Q I'm overwhelmed with clutter at home and at work. I know I don't need all the stuff I keep around, but can't seem to lighten the load. What steps can I take to ease this?

A Do inner housekeeping first, and then outer cleanup will come more easily.

The inner game

Excessive attachment to material items often stems from a misplaced attempt to fill an inner need. Understand your inner values and goals, and examine the steps you're taking to align with them.

Set aside at least an hour for doing this groundwork, and be ready to do some writing. Take some deep breaths, put any other to-dos out of your mind, and focus inward.

Then, begin to write, listing your top 10 values -- the things that are most important to you, such as integrity, independence, compassion...you get the idea. Then trim this list to five, and then finally, to three. It'll get more difficult each time you cut your list back, but it'll help you focus on what matters most to you.

By the way, these steps are outlined in more detail in Jill Carroll's "Stop the Crap: Six Lessons to Get Your Life Back," which describes this set of tried-and-true activities for understanding your values and goals.

Next, focus on your goals. Try Carroll's question, "If money and time were not issues, what would I want to be, do, experience, participate in, or have?"

Consider short term goals--next week, month, or year--as well as multi-year goals. What do you hope to have accomplished when you look back at the end of your life?

Now, consider the extent to which your current reality reflects your values and goals. Get specific; it'll make it easier to know what to change. For example, you might say you value efficiency, yet spend valuable time hunting for documents you need amid a sea of paper. And then consider how an inner need, such as fear of loss, might be driving this discrepancy.

The outer game

With more clarity achieved inwardly, it's time to clear your environment. Prioritize your attention, for example, working on one file drawer. Consider each item, and assess if you really need it. Are the notes from a project in 2004 going to be helpful? Try imagining the actual circumstances in which you might consult them. Then let any items that don't pass the test go, moving them into a recycle bin.

Notice the feelings that come up. Letting go may trigger anxiety--fear of being underprepared for an unknown event. Be gentle with yourself, but don't let these feelings stop you. Take some deep breaths and keep decluttering.

Besides paper, many other items get in our way. Trinkets from meetings, gifts without much emotional or practical value, even extra furniture that we're just putting up with. If they don't support your values and goals, let them go.

It'll be easier, especially at home, to do this work with someone else, and to have a plan for disposing of items that no longer serve you but that may be useful for someone else.

The last word

Celebrate each success and notice the energy that your cleanup releases; it's a path to greater serenity.

What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.