in your sleep. How cool is that?

That being so…you have established that you are a capable human being. The next point might be to decide – and yes, you do have a choice here – that a capable human being ought to be able to take out the trash.

Declutter. Whoever coined that expression? And why do we all - guilty as charged your honour! – latch on to it? I've recently been introduced to a more extreme variant "de-crap". I thought this was just an invention of a friend of mine, until another contact in Australia confirms that they also use it. I guess that decluttering could just mean tidying up, whereas de-crapping really does mean getting rid of shit.

De-crapping is what we really need to do. Clutter might need tidying away, but it isn't necessarily all useless unbeautiful stuff. Crap is, well, rubbish, trash, 'stuff' (I promised someone we wouldn't use the sh*t word, when we just mean 'stuff'). It isn't stuff we want better-organised; it is stuff we want gone, vanished, out of our life forever.

So, forget about tidying up. Forget about sock drawers. Start with the stuff you keep looking at and thinking 'what am I going to do with that'. Start with the stuff you keep picking up and putting down again.

Resolve to pick these things up for one last time and to not let them go until you've figured out how to let them go permanently.

For things, physical stuff, it isn't actually that difficult once you've made the decision. It's a question of keep, sell, give away, or bin.

Keep is easy: William Morris gave us the criteria a long time ago. Is it useful or do you believe it to be beautiful? Answer yes to either or both and you keep it. Answer no to both and away it goes.

The real rubbish is also easy – straight to trash. You don't want it; no-one else will want it; check out the local recycling options and do that. If it can't be recycled, well, you tried. In the general waste it goes.

If you're having even the remotest "it might be useful" thought...kill it. Trust me, it won't be.

For every "I wish I'd kept" thought you ever have, imagine the bagsful, binsful, skipsful of detritus that you've never given a second thought. Then weigh up the odds. Just get rid.

If that has you thinking "yeah…but…" then let me remind you that the Morris question isn't "might it become useful, or might someone one day think it is beautiful" – the rule is you know it to be useful or believe it to be beautiful: present tense in both cases. Here. Now.

Giving stuff away is slightly more difficult…but once you start doing it, it's surprising who will take what and what they will do with it. Ask people. Search the internet. Be specific in your questions.

For example, I have discovered that the RSPB has a second-hand binocular scheme which has donated "12,000 pieces of optical equipment to conservation and education projects in more than 90 countries. From Vietnam to Greece, India to Ecuador, binoculars and telescopes have found their way to projects in some of the world’s most remote communities".

I've also discovered "Gift Your Gear" which supports youth, community and charity groups in the UK working with young people in the outdoors…and surely anything that gets young people away from a screen and closer to the real planet has to be a good idea.

And my local charity shop will take anything that's not electrical…"even your rags, we can sell that".

On the other hand, if something has value you might want to sell it yourself. This raises questions of who do you sell to and how much do you want, and how upset are you going to be when you see the jug you sold for £1 on Antiques Roadshow valued in the £thousands?

I adopt the philosophy that if I get a pound for it, that's a pound I wouldn't otherwise have had, and if someone else makes a mint out of it, then I've also brought some additional joy into the world. Either way: the thing still exists and has stayed out of landfill.

And in the last few months I've made more out of selling books than the sale of a classic car brought in…so you never know.

Eventually you should reach a point where everything you have is something you have consciously decided to keep – because it is beautiful or useful. Only then are you in a position to get around to figuring out where to put it…and frankly, if everything around me is useful or beautiful, I'm going to be a lot less worried about whether it's tidy.

But also, because I know it's useful, I'll want to know where to find it when I need it – that makes tidying somehow less of a chore, more of a preparation.

Or, because I believe it to be beautiful, I will want it where I can see it, unencumbered, shown off in all its glory – that makes clearing the space around it somehow less of chore, more of a creation.

So there it is: Breathe, then declutter. It has to happen that way round.

Simplify?

If you've got this far, not just in reading, but doing it, you will have discovered all sorts of things in the process. If you're a rational human being as well as a capable one you will have discovered a few grey areas. I confess, in clearing a house, dismantling not just one life but three, I have stumbled across all manner of shades of dusty grey history.

So I broke my own rules. I have a number of "not now" boxes. Things I need to research before I can decide what to do with them. These aren't "not sure" boxes, which all the declutter experts tell you that you can only keep for six months and if you haven't opened them you bin them unopened. These are boxes that I will keep until I open them.

There are things that I know where they'll go, but I want to know more about them before they do.

There are things that I want to keep 'for now'…where I think I will want to let go, but not yet. Not for a good while yet.

That act: the creation of the "not now" category is simplification in action.The normal theory is that you have to simplify your life first, and then get rid of what doesn't fit into the new simpler philosophy.I venture to suggest that that is just too hard for most of us.

The simplest categorisation system isn't necessarily the one with the fewest categories.It is the one which balances the lowest number of categories with the lowest number of exceptions.It needs to be obvious into which category everything goes.If you have a "miscellaneous" into which "every else" gets dumped, you're creating a complication.

My "not now" boxes are simple.They are clearly labelled."Richard/RAF" says one."Photos" says another. "Railway stuff" say several.

Simple is a relative term. It means something different to you than it does to me.

When we're instructed to simplify our lives, most of us won't know where to start. I have found that the process of clearing has helped me start to hone in on what a simple life means for me. And also what it doesn't mean.

I'm never going to get to minimalist.I'm never even going to get to arts-and-crafts functionality. There's always going to be a bit of Bohemia, a bit of Victorian clutter, an eclectic 'yes but I like it' unnecessariness in my home.And in my life.

It seems to me that if you try to simplify your life from wherever you are now, you're likely to be working to someone else's definition. On the other hand, if you just start to work through what you've got and decide to keep, sell, give-away or bin…and then decide how to store or display what you retain…that is the process of working out what simple means to you.

Then, and only then, can you set about ordering your life in alignment with it.

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