A decade or so ago, I was running a business with a dozen employees, big name clients, and revenues in the millions of dollars. I spoke at conferences about entrepreneurship and cross-cultural communication, had an awesome social life, and was starting a new family. The future was so bright… well… you know.
But what only a few people close to me knew was that my life was literally a mess.
My San Francisco apartment looked fine. People didn’t need to know what was going on in the closets, the drawers, or my office. Bills, new and old, were stacked everywhere in neat little piles, disguised to look like organization. It turns out that you don’t need most of the stuff you hoard, and so it’s very possible to live your life without ever opening those drawers or boxes other than to jam one more thing in there. You fill them up over time, close them, and then move on to another one.
My desk was piled so high with papers that I was afraid to move anything lest I start a paperfall off the back of the desk. My desk drawers were full of watches needing batteries, cords, old video cards, pictures, a lamp oil bottle, used checkbooks, and lots and lots of paper. I relied on the things I needed being on the tops of the piles.
A big sign that there was a problem was that I rented a huge storage unit for my stuff when I moved to Japan, and I hadn’t missed any of it by the time I got back a year later. Thousands of dollars went to storing literal tons of stuff, none of which mattered to me. Crazily, I moved most of that accumulated clutter into storage when I moved to Japan, out of storage and up to Oregon when I moved back, and twice between houses after I got here. I’m including the little bottle of lamp oil.
As a result of all of this physical clutter, my life accumulated mental clutter. Bills got lost and never paid. Late fees appeared. My motorcycle insurance lapsed right before a minor accident. I missed appointments and bought things I didn’t need because I couldn’t find the one I already had. I developed a sort of background noise of anxiety that something– I don’t know what– was undone, lost, or probably going on right now, and I was missing it.
Then, a few years ago, I finally snapped. I sat on the floor of my office trying to figure out what to do with a phone cord– you know, the extra one they give you with a new phone– that was still in it’s wrapper. Did it go in the box with wires? With phone stuff? I already had a dozen of them. Was it garbage? It’s still brand new; would Goodwill want it?
And that was just a phone cord. You might guess that I didn’t get my office organized that day.
That was the point at which I decided I had to go see someone about my clutter issue. I knew it wasn’t just the junk. In fact, as Peter Walsh says in his entertaining book on the subject, It’s All Too Much, “it’s not about the stuff”.
The thing that drives us to collect crap in our lives is more about our inability to process what the crap means to us. Whether it’s junk, like lamp oil, that we can’t throw out because we just don’t know how to safely get rid of it or unused items that seem a shame to waste, we get stuck on processing the meaning or value of the stuff and so put off action on it.
In my case, the result of that visit was a diagnosis with adult ADD (no surprise to anyone who knows me, probably), but more importantly, it was the opportunity to see the clutter as what it is– a manifestation of my own inability to make certain kinds of decisions.
The more I learned about myself in that regard, the more I understood that it didn’t just apply to papers and old video cards. It applied to getting things done– oil changes, haircuts, and doctor visits. It applied to my relationships– calling friends, sending cards, and tolerating unpleasantness. If I could choose to do nothing, and there was no immediate consequence, I often did. It applied to everything.
Clutter really refers to a lack of clarity and simplicity in our lives as a result of our inability, or unwillingness, to make realistic decisions and then act on them.
Lamp oil is hazardous waste. I can burn it or deliver it to Metro here in Portland. I may not like those options, but that’s what they are. The phone cord is garbage. Sad, but true. No one will ever read the thesis paper I wrote on tunable lasers in college. It was great, I graduated, and it goes in recycling now. And if I know I need to fire an employee, waiting around just makes things worse for everyone.
I understand now that one of the tenets of my old martial arts school refers to more than punching and kicking: “Move to action with sureness and hope.” In any situation, you have some options, pick one, do it, and hope for the best. Then, move on to the next situation. They just keep coming. Like utility bills. And magazines.
It has taken me years to dig out of all the clutter that I’d accumulated over my life. I’ve had dumpsters delivered and filled them to the top, and not once have I later gone back and tried to find that perfectly good half-bag of cotton balls, shovel handle, leftover electrical wire, or my utility bills from last year.
Still, life goes on. There are now toys that the kids have outgrown, remnants of merging households, and computer equipment that works but is a few years out of date. The good news is that it no longer shuts me down, and I’ve largely stemmed the tide of clutter flowing in to my home. Instead of dumpsters, I manage with bags, trashcans, and eBay.
The biggest benefit of learning how to look at clutter, in my possessions and my life, is the clarity and enthusiasm it brings to getting things done. A bill comes in, it gets paid, it gets thrown away. I keep Google calendars with important dates and sync them to my phone with alarms. I ask myself the question, again from Peter Walsh’s book, “What kind of life do I want? Does this (thing, person, appointment) support that or detract from it?”
There’s still plenty of stuff that could go. Books are still tricky for me. I still get stuck, now and then, on things the kids loved or expensive items that we might use again, and I’m not the only person in my house. I’m not perfect and don’t expect to be. Every day is just a series of decisions about what contributes or detracts from the life I want. But now, I see those decisions as opportunities to take action to get closer to that life, and that’s exciting.