In the introduction to her new book Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life
(Springboard Press, 2009), Gail Blanke writes: “Our lives are so filled with the debris of the past—from dried-up tubes of Krazy Glue to old grudges—that it’s a wonder we can get up in the morning.” Although Blanke, an executive coach and motivational speaker, urges her clients to begin by attacking the clutter in their homes and offices, the end goal is to eliminate all the baggage—physical and emotional—that holds people back, weighs them down, and keeps them from living their best life.
Blanke outlines her “Rules of Disengagement”:
1. If it—the thing, the belief or conviction, the memory, the job, even the person—weighs you down, clogs you up, or just plain makes you feel bad about yourself, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, move on.
2. If it just sits there, taking up room and contributing nothing positive to your life, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, move on. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. Throwing out what’s negative helps you rediscover what’s positive.
3. Don’t make the decision—whether to toss it or keep it—a hard one. If you have to weigh the pros and cons for too long or agonize about the right thing to do, throw it out.
4. Don’t be afraid. This is your life we’re talking about. The only one you’ve got for sure. You don’t have the time, energy, or room for physical or psychic waste.
So, how does throwing out physical things—old keys, outdated makeup, mismatched socks, obsolete work files—lead to clearing out the clutter in your mind? I spoke to Blanke, the founder and chief executive of the New York City-based firm Lifedesigns, to find out.
AMA: Why did you choose clutter as the topic for your third book? Did you have an “aha” moment that led you to the decision?
Gail Blanke: We’re living in an interesting and tough time. There’s a tremendous instinct for people to hunker down, cover themselves with leaves, and wait until it all goes back to the way it was. Well, it’s not going to. The good news is that sometimes it takes a crisis—like the one we’ve got right now—for us to know how good we are, what we’re really out for in our lives, and for us to move forward. You can’t move forward if you don’t let go of the past. And the best way to let go of the past is to go home and throw out 50 things. Start throwing out the physical stuff, what I call the “life plaque” that has been clogging up our lives.
Then you get into the mental and emotional blockages that keep us back, the voice that tells you: “I’m not good enough.” “I should have seen it coming.” “Look at all the mistakes I’ve made.” Once you start throwing all these things out you actually can move forward. So I’ve really fallen in love with the idea of getting rid of the clutter in our minds and our surroundings.
AMA: OK, I’m going to ask the question I’m sure everybody else has already asked: Why 50 things? How did you arrive at that magic number?
GB: I made it up. It could have been 77 or 39 or whatever. But 50 is a good solid number. And by the way, one kind of item, say catalogs, only counts as one thing, no matter how many you toss. So you can throw out 300 of them—and you should do it, because it’ll feel really good—but it only counts as one item.
But the great thing is that once you hit 50 things, which includes physical and mental stuff, a wonderful thing happens: momentum kicks in. You begin to think of yourself as the kind of person who continually lets go of what no longer serves you. And then a really good thing happens: you take control of your life. You develop a new mind set, a new habit. And letting go of the past becomes the way you live. It’s very freeing.
AMA: What was the hardest thing for you to throw out?
GB: In my book I take you through every room in your house, from your attic to your garage, living room, bathroom, even your medicine chest. I was rummaging around in my medicine chest and I found a blower—the kind they give you after you’ve had major surgery, to exercise your lungs. I had to use it two and a half years ago after I had double by-pass heart surgery. I looked at that blower and I thought, “What am I keeping his for? I don’t intend to have another by-pass surgery. I am a healthy, strong person. I’m doing everything that I need to do to stay that way. This goes out.” I didn’t want to keep anything around me that dragged me down or gave me a negative feeling about myself or my possibilities.
That’s the first rule of disengagement: if it weighs you down or reminds you of a difficult moment, if it doesn’t serve you, it’s got to go. That doesn’t mean it has to go into the trash. I made a big effort to be “green” in the book. It includes a resource guide to help people get rid of things responsibly—from prom dresses to electronics—by donating, recycling, or throwing them away safely.
AMA: So many people live amidst clutter. All that stuff somehow comforts them. To some degree, can’t things make us happy? How do we find the line between just enough stuff (which enriches our lives) and too much stuff (which makes us lose control over our lives)?
