How are you feeling?

This country used to be famous for its British reserve and its stiff upper lip. Now we take our cues from television characters who scream and slam doors and hotly accuse each other at the slightest provocation. Public