We love stories. It’s how we connect with each other. It’s how we create and sustain meaning for everything that surrounds us. But the stories that we tell ourselves over and over again bind us to the objects around us, and they can become the source of great suffering and inertia in our lives. Our minds are not the most useful tools when it comes to shifting our behavior. Few people are successful at thinking their way out of disorganization. One of the most common stories we tell ourselves when dealing with objects that we intellectually know are no longer useful is that letting a particular thing go makes us a bad or insensitive person. If it weren’t for this story, we’d be able to let something go, but right now, it feels like a significant betrayal. Ask yourself, “If this story were no longer true, what would this object mean to me? Is there any good and current reason for this to be here?”
Whether the objects we’re dealing with are piles of papers that need to be filed, articles of interest clipped out of magazines and newspapers, books in stacks waiting to be read, clothes to be washed or put away or given away, or sentimental objects and touchstones of past experiences—the story that’s attached to each of them is most likely an old story.
Look around right now at any piles that might be near you. As you observe the individual items that are stacked on top of each other, think about the stories you tell yourself about why these things are still in your life. Maybe the story is about “someday,” the fictional day when you’ll finally get around to starting that knitting project or scrapbooking or visiting the website on that page you tore out of a magazine. Or maybe the story is about an object that was essential to the successful completion of a project and now has a place of honor as a result. Or you’ve created a story about an object that holds tremendous potential for an undefined future project and it would be a shame to let it go prematurely.
Do any of these stories ring true? Are you beginning to recognize that these kinds of stories, like many good stories, may contain more than a little bit of fiction?
If you’re pushing back now, declaring that you are the exception and not the rule, that you actually will do something with this object, bring your awareness to that resistance. Look at how powerfully you can fight to defend a position that doesn’t serve you. Soften into the possibility that the story you’re telling yourself may not be the truth. And remember: without your story, the object reverts back to its initial state.
As you loosen your grip on an object, you’ll begin to see that the object existed before your story and can exist beyond it as well. Once you’re able to really experience this, that the object exists solely on its own merit and purpose, separate from you, you’re finally in a position to objectively determine its current place in your life. Sit with that for a while and then look around.
What you see now will be objects and stories. They are no longer bound to one another; they exist independently. Explore the possibility of either a new story you can tell yourself about these objects—a story in which you are complete with each item and clear about your new relationship to it, which may involve its leaving your life for its next chapter someplace else. Or even no story. Both are acceptable. In either scenario, be aware that the old story may resist your new point of view, so again, instead of digging in your heels, greet this opportunity as an invitation to freedom.
The word “spring-cleaning” conjures up images of sheer white curtains gently undulating in front of an open window, an unseasonably warm breeze blowing as we shake off winter and its sleepy, inactive rest. Everything feels bright and sharp and full of hope, and hope is a great tool when it comes to forming new habits and letting go of older, obsolete habits. Hope opens the door to possibility and allows us to envision change, particularly change that we desire. But hope alone will not affect change—that requires movement.
Just as small green shoots push up from beneath the ground this spring, we too start to stretch upward and reassert our claim to fresh air, sunlight, and room to spread out. We’ve finished huddling in a corner, trying to keep warm in our nests of papers and accumulated stuff. If you’re ready to embrace spring-cleaning and its promise of order and growth, if you’re ready to build on your hope and move into action, here are some guaranteed ways to be successful, both inside and out.
A clear, quiet mind and an open heart
Whether or not you’ve achieved a degree of organization in the past or consider yourself to be chronically disorganized, set aside all previous assessments of your condition. Good, bad, clumsy, awkward, successful, disappointing—from this point forward, you should focus on “how.” Let “why” or “why not” fall away.
Give yourself a few minutes to quiet your mind and open yourself up to the possibility of having everything that serves you within easy reach. Imagine a space where everything has a home and you actually know where that is. Nothing is obscured, nothing is compromised, and everything has a purpose—whether that purpose is purely aesthetic or purely practical or a happy hybrid of the two. Imagine yourself building or assembling this space where harmony and efficiency are happily coupled and nothing that might detract from that harmony is allowed to encroach upon it. If there is any pushback or resistance to this image, remind yourself that creating this space is completely possible—and achieving it doesn’t require you to live like a monk.
Now that you’re centered and you’ve visualized the space you’re going to create, you are ready to begin the process of eliminating any historic or accumulated clutter. If you are diligent in establishing and sticking to the following process and utilizing the recommended tools for creating a simple and useful space, you will never again create a cluttered environment.
The Organizational Triangle
The Organizational Triangle allows us to find anything we’re looking for in 30 seconds or less. It informs us how to begin to dismantle accumulated clutter.
The first leg of the triangle is “One Home for Everything,” and it is what ensures that the “30-second rule” mentioned above always works. Because once everything has a home, it can only either be in its home or in our hands being used.
The second leg of the triangle is “Like with Like,” and that guides us to group all similar items together. The word “all” is very important here. One of the surest ways to slow down the release of historic clutter while beginning to accumulate new clutter is to not group like items with their siblings. It doesn’t take long to find yourself surrounded by duplicates and redundancies, since you have prevented the true volume of any kind of thing from being known by storing parts of the group in several locations.
The third leg of the triangle is “Something In, Something Out.” This final concept centers on achieving what I call stuff equilibrium. Once you have enough of everything that serves you, you are now also clear on what no longer does, and it becomes that much easier to let things go that are redundant, obsolete, or painful to spend time with.
