De-cluttering is one of those things we do to make ourselves feel better, because who wants to live in a mound of crap. However, it also tends to be an exercise in procrastination. You clean your desk before sitting down to write, for example, and end up vacuuming the cat until dinnertime. I’ve managed to turn it into a routine activity that gives me energy for writing instead, so I’m going to talk about how.
First, some history: I’m a terrible procrastinator, and come from a family of mild hoarders. Years ago, I had to live out of two suitcases after fleeing my ex’s place. The rest of my possessions had to be stuffed in a storage shed. I learned to live without them. Two years later I had my own place, cracked open the storage shed, and was overwhelmed with all the useless crap I’d forgotten I owned. I’ve been going through it ever since.
It was easy getting rid of the junkiest stuff: old school papers, worn out clothing, garbage trinkets given out at trade shows – but people develop attachments to stuff, and when that happens, it takes mental effort to figure out what’s junk and what’s not.
For me, it started with a mug. Sometimes all the crap in my tiny apartment starts to close in on me. I was fed up, and my sights landed on an ugly ceramic mug I’d made in high school. It was cast clay, badly painted, and the spotty glaze left enough of the inside bare to make the mug non-functional. I’d used it for years as a paintbrush holder, but had long ago given up painting. It now held nothing for me.
So I got up and threw it away. Chucking that piece of dead weight down the garbage chute was liberating. It felt like the time the plumber broke my gaudy soap dish, a white ceramic thing with a cherub on a shell, that my grandmother had given me. He was so sorry about it, but I secretly rejoiced because I hated that thing. I hated it, but would’ve felt bad getting rid of it. Now it was broken, so I didn’t have to feel bad. I said, “Never mind, it’s only stuff,” and chucked it in the trash.
It reminded me of the Fillyjonk, in one of Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories: a creature that lived in an ugly little house filled with ugly little things that she kept out of a misplaced sense of duty. Then a storm hit her house, smashing everything in it, and she was only upset at the thought of having to mend it all. She prayed for it all to be swept into the sea. When a tornado granted her wish, she danced on the beach, because she was finally free of all that junk and didn’t have to justify it to anyone.
I don’t have to wait for a tornado. Chucking the mug was more liberating because I severed the attachment without external factors changing it from “my stuff” to junk. Something shifted internally. “I made it” didn’t mean a damned thing anymore if the thing I made was crap. That old attachment was a cobweb in my brain, and I’d swept it out.
Getting rid of that crappy mug gave me a ton of energy that day. It somehow knocked me out of a complacent slump. It was a positive action. It created momentum. I actually wrote something that day, and have kept it up ever since. Whenever I lose momentum, I look for more clutter to get rid of. Useful things must find a new home, like all the blankets I donated to the homeless shelter, so it sometimes requires time and planning, but that’s also an activity that creates momentum.
Of course I don’t want to get rid of everything. It would be nice if I could live out of a single backpack, but it’s too extreme for someone who lives in a home and cooks and cleans. I don’t want to become an insane anti-hoarder either. Given the mild rush I get from throwing something out, I have to make sure I don’t become addicted to de-junking. I’ll be content once my place is only full of things I find useful or beautiful – and my SO’s stuff is neatly put away in the space I’ve cleared, instead his Warhammer 40k army skulking on every horizontal surface like that scene in The Birds.
So how do you make sure this activity remains healthy? Only do a bit at a time. Throw one thing out. Pack one set of things for recycling, or as a gift or donation. Tidy up one shelf or drawer. Limit inventory activities, whether it’s making lists or poking in boxes, to fifteen minutes. I mentally tick it off as cleaning, so the focus doesn’t depend too much on de-cluttering alone, and cleaning counts as exercise.
No matter which type of exercise you do, make sure you have enough energy left over to jump into your work.
Set limits, and set them low. If you set them too high, you won’t have energy left. The point of this kind of exercise is to give you the momentum to tackle what’s important to you. If you’re buried under a mound of crap, trying to tackle it all at once is not going to help you. Whether you exhaust yourself or give up, you’ll take those feelings of inadequacy and transfer them to everything else. Stop trying to shift a whole mountain on your back, and pick up one rock at a time instead.by