GB: I do believe that just as there is comfort food, there are comfort things. So even if you don’t use something anymore, if it reminds you of a good time and it makes you feel happy, keep it. We need all the comfort we can get.
But I think on the whole we err on the side of too much stuff—and it doesn’t take much for it to be too much. Remember, most of the clutter in our lives comes from indecision, from not deciding what we need or who we are. The point about throwing out 50 things is to decide, who do you want to be become? What should you keep that will enable you to do that, and what would stand in the way?
This book is not about living a tidy, organized life. It’s about being free, so that you can move forward. It’s about letting go of the past so that you’re free to grab hold of the future. If you have to weigh the pros and cons for too long, if you’re feeling angst about whether to keep something or not, let it go.
AMA: I would think that if you’re really conflicted about whether to keep something or get rid of it, it would be better to err on the side of caution and keep it. You can always toss it next time.
GB: No. It’s about deciding. Most of us don’t decide all that much. We wait and see what’s going to happen, like our lives are some movie we’re watching. We say, “Oh, I wonder how it’s all going to turn out.” There’s something tremendously empowering and freeing about actually deciding. Keeping all your options open is not as energizing as letting things go. You can’t believe the energy and optimism you get from clearing the decks around you.
AMA: You advise people to “throw out perfect.” That sounds a little counter-intuitive.
GB: We need to let go of thinking we have to be perfect. There is no perfect. If you happen to know someone who borders on perfect, you know, it’s a little bit boring. If you’re struggling for perfect you’re going to waste an awful lot of time regretting your imperfections, when you should be spending that energy on moving forward. Of course you’re going to make mistakes. That’s part of the deal; that’s part of the fun. The only way not to make mistakes is not to move, not to try, not to get in the race. Plus, as we know, that’s the only way we really learn.
AMA: Unfortunately, despite all of the management and leadership books that tell us that people should be allowed to take risks and possibly fail, in order to move forward, do you really see corporations adopting this credo?
GB: They do in really good corporations. GE is one of them. Even in tough times they have a point of view about what they call “failing forward.” You can’t create something bold and new if you’re not willing to put up with the times when you might miss the mark. You’ll never be able to attract and retain the kinds of people who will think of those brilliant ideas for you if you don’t allow them to miss the mark from time to time.
There’s a saying: the sign of a really healthy company is a company that when something goes wrong, they say, “Great. What can we learn from this?” An unhealthy company will say, “Whose fault was this?”
AMA: You’re probably the only executive coach who encourages her clients to choose a song to motivate and inspire them. Unless you’re Bono, what’s singing got to do with success?
GB: Whatever you’re trying to create in your life, you want to be able to walk into a room and change it. And one of the things that will help you every time is to belt out an inspirational song, at least in your mind, before hand. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing; sometimes the worst singers are the best.
I’m a Yankees fan. Last season, Alex Rodriguez’s song was “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”—that’s what did it for him. I ask everybody I coach to come up with their song. If you go on throwoutfiftythings.com you’ll see people actually singing their songs. We have one gal who went on an interview for the job she wanted more than everything. I had her sing her song the entire way to her interview. What was it? Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back!” That did it for her.
AMA: Right now so many people are living in a state of fear and uncertainty. They’re waiting to see how things are going to play out. What advice do you have for them?
GB: People are really bogged down and stuck right now. Stuck in a relationship that’s not working for them, stuck in a job they hate (if they even have one), or stuck in fear. We spend too much of our lives waiting for the right moment, waiting for there to be light at the end of the tunnel. And while we’re waiting, opportunities pass us by.
The whole rationale behind throwing out 50 things is so that you can step into the clearing that you have created for yourself. You then realize that it is time for you to step forward, which takes courage. Particularly as women, I think we need to stop waiting—waiting to be discovered, to be appreciated, to be invited to the table, to move up the ladder. You’ve got to step forward uninvited. You have to create your own opening. That’s your job—in your company and in your life.
Never wait for the courage to act. You could wait a lifetime. You get to decide how it’s going to go. Why not make it good? And make it now.”