All that remains

When we strip away everything we own, what is left? When we have nothing to do, nothing to look at, no distractions?

We have our own thoughts.

And as anyone who’s been awake at 3:30am before will know, our thoughts can often be incredibly unwelcome.

Experimenting with quiet, with no devices, screens, stuff or sounds to distract me, my mind starts to wander into dangerous territory. I start worrying about things I should have done but haven’t. I worry about my children, my parenting skills, my work skills, my unfulfilled goals, my clients, my marriage, my health, my appearance. I think of the times I spoke tactlessly before thinking, or re-live those times I was humiliated in public or bullied at high school. You name it, it will pop up.

I want to run away from those thoughts. I want to hide from them with Instagram or a word game. With Netflix or chocolate. With going through my stationery draw and reorganising it. With buying a new pair of shoes. With reading a blog.

What if you consider the idea that you might be collecting or keeping stuff to protect you from these worries – that you may busy yourself shopping, tidying or organising so that you aren’t alone with your thoughts?

What if you consider the idea that you fill your schedule with busy-ness, spend time staring at your phone and volunteer to do stuff for others, so that you aren’t worrying about your life?

I don’t have the antidote to worrying – I’m doing it myself and am wondering how to turn it off. But I do know that hiding from it doesn’t help. The thoughts are still there, no matter what we do to try to cover them up.

Maybe, if we strip everything away and we sit with all that remains, we can find another way to quiet our mind that doesn’t involve running away from it.

Letting go without context

Some people struggle to declutter because they need context. Without it, they feel they can’t let go.

By context I mean that someone is decluttering their study and they find an egg-flip. The person doesn’t know if they have any other egg-flips, or how many they have, so they can’t make a decision to discard that egg-flip. They keep it, and then weeks later have the same dilemma when they find another egg-flip somewhere else. Was it the same one? Do I only have one? Or do I h…ave more, and can I safely donate this one? Usually the uncertainty is too high so they choose to keep it.

There is one obvious solution to this – declutter by category. Grab all your egg-flips, put them in one place and then declutter. Marie Kondo has borrowed this method for her book and it can be very helpful.

Unfortunately, it’s only helpful for people with low-to-medium levels of clutter or for relatively organised homes (ie, all your items are contained to one to three rooms per category, like clothes or toys). It’s completely useless for people with high or hoarding levels. I mean, how on earth do you find all of your batteries in the whole house when you can’t even open the cupboards or see the floor?

So my poor clients are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t discard because they fear discarding too many or the wrong ones, and they can’t find the rest to help facilitate the decision-making.

The solution I recommend (understanding how hard it is) is to just forget the context. Forget the others, forget the maybes, just declutter as much as you possibly can, knowing that if you make a mistake, you’ll still be okay and your main goal of being in control of your belongings is more important than trying to avoid having to buy a $3 egg-flip from KMart.

That’s the key – knowing you’ll still be okay no matter what choice you make. Because you will, I promise.

Practice makes perfect

Many people who struggle with clutter have difficulty “de-owning” their stuff. They get anxious at the thought of parting with it because all the fears crowd their mind with a billion “What if..?” scenarios.

If you are one of those, you’ll be pleased to know that your first goal is not to part with items. Your first goal is to reduce your anxiety around letting go. It’s not about the item, it’s about the discomfort. It doesn’t matter WHY you want to keep it, it’s about anxiety itself.

If you can expose yourself every single day to the behaviour of letting go (starting with really easy things) then your brain starts to back off. You will realise that your anxiety isn’t as high anymore.

Initially, for the first thing you let go of, it will hurt. You’ll feel very anxious. Don’t give up – the pain doesn’t last as long as you’re anticipating. The next one will hurt too, but the one after, and the one after that will all hurt less. This is proven.

You’ve built up your “letting go” muscles and the workout won’t hurt as much anymore.

Be careful – if you cave to the pressure and practice the avoidance behaviour (the keeping) instead of the behaviour you’re trying to encourage (the letting go), it reinforces your brain and takes you straight back to the beginning. A psychologist once told me that if you give in just one time, it will undo a fortnight’s worth of letting go practice.

That’s why it’s important to focus on an easy category of items – so that you are more capable of pushing through the anxiety. After you’re no longer uncomfortable with one category, you can work your way up the line to the harder ones.

Consistency is the key – if you don’t do it EVERY SINGLE DAY you’ll be wasting your time because your brain will revert very quickly and you’ll undo all your good work.

Keeping up with the @joneses

When you’re trying to get your life under control it’s very important not to compare yourself with others. Especially with others on social media.

There’s so much “perfection” out there. On Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook.

It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that your life would be better if you looked like them, or your house did. If you could afford new furnishings or a Professional Organiser, if you could take the kids to interesting places every weekend and everyone smiled and looked like the perfect family.

You can’t see the struggles behind that “perfection” but don’t assume they aren’t there. Don’t assume that the picture of the perfect living room wasn’t taken by a woman in tears whose teenage daughter had just ripped shreds off her, or by a person in severe debt that kept them awake all night worrying. You don’t see the tantrums, the fights, the tension. You don’t see the anxiety, the throwing things and the coldness. You don’t see the overdue bills, the migraines, the depression.

And that’s fine – no one likes to show off the ugly and unhappy sides of life that inevitably affect all of us, no matter who, no matter how. No one wants to see it all the time, either.

But what’s not okay is to let yourself be dissatisfied with your life because you want it to be perfect.

Perfect doesn’t exist.

You can have a perfectly organised pantry with all glass containers full of organic whatever and you will still just hide in it and sob as you eat chocolate while the toddler screams blue murder for cutting their toast in squares instead of triangles, despite asking for squares in the first place.

