I thought about titling this post “The Tao of Delete” but then figured that might be a bit too cheeky. Accurate…but cheeky. Still, I like the phrase, so I’m going to go with it.

Long before I ever put any really conscious effort into getting myself organized and simplifying my life and work, I made good friends with the “delete” key. In fact it was kind of a running joke when I worked for Boeing and later Children’s Hospital that my #1 tip for being more productive was liberal use of “delete.”

We’d have these “5s” (sorting, simplifying, sweeping, standardizing, and self-discipline) training sessions at Boeing and I’d walk out of there shaking my head thinking, “we just need to get rid of more stuff.” And that’s pretty much what “The Tao of Delete” is all about–cleaning out stuff you don’t need and will just plain never use.

The best work-a-day example I can come up with is e-mail. If I can’t say for sure that I’ll need to keep a message (to be taken care of, filed, or whatever) I delete it and never look back. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s worked just fine. I find that if I ever really need to take care of something important and have “lost” the e-mail relating to it, a simple phone-call or follow-up e-mail will usually sort that out. The one place I don’t use this method is with sent items. I usually keep those for quite awhile, you know, to cover my ass. As well, this doesn’t mean I don’t keep and file e-mails, I just try to be pretty heavy handed in deciding what I actually need to keep.

h3. Beyond E-mail

I use the same method when cleaning out my hard drive. I simply go through everything and ask myself some hard questions about the files I’m looking at. It’s usually pretty easy for me to decide what is safe to delete and what’s not. When it comes to my files I usually err on the side of keeping them or archiving them, so I’m less “maverick” than I am with e-mail.

I just went through this last week and freed up almost 2 Gb of space. Most of it was from PDFs and other crap I’d downloaded from the Web. With the state of my poor 30 Gb drive, I needed it. Plus, my files are much less cluttered than they were before. Deleting makes for much easier sorting, for obvious reasons.

h3. Beyond The Computer

I remember a George Carlin bit about “stuff” where he talks about how people just keep accumulating stuff until they need to get a bigger place to put all their stuff. It’s really funny, and totally true. Don’t I know it. My place used to be packed with crap and it stressed me out. It just made me think about all the crap I need to do with my crap, you know?

I’ve got a “collector” mentality. I like my stuff. I like to shop and I don’t mind a little clutter. Makes me feel at home. The problem is that my place is pretty small and “a little clutter” turns into “a lot of crap” pretty quickly. This is when I take the Tao of Delete to my home. I go through almost everything and decide what I want, what I need and what I can get rid of. Last year when I did this I had to call some haulers to come and cart this stuff away. I had two truckloads! Made me wonder where I was keeping it all.

I felt so good…so relieved after those haulers left. My place was clean, and easier to keep clean, for a long time and in general I just felt better about my living arrangements. Sure I could have gone and got a bigger place to keep all my stuff, but I realized what I really needed was less stuff.

h3. The Bottomline

I guess I can’t really recommend The Tao of Delete to everyone. It doesn’t come without risks. However, I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to eliminate a problem or to make something better is to take something away. I use this method in my designs, I use it in my Web development (for example, my most effective way of troubleshooting CSS is to begin removing things) and I’m using it in my writing.

So far it’s worked well for me.

24 Comments on Getting Things Done With “Delete”

  1. Chris Hester says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your approach. In feng shui, they say something about too many things around you can mentally be grabbing your attention. By freeing the space on your desk or in your rooms of as much as you can, you’re actually freeing your mind as well. I have let my desk pile up several times in the past, until it was a pile of papers and post-it notes that somehow I never got round to reading again. When it came to cleaning one day, I just moved them out of sight, and the effect was wonderful. The space on the desk looked great and freed all the pressure of having to do anything related to a note or a task. I still keep notes, but try to use just one small pad, and keep it off the desk itself, to the side.

    I’m also trying to go through the house and spring-clean it, but also remove as much junk as I can. I recently filled two strong carrier bags with piles of things I had collected, but never used since I moved house. There’s always a temptation to keep things just in case you need them, but eventually you realise they’re taking up too much space. Not only that, but other people might be able to make use of some of these things. So I’m shifting as much as I can to the charity shops, or binning and recycling it. One day I might get a room where I can move the furniture where I want, not where it has to fit in!

