Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Clutter and Roadblocks to Priorities

I have a category of resolutions called "Environment", because I think your surroundings can contribute or detract from your happiness to a great degree. I spent many years living on the "shovel a path to the closet" level of clutter before I realized it was making me miserable. I'm not a neat person by any means, but I found out that if you reduce the amount of stuff you actually own it makes it easier to make it look neat and organized.

When I seriously thought about why I owned certain items, the actual unnecessary clutter came in two categories: scarcity thinking and project potential.

Scarcity thinking led me to hang onto items without or past usefulness because of a fear that one day I would need them and not be able to find or afford them. This is what led to an accumulation of excess furniture, worn out clothes, nice dishes/cosmetics/shoes that were never used, etc. I still struggle to convince myself that I don’t need to save nice things, or hoard old things, against some future disaster. I need to first consider here and now, and trust that when I’m in that future I’ll be able to scale my life to my resources.

Project potential is my biggest temptation and money sink, especially thrift projects that re-use or restore discarded items. The seduction of hoarding things for projects is that it’s actually saved me time and money in the past. I ran out of wrapping paper this Christmas and ended up wrapping several presents in fabric remnants. I’ve suddenly needed a particular piece of wood to brace something and was able to scrounge it from the garage without spending any money. These are moments that make me think I’m justified in my clutter.

The downside, besides the mess, is the pressure. Items saved for later use beg to be used. I find myself unable to relax because somewhere in the house there’s a stalled or potential project I could be working on. I can’t read tonight; I have to make some progress on the braided rug so we can get rid of the pile of old sheets. I can’t spend time online when there’s pattern making to be done and the attic holds three enormous bins of fabric waiting to be something.

At some point I believe there will be a moment when I’m Done. I’ve experienced it before when I’ve taken several days to deep clean the house and reach a point where I honestly believe there’s nothing left to do. The obligation is finished. My time is my own.

The fallacy in this thinking is that ALL time is my own. I choose what to do, and when. I choose to spend a certain amount of time at work because I don’t like the alternative (i.e. being without work). I choose to spend a certain amount of time cleaning because I enjoy its rewards or dislike the consequences of the alternative enough to do so. There is no external obligation to anyone to accomplish certain things in my day or my lifetime; there are only my own choices, based on my personal priorities.

I decide which projects to make a priority. Low priority projects (i.e. neither necessary nor enjoyable enough to commit to in the next year) will not get done. Therefore the supplies to do them serve no purpose cluttering up my life or my limited living space. Scarcity may enter my life someday, but there’s no amount of “stuff” that will cushion the blow if it does. My real priorities (self-awareness, good health, strong relationships) will serve me much, much better.

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