Keeping your space simple can be a challenge.
One particular challenge, is deciding where to keep the things you need and in what form so that they can bring you the most value.
This would be easy if you only had one space to deal with. But in reality, you actually have three spaces;
• Your physical space
• Your digital space
• Your mental space
Because of this, the things you deal with can come in many forms and won’t just be limited to physical things. Here are some concrete examples of what I mean;
• Books can be read in print format or digitally on a screen before the knowledge is internalised within your mind
• Films can be stored physically on disks or accessed digitally through the internet
• Music can be played on a physical medium or a digital file
• Notes can be written on paper, in a digital notebook or memorised in your head
• Newspapers and magazine articles can be read in either printed format or online.
• Experiences can be documented in journal entries, digital photographs or purely within your mind
• Memories can become associated with physical things and digital photographs instead of being savoured by mind.
Choosing which space to keep certain possessions in can be difficult as each space comes with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. This can make certain spaces more suitable for certain things and less suitable for others.
In this post, I’ll talk about both the advantages and disadvantages of each space. I’ll then give you some suggestions for decluttering and rearranging each space so that you can get the most value out of it while keeping any drawbacks to a minimum.
Let’s start with the space you’re probably most familiar with.
Your Physical Space
At the risk of stating the obvious, physical space and physical things refer to that which you can see, touch and hold.
Physical things are easy to place within plain sight which can be useful when you need to be reminded of something important, like a healthy new habit that you are trying to develop.
And because physical things are tethered to physical space, using them can make it easier to keep certain areas of your life separate from each other. An example of this would be keeping work documents in paper format and leaving them at your office rather than storing them digitally on a personal device like your smartphone where they may interfere with your personal life.
But despite its strengths, physical space also has it’s drawbacks.
Physical clutter can be visually distracting. When you’re in an environment that’s cluttered, you’ll likely find it difficult to focus on a single task with so many different things calling for your attention and the chances that you’ll lose an important item are high.
Physical things can also require a lot of maintenance, cleaning and occasionally repairs which may not be the most meaningful use of your time and money.
Finally, physical space is the most finite of all of your spaces.
Once you run out of physical space, creating more is difficult to do without pairing down your possessions. This makes it very important that you only allow physical things into your life when you know they’ll be of great use and that they’ll bring you joy.
What physical space is best for:
Beautiful things, useful things and things that remind you of what’s important
What belongs in your physical space:
• Artwork that inspires you to look at
• Your favourite photos that bring you joy
• Things that remind you to do important tasks
• High quality items that you use often
What doesn’t belong in your physical space:
• Sentimental items that you don’t find useful or beautiful
• Mundane paperwork that takes up valuable drawer space
• Things that get used once but rarely ever again
Some questions to ask before keeping things in your physical space:
• Is this something that inspires me when I see it?
• Does this remind me to do something important?
• Am I happy taking the time to clean and maintain this?
• Is this something I want to keep long term?
Your Digital Space
Digital space refers to the space on your laptop, tablet, smartphone or any other device that stores digital things.
Unlike physical space, digital space is invisible, allowing digitised things to be hidden out of sight and out of mind when they’re not needed.
Not only that, digital things have zero demand on physical space. You can have hundreds of digital books, records and films at your disposal yet never have to worry about creating more shelf space.
By nature, digital space is much more liquid and fluid than physical space. Digital things can be reordered, reorganised, copied and shared much easier than physical things.
But my personal favourite advantage of digital things is their portability and the ability to access them from practically anywhere. To be able to write notes, listen to music, watch videos, read books or take photographs from pretty much anywhere as long as I have my smartphone is a luxury I’d be challenged to live without.
However, I’ve also learned that having access to certain things at all times comes with it’s own set of challenges.
If you use your smartphone in both your personal and work life, you may struggle to create separation between these two areas. You may even find it difficult to switch off and rest, even when you’re not at work.
Elon Musk for example, has been known to manage his emails during family time.