  2. Britt says:

    Great post and a tool I use often. Unfortunately, my wife is a piler. Piles here, piles there, piles everywhere!

    One of my first thoughts after reading GTD was that we also need to SDT (Stop Doing Things). Similar to the Tao of Delete, we often need to ask ourselves what things we could go without doing, even if for just a little while. Sometimes if you just stop doing something you have always done (routine), it helps open up new possibities. Examples might include stop watching the same TV show every week, stop taking the same route to work, stop going to the same old bar and ordering the same old drink, etc.

  3. Keith says:

    Britt — part of what this is intended to do is combat that “piler” mentality. I know many pilers and I used to be one. Now it drives me up a wall.

    As well, I’m right there with you on the Stop Doing Things tip. It’s about focus. One of the reasons why I started this site was so that I could get the focus back at Asterisk.

    I figured that trying something new, and doing it elsewhere might help me focus more, as opposed to trying to cram everything into one vehicle.

  4. Greg Rollins says:

    Very nice dude. Thanks for posting your GTD tips. I’m noticing a strong interest in the geek community on the topic of productivity. I got into the software development after I discovered the satisfaction of completing a *very simple bill of materials program back in the late 1980’s. When your software works like you expect, it feels soooo good. Now, years later as a project manager I was starting to lose some of that accomplishment that comes with write, compile, test. Using the GTD methods, and hacking things like the HipsterPDA, gives me a very similar sense of accomplishment and personal joy. It’s nice to see people getting excited about “getting their ducks in a row”. It’s also great to see really good ideas catch on.

  5. nordberg says:

    great stuff. i love getting rid of stuff. 3 garage sales a year, contantly posting stuff on my company’s board, or just giving it away…it ALL WORKS!

    speaking of stuff, these people need your help:

  6. Joe Ganley says:

    Amen. A system someone suggested to me many years ago was this: Go through your house, and label each object from 1 to 5 according to how important it is to you (sentimental, might be needed in the future, or whatever). Then get rid of everything that got labeled 1 through 3. I’ve never needed this system, since I’m a fanatical thrower-awayer, but for those inclined to clutter it seems promising.

    As far as actually getting rid of stuff, check out FreeCycle (freecycle.org). It’s an email network for connecting people getting rid of stuff and people who want that stuff.

  7. Keith says:

    Joe — thanks for the tip on FreeCycle. I was actually thinking about some of the stuff I still need to get rid of and frankly, while *I* don’t have use for it, I’m sure someone out there will.

  8. Troy Brumley says:

    Years ago I read a book that used the acronym TRAF: Trash, Read, Act, or File. I think it’s instructive that Trash ended up being the first possible action for an item in the inbox :)

  9. bota! bota! bota! says:

    I recently read “don’t acquire anything you’re not prepared to love and use until it’s worn out beyond repair”, and although I try to live like this, it’s the first time i’ve heard it put so well :)

  10. David says:

    This seems like a great idea, but it won’t work for everyone.
    For computers storage is increasing at rates faster than I can use it up, so there really isn’t any need to worry about clearing out space. Tools such as Yahoo, Google, Copernic desk top search enable us to find saved items quickly.

    One thing which might be worthwhile is to save old emails etc. on DVDs, and then anything which is a year or so old simply gets deleted after archiving. It may also be worthwhile doing some trawling to make sure that important emails are kept, and contact details are noted. After that the DVD can be filed, and perhaps never used.

    Using the throw it out approach time would be saved, and there would be no storage requirements for archive DVDs.

    An algorithm I’ve seen expressed is to throw away anything not used for a year. Unfortunately there are counter examples – including passports, identity cards, insurance polices, qualifications certificates etc. Many people don’t use these all the time, but most can see the benefit of keeping these. Someone I know actually managed to discard of a degree certificate to a jumble sale – and this cost a large amount later when a qualification check was required. The same person tried to discard some of mine using the same algorithm!

    Clutter is also relative. Most people in the UK have small houses, and even a moderate amount of junk gets in the way.
    Clearing up things which are genuinely not needed has to be a good thing – but it’s difficult to achieve this sometimes.
    Also the way different people behave does not always make this easy.

