Sunday, October 21, 2012

Too Busy to Unclutter?

© awitikoski at stock.xchng 
I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately by all of the stuff I need to do and I want to change that. I've fallen behind on some things that are current, but what nags at me is the stuff that's been unresolved for ages -- the "postponed decisions" that organizer Peter Walsh says are at the root of clutter: little piles of notes with information on them that I perceive is worth keeping; artwork that needs to be stored rather than stacked; items that need to be donated, not left in a holding area. In an effort to get a grip on my situation and stop beating myself up over it, I reread two articles that I've saved because I think they're so insightful. (And, yes, I have some digital clutter that needs to go, too!)

John Tierney offers this observation in "Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?":

"Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. . . . Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy."

While the article focuses on how how decision fatigue depletes your energy to make choices while shopping or trying to stay on a diet, I'm convinced that it also contributes to an inability to tackle clutter effectively. When you postpone decisions about your clutter, it's not simply because the decisions are difficult to make; there are also probably too many of them for you to handle comfortably and they probably fall into too many different categories -- papers, clothes, sentimental items, etc.-- each with their own unique excuses that trap you and prevent you from moving forward. Thus, you feel decision fatigue, and it becomes easier not to decide, and go do something else. Like write a blog post.

As the article points out, there is a biological price extracted -- it's not just "all in your head." So perhaps the best way to handle dealing with those postponed decisions (assuming you're not hiring a personal organizer to blast through the process with you) is to tackle them in very small quantities. Forgive yourself for having allowed the clutter to accumulate and tackle only a decision or two a day. Work on uncluttering when you're rested and well-fed, so you'll be less likely to succumb to feelings of pressure or despair that you'll ever complete the job. If you have an average clutter problem, not a clutter crisis, eventually you'll gain the upper hand.

There's another related issue that many people face and Tim Kreider calls it "The Busy Trap." From his article:

"If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: 'Busy!' 'So busy.' 'Crazy busy.' It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: 'That’s a good problem to have,' or 'Better than the opposite.' . . . The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it."

I've known plenty of "crazy busy" people and many of them don't seem to get much joy out of their busyness. Some don't seem to get much done, either, other than treading water. The things they say they want to do are always put on the back burner to enjoy sometime later, but also on the back burner are their problems, including dealing with their clutter. Being productive is the focus of their lives and uncluttering, while they might acknowledge as a useful task, is low on their list of priorities. The idea of doing nothing is incomprehensible to them.  Kreider says all this busyness is to avoid an existential problem: the feeling of the meaninglessness of everything we do. Maybe, but maybe it's not quite that bleak. Maybe it's just another way to avoid making decisions about things that make us uncomfortable.

I fall into the "being productive" trap sometimes and, when paired with decision fatigue, that can result in doing things that are faux productive. For me, that usually means reading and looking at interesting things online. It's engrossing and can feel like I'm doing something important when I'm learning something new, but I'm really just entertaining and distracting myself. I don't truly need to know all those obscure facts about esoteric subjects. (I'm delighted that you're reading this blog post, but if you have a clutter problem, please go do something about it as soon as you're done!)

It seems that if we want to take control of our excessive busyness, we need to make choices that allow us some genuine down time. Not paralyzed by decision fatigue time, not distraction time, but quiet time that allows us to regenerate our enthusiasm for life. As Kreider points out:

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

Tim Kreider thinks that life is too short to be busy. I'd add that life is too short to live it surrounded by clutter, whether it's in your living space or stowed away in closets, drawers, and storage units where it remains as clutter in your head. So, fortified with a decent night's sleep and a good meal, I'm off to make a decision or two about my supposedly important scraps of papers. Then, I'll allow myself a little quiet idleness. It should be a genuinely productive evening.


"All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone."

~ Blaise Pascal