And because digital space is invisible, keeping track of what’s entering can be difficult. There’s also a temptation to store excessive amounts of files since digital storage is generally abundant.
But the last thing you want is to deal with excessive digital clutter.
That said, it’s important that you utilise your digital space just as mindfully as you would your physical space.
What digital space is best for:
Information, knowledge and media that doesn’t require a physical object
What belongs in digital space:
• Bills and paperwork that don’t have to be kept (by law) in printed form
• Books, photos, music and other similar products that can be digitised
• Important notes and files that you want/need to have with you at all times
What doesn’t belong in digital space:
• Outdated files that are no longer relevant (like really old bank statements)
• Superfluous files (duplicate photos, songs you don’t listen to anymore, etc)
• Important things that you want kept in sight and in mind
Some questions to ask before storing something digitally:
• Is this something I want hidden when I’m not using it?
• Do I want/need to have access to this everywhere I go?
• Will keeping this in digital format save me lots of physical space?
Your Mental space
Your mental space covers your thoughts, feelings, experiences and anything else that you choose to store in your head.
Like digital space, mental space is also invisible. One big difference however, is that mental space generally doesn’t require physical tools or devices to access.
Mental space has the strongest connection to your feelings and emotions.
While it’s possible to document and store your experiences by other means such as in journal entries, photographs or Facebook posts, none of these can truly bring you the same fulfilment as being able to replay, relive and remember exactly how you felt at the time in your own memory.
But unlike the other two spaces, mental space has the lowest stability. Your mind can forget things at completely random times and memorising things can often take time especially when it’s something mundane like a long number.
On that note, mental space is also biased towards your likes and interests. It’s difficult to learn and remember things when you find them boring, no matter how important they might be. This is normal and natural.
All this aside, there are certain things that your mind is extremely good at holding.
Things you’re unlikely to forget that can bring you immense long term satisfaction…
What mental space is best for:
Emotional experiences and memories that make you happy
What belongs in mental space:
• Moments of your life that you want to remember
• Experiences that have taught you valuable lessons
• Stories from your past that others will benefit from
• Simple but useful information such as your phone number
What doesn’t belong in mental space:
• Information that drains your energy to think about
• Information that shouldn’t be forgotten
• Negative thoughts that make your life more difficult than it needs to be
Some questions to ask before storing something mentally:
• Will it benefit me to memorise this particular piece of information?
• Is there an important lesson to be learned from this experience?
• Will remembering this bring me joy?
Getting the most from your Space
Now that you have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each space in your life, here are some next steps you can take to help you get the most out of your space;
1. Choose a space – Select a space that you feel is cluttered, disorganised and stressful to deal with. You may find that one is more problematic than the rest and that’s fine. Though physical space is generally a good place to start.
2. Clear that space – Let go of anything that doesn’t belong in your chosen space until only the things that belong are left. You can use this post as a guide to understand what belongs in each space and what might be better stored in another.
3. Transfer things to other spaces if necessary – If your chosen space is taken up by things that are important, yet you feel holding onto them makes life difficult, consider transferring them to a more suitable space (e.g. digitise paperwork, let go of sentimental items and savour the memories mentally instead).
4. Maintain that space – Before allowing anything else into your life, consider what space you’d like them to occupy first so that they can be of the highest value and lowest burden.
5. Repeat the process – Select another space then repeat the process until all spaces in your life are clutter free and contain only the things that are truly important to you.
After doing this, you’ll find all of your spaces become much simpler.
Your physical space will contain only things you use and things that remind of what’s important.
Your digital space will be easy to navigate allowing you to find what you need quickly while keeping them hidden when they’re not needed.
And your mental space will be clear of negative and unimportant thoughts so you can focus on savouring the experiences that make your life worth living.
Craig Link is a minimalist and technology enthusiast with a passion for finding and sharing practical ways to live a simpler life with more time, money and energy for what’s most important to you.