A perfect home does not equal a perfect life. You’ll still have life’s struggles, you’ll just be doing it all in white with pastel, hanging planters and elk horns, with a toddler in a hand-knitted outfit.

A home under control does help you and that should be what you’re aiming for.

Just make sure it’s YOUR version of “under control”, not Instagram’s.

Post-Declutter Stress Disorder

Okay, I made that title up. But it isn’t too far from reality!

Most people get a sense of euphoria after decluttering. Some, however, do not. In fact, they feel horrible. They are anxious and miserable, dwelling on decisions made and wondering if they made mistakes. If you’re one of those people, you may be wondering why you don’t get as excited by the results as others do.

Here’s a few reasons why you might feel that way after decluttering:

1) Attachment happens in your mind. Physically removing something does just that; it’s physically gone. If you are still attached in your mind, the fact that it’s gone is not a relief.

2) You haven’t trained your brain to stop panicking yet. Every time our brain gets a reinforcement, it is told to continue that behaviour. So when you try to throw something away, then panic, then keep the item to make the panic go away, you’re telling your brain that panic is the appropriate response when attempting to discard something.

3) The future is more unknown with less stuff. No longer can you safely predict what might happen (ie right now you can predict you will have 2 spare can-openers to grab should you lose your favourite one). Instead, if you only have one can opener, you can’t predict the outcome of losing or breaking it. Unknown stuff can be scary if we allow ourselves to think of the negative consequences.

4) You worry that you’ve made a mistake. Your brain predicts a total catastrophe should it become apparent you’ve thrown out something that later becomes needed. This fear of the catastrophe has you dwelling on what mistakes you may have made when culling.

5) You feel you are losing a part of your identity or your past. Your past and your stuff are related. We store patterns in our neo-cortex of things we see, hear, smell and feel. Our brain cross-references these patterns and therefore creates an association. If you part with one of those “pointers” and it’s outside of your control and exists only in your mind, perhaps you’ll end up with memories in your brain that can’t ever be retrieved again.

6) You’re grieving lost opportunities. There are now things you may never see again, do again, think about again.

7) You did it for someone else. When you declutter to keep someone else happy, you’re less likely to enjoy the results. It’s not unlikely, just a little less likely.

8) You’ve forgotten about your goals. You’re thinking about what you’ve “lost”, not what you’ve gained. You have either not focused on your goals, or you have forgotten about them.

9) You just love your stuff too much. Whether you have hoarding disorder, or another mental health condition that fosters a very strong bond with physical belongings, your brain simply won’t let you let go.

This is why there is so much more to decluttering than just getting rid of stuff. It actually requires changes in mindset that without them, you won’t be able to be completely happy with the result.

Declutter your fears first, then your stuff.

Five habits of clutter-free people

Here are five things that clutter-free people make a habit of:

1. They acquire mindfully; only buying something if they know they need it and have identified a specific use for it. They happily pay full price because they know it’s of value to them (unless they find it’s conveniently on sale when they go to buy it) and avoid sales and being enticed by discounts. They only acquire something if they know where they’re going to put it, and that it fits there easily.

2. They have hobbies that either don’t require a lot of stuff, they set boundaries around how much of the hobby stuff they can have, or they limit their hobbies to a small number (like one or two). Or all of the above! They are satisfied without trying to do everything all at once.

3. They are okay with letting things go. They put themselves first and don’t keep things out of guilt or obligation. They don’t take everyone else’s problems on as their own. They have their emotional needs met by a small selection of sentimental possessions only, rather than keeping them all.

4. They don’t have a fear of missing out. They know that they’re always missing out on something, so why fight it? They are comfortable in the knowledge that they can’t have and do everything, and that if they tried, it wouldn’t result in happiness.

5. They base their self-worth around things other than their belongings. They know that even without all their stuff, they’ll still be okay.  Their happiness does not depend on having things. They trust that if culling something means one day forgetting something, that they’ll still be okay. They trust that even if they one day regret culling something, they’ll still be okay.

Perhaps you can see ways you might be able to create some clutter-free habits, too?

Churning (or: Why You’re Getting Nowhere)

Sometimes you think you’re working really hard at trying to gain control of your clutter, but you find you make no progress.

deck-chairs-on-TitanicYou are constantly sorting and organising, tidying and moving things around in an effort to gain order and be able to find your stuff when you want it, and have clear surfaces, but you don’t get anywhere.

No sooner do you clear a spot than you turn around and it’s full again.

“Whhhyyyyy??!??!!?” I hear you wail….

Here’s why – you’re just churning, or as my best friend puts it, “moving deck chairs on the Titanic”

Churning is the act of sorting, categorising, grouping into piles or sections and then having to do it again when the piles all merge together after a few days or weeks.

You need to stop churning and face the reality that the only way you’re going to gain control is to reduce the volume of your possessions. That means letting go of things you don’t need, use or love – and even some things you do.

Unless things actually leave the house, it’s just churning and you’re going to get nowhere.

It’s all about how it makes you feel

It’s not how your space looks that matters, it’s how it makes you feel.

If you stand in front of a space or in a doorway and think “I’ve got this. I can handle this” then you don’t really need to change much.

If you stand in front of a space or in a doorway and your heart rate goes up, you feel stressed, you feel the urge to escape or you don’t know where to start; then change is needed.

It doesn’t have to look good. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be under control.

Don’t worry about how it should look, or how you think others think it should look. Don’t worry about what your neighbour’s looks like, or your sister’s, or the other school parents. Don’t compare your home to the ones you see on TV or in magazines.

As long as you feel like you’ve got control of it, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. It’s how you feel in your home that matters.

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