Getting Clear through the Clutter
An important and overlooked aspect of managing emotions is managing the environment. Clearing clutter is a simple intervention that has profound results.
If our space is cluttered, so is our mind. This causes subconscious stress that clouds our thinking and keeps us from seeing possibilities. As a leadership consultant I teach leaders techniques to think more clearly, make better decisions, and go after bigger, bolder projects. Clearing clutter in the environment, is a good first step to clearing the mind.
To clear clutter, it’s important to recognize the difference between ‘just stuff’ and treasures, to become a collector of treasures, and get rid of ‘just stuff’.
My grandmother was a hoarder worse than anything you have seen on television. Given that she had outlived all of her contemporaries, her house was stacked from floor to ceiling with five generations of stuff that she had hauled over from other houses. Once she died, it took us (about ten of us) four months to get ready for twelve days of garage sales. After which, we still had five 10x20 storage units full of stuff. Another year went by before those units were finally swept clean. Looking back on that arduous project, I realize it was like an archeological dig. Each of us kept a few valuable items, a lumber receipt from 1844, a vintage typewriter, my great grandmother’s wedding corset (wow, eighteen-inch waists were really a thing!), and we let the rest of the stuff go.
This project taught me some valuable lessons.
First, don’t keep things long enough that they become a relic. If looking at something makes you sad, get it out of sight or get rid of it.
I was working with a client who could not get much done. We discovered that one of his problems was that his office was decorated with relics from dead relatives. When we narrowed down the collection to just the things that inspired him and put the remaining things away, he could literally put the past behind him and focus on the future.
To help you get rid of something, repeat this as often as necessary, “Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it.”
The next lesson learned: there is a difference between a collector and an accumulator.
A collector keeps items in pristine condition, curating, cataloging, displaying and storing items in a way that preserves the treasures for posterity. Provenance is recorded so that future generations will know the story behind the piece. Who owned it? Why was it kept? What impact did the owner have? What was special about the item? A treasure is a treasure because it is well preserved, with a meaning and a story attached to it. Otherwise, it’s just stuff. If you have a true treasure, write down the story, share it with your family and friends, and treasure your treasure.
An accumulator, on the other hand, gets treasures and hides them under the stuff, stacking up stuff over other stuff, turning treasures into stuff. An accumulator (aka. Hoarder) allows mold, dust, and rust to build up and decay the treasures. There is no story for the would-be treasure, usually because there is so much stuff that no one can find the time (let alone a place to sit) to sift through the stuff, find the treasure, and hear the story. Stuff. Stuff. Stuff.
In my grandmother’s things, we found would-be treasures...photos, christening rings, and military medals without any story attached to them. Was it our father’s christening ring or one she bought at a garage sale? Was that a military medal from a distinguished relative or something someone won in a poker game? In the estate sale, photos of ancestors with no names or dates were sold off next to the faded copies of the Morning News and Harper’s Bazaar. These items, without their story, had little to no value.
Accumulators can spread their habits to the work world. One of my clients was literally stepping over stacks of paper to get to her desk. She had copies of emails from 1996 stuffed into manila folders stacked next to the badges of all the conferences she had attended since 1982. She constantly made new spreadsheets to refresh her memory about the old spreadsheets that she forgot she had already made.
Within all this trash were a few key items that needed to be preserved. However, these precious pieces were withering away in the back of a file cabinet that ran the risk of being tossed completely, once the principal was out of the office. The millennial interns were astonished that emails older than they were had been printed, filed, and stored. The only piece of paper they expected to keep from college was their diploma. In this client’s office, a great deal of time, attention, and money went to shifting the stuff so someone could sit down…and build another spreadsheet.
To collect, one must curate. If you do not have time or talent to organize a collection properly, then let it go. Unless you are a reporter, attorney, or historian there is very little call to keep files. Are you holding onto it for a potential subpoena? If not, get rid of it.
Clearing your environment of unnecessary distractions, frees your mind and opens you to future possibilities you didn’t know you had.