There are no quantified rules about what “enough” looks like. Available square footage and your core values will inform your decisions about your version of “enough.” Be mindful of trying to cram too much stuff into too small a space. Your feelings may attempt to mislead you, but math and square footage will not— feel free to fall back on them if confusion arises. Likewise, feel encouraged to redesign the space in alignment with your core values. If books and reading are core values of yours and you don’t use a traditional living room for entertaining, consider turning your living room into a library. The point is to allow yourself to think outside rigid rules of how space should be used to think of how space might be used to serve you and your values.
While you’re establishing new habits, with a goal being to prevent future accumulation of stuff, you’ll want to allow enough time for these habits to take root. Experts say it takes between 30 and 90 days for new habits to become ingrained, so keep that in mind if or when you find yourself reflecting or analyzing your feelings around this process. Remember, we’re no longer interested in why, only how.
As you develop new skills and until these new habits become second nature, it’s possible that you may continue feeling disjointed or awkward in your mechanical efforts to shift your behaviors around your accumulated stuff. It is almost guaranteed that as you deal with historic clutter, as you sift and sort through piles of things trying to sort them into smaller distinct piles, that just touching certain things will bring up various feelings and thoughts. And without a clear mind and an open heart, you may easily become overwhelmed. The need to be mindful is critical if you’re engaged in forming new habits while tackling historic clutter.
Once you have some practice at recognizing the stories that you’ve created for your objects, you’ll be able to examine the items surrounding you with some energy and a fresh vision. You’ll be free to evaluate each item and understand your relationship to it while asking yourself if this object currently satisfies any of the following:
• Is it beautiful?
• Is it practical?
• Does it offer you comfort?
• Does it offer you convenience?
• Do I already own something similar that either works better or I prefer?
If the answer to the first four questions is no, or the answer to the fifth is yes, then objectively there isn’t any reason to hold onto it.
As you begin to dismantle accumulated clutter by separating each item from its random neighbors, as you apply the Organizational Triangle and the five questions above to these things, you’ll want to allow adequate time for the process so you can stay effective and focused for each session without overextending yourself. This is where a timer comes in handy. Each time you sort through historic clutter, you’ll want to set the timer for a reasonable amount of time—no less than fifteen minutes and no more than three hours. A timer is an excellent tool to use for all sorts of projects, from getting organized to paying bills or physical exercise. Set the timer, and while you’re timing yourself, complete a task that previously had you immobilized. The next time you attempt that task, what you’ll experience and build upon is your most recent success—rather than your historic failure.
The gifts of organization
While you may never love putting things in their homes or derive great pleasure from knowing where everything in your space is at any given time, what you may love is all of the free time organization gives you as a gift for your simple compliance. Make no mistake, the goal of getting organized, during springtime or anytime, is not the only goal or even the best goal. That goal is finally having time for all of the things that you say are important to you but never seem to have enough time for since you’re so disorganized. Once the visible obstacles are cleared away and we bring awareness to our habitual cluttering, we get to see clearly if what we like to say is important really is important. And armed with new knowledge of our core values, we’re able to align our words with our deeds with ease, should we discover any inconsistencies.
Roll up the blinds, open the windows, grab your timer, and dig in to your piles of stuff. There is no better time than right now to kick the clutter habit and expand your life beyond misplaced cell phones, a single earring, a broken mug. Your coffee table will thank you, your desk will thank you, and your heart will thank you.
Now that you’re utilizing the Organizational Triangle to keep current with the objects that you use every day, you’re ready to tackle historic clutter and get organized for good. Here’s the process you’ll want to follow to deal with any clutter hotspot, from your entryway to your closets and from your desk to your kitchen cupboards. For this example, we’ll deal with your desk.
Take some “before” pictures. Photographs are a great source of motivation if you ever falter or doubt that progress is being made. Your gut may tell you one thing (“This isn’t happening fast enough,” or “Nothing’s changed; this is a waste of time”), but the photos don’t lie. These images provide proof that the process does work and is moving forward.
Clear everything off the surface of your desk. Then turn your attention to the drawers and do the same thing until there’s nothing left in or on your desk. Wipe down your desktop and the empty drawers.
Turn your attention to the pile of stuff you’ve just cleared from your desk. Utilizing “Like with Like,” begin to group like items together. For example, I divide my desk supplies into the following categories: office supplies, electronics, file folders, banking, and shipping/postage.
Once everything has been sorted into groups of similar items, eliminate any redundancies. Be mindful of how much room you have in your desk to store surplus supplies. Is there a nearby closet where you can store those extra Post-it notes? You shouldn’t need more than one stapler or pair of scissors. Let the rest go. Use containers to group the small necessary items, like pens, pencils, paper clips, binder clips, and so on.
Once you’ve finished organizing your items into groups and have eliminated the redundancies, you can begin to set up your drawers and the desktop. Think location, location, location. What do you absolutely need at your fingertips on the desk? That and only that should live on the surface. Anything that can be stored in a drawer, should be. When loading drawers, use “Like with Like” to inform what shares drawer space and utilize drawer dividers in order to corral similar items together. When you’ve found a home for everything you need, you’re finished. As you begin to use your newly designed space, keep the three legs of the Organizational Triangle in mind, and you’ll find yourself on the path to a life of less clutter.
Artwork by Helga Steppan
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