  11. Keith says:

    David — good points. You’ll note that in the post I mentioned that this wouldn’t be for everyone. It works very well for me though and I do think that there are plenty of folks out there who hold onto “stuff” (digital or otherwise) not knowing why.

    I think that oftentimes just sitting down and asking yourself if you really need, or are ever going to use that “stuff” again can be enlightening in of itself. Sometimes we try so hard to get stuff we have a hard time realizing that, at the end of the day, this stuff is just that — stuff.

  12. Britt says:

    To add to the counterpoints, I have thrown away or gotten rid of things I sometimes wish I had kept. Most of that is related to old skate stuff from the eighties. I had zillions of t-shirts and wish I had kept a few. Also, I designed the graphics for a skate deck and never kept one. But those examples are minor compared to all the stuff that I’m glad I have gotten rid of and never regretted.

    It does come down to asking that question. Anyway, I have the memories and the photos.

  13. Tommy says:

    I was giddy when I saw a post about this site on Asterisk. I’m just started to get into GTD (because of 43 Folders) and I’d love to hear your take and any hacks you might come up w/. I’ve only implemented small parts of the process and it has already made my work life more productive and enjoyable.

    I can also attest to the “Tao of Delete.” I am a collector as well. I find it hard to throw anything away, because my mind tells me, “oh you’re going to need that someday.” I’ve spent the last two weekends boxing up cloths I have not worn since the early 90s, hundreds of file on my computer that have not been opened since I saved them, and more junk (and yes it was junk) in my garage then I would care to mention.

    Goodwill is a very happy group of people right now and the best new of all is I have more space to buy more stuff :).

    And finally, good luck with the new site. I can’t wait to see the direction you take.


  14. The Tao of Delete?

    Keith has a productivity post entitled “Getting Things Done With Delete” which provides his insight on how to manage the clutter that inevitably fills up your email inbox and also your hard disk in general. Don’t forget to check out the comments for…

  15. quirkyalone says:

    Tao of Delete is a good thing, but not with emails. I am now using gmail, and I realized that I do not need to delete at all. I just archive all posts, so they do not show up in inbox, and I am done. It is much easier – I don’t need to decide all the time if I will need particular mail. I store everything, without slowing down my work with email.

    I think in the near future someone will invent similar workflow for local files, so we will not need to worry about whether they should be deleted or which folder should they belong to.

  16. Wendy says:

    I once visited a ‘life coach’ just to see what that was like. I’m kind of the opposite of most folks, in that I’m truly lazy. I don’t procrastinate, per se, but I definitely don’t get around to doing everything on my to do list. There are times when I am EXTREMELY unmotivated and apathetic.

    So, I explained this to the ‘life coach’, and do you know what her advice was? Whenever I’m feeling apathetic, and guilty about that apathy, I should eat some protein. The protein would do something to get my ass in gear and start getting things done.

    I tried it once or twice. I’m not sure it worked, but I think anything like that can psych you out a little. Like people who snap a rubber band on their wrist when they start to go off on something. I do know that I’m fat enough already, so I don’t need another excuse to eat.

    Anyway, thought I’d pass it along in the spirit of the posting.

  17. lifehack.org says:

    Getting Things Done with “Delete”

    Sometimes it is so hard to delete stuff. However sometimes it maybe the only ways to get things done.
    To-Done has written an article called Getting Things Done with “Delete” which built around this theme. To be simple and easier to organ…

  18. mrnoisy says:

    I’m going to delete this article.

  19. melissa says:


  20. Tom McKay says:

    Great advice, Keith. It’s very liberating!

    I also just started testing a new tool (free – my favorite price) that’s helping me unclutter my inbox and hard drive: Evernote. You can toss just about anything (images, text, scribbles on a tablet PC), slap a category on them and find them again easily. I blogged about it today, in fact.

  21. chiffon says:

    how to delete a tool bar the whole thing because i didnt want

  22. Len says:

    on my desk top above the start button you have a find now button how do you delete the things you found in the box find now

  23. mndedhia says:

    My delete key on In box for deleting the message is not working

  24. Dave Eaton says:

    Deleting/discarding low-value items items effectively increases the value of the remaining items. It increases the likelihood that you will remember that you have the items, that you know where they are, and that you know what they are for.

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