Decluttering: More Than Just Throwing Out Your Couch

We hear plenty of talk about the benefits of de-cluttering our lives. Less confusion, lowered levels of distraction, increased ability to focus, and feelings of ease are a few of the benefits we’re promised. The talk always seems to focus on the physical aspects of de-cluttering, in other words, how to let go of physical objects that no longer serve their original purpose, things that are just taking up space in our lives. When deciding that de-cluttering would be a useful thing to try, we look at the amount of physical space, and the number of physical objects that are taking up that space, and we adjust.

It’s easy to imagine the absence of these physical objects, and because we understand that just removing them from our lives will gives us a greater sense of simplicity, it’s not a big leap for us to dive into the activities of clearing out and cleaning up. The benefits we enjoy from this sort of de-cluttering are real, and the sense of relief we can get from activities involved with having less physical stuff to deal with can be enormously energizing.

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Let’s say you’ve decided to de-clutter a room in your house, one where you spend a lot of time and need to be able to concentrate. Let’s also say there’s a corner of the room with two large windows, but there’s an enormous chair in the corner that’s blocking half the incoming light. Maybe you liked the idea of sitting in that chair when you put it there, but the truth is: you never sit there. Seems like a simple choice, doesn’t it? Just move the chair to another room, or get rid of it all together.

From there, let’s go directly to the mental and emotional equivalent. What is there in your heart or your mind that seems like an obstacle, that feels like it’s dragging you down or getting in your way? There’s no need to pick and choose. Whatever comes to mind first is the right answer. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s some lingering regret, or resentment, or inability to forgive someone, maybe even yourself. For this exercise, let’s treat that emotional burden that came to mind with the same mental flexibility that we brought to moving the chair. When you thought about moving the chair, it probably didn’t seem like an overwhelming task. You could easily imagine the steps you needed to take: find a new place for the chair, pick it up, or find a way to slide it, and put it in its new place. Moving old resentments, hurts, repetitive thoughts, or an unwillingness to forgive takes a good deal less physical effort than moving the chair, but requires commitment and discipline. Don’t be intimidated by that; this is the same discipline and commitment you bring to other areas of your life on a daily, even hourly basis. We’re just borrowing that discipline and commitment and using it in a new, productive way.

This is easier than you probably think. When the old hurt, or resentment, or person you haven’t been able to forgive come to mind, don’t run from it, or try to get it out of your mind. Welcome it. It’s that simple: just welcome it. It’s the resistance you’ve built up around this issue, or person that’s making your life feel cluttered, not the person or issue itself.

As an example, let’s say you’re giving a talk to a group of people. Let’s also say you recently had an unpleasant disagreement with someone in the audience. Let’s load it up even more and say that this is a person whose support you were counting on. This is mental clutter that’s likely to dilute your focus, which you’ll need to make a successful, compelling presentation. Your impulse is probably to do everything you can to put that person and that argument out of your head. It won’t work. By resisting it, you’re giving it power, and it remains mental clutter, one more thing to deal with. Instead, try welcoming the unpleasant thought. Counter-intuitive as this is, try it, and when I say welcome it, I mean it. If all you do is welcome it, in other words, just let the thought be there, it will evaporate very quickly. But don’t fall for the trap of pursuing the bad thought, or obsessing over it. That would be like confusing the memory of the chair with the chair itself. More than just a sense of peace, decluttering allows us the space to respond to our sometimes chaotic, often challenging personal and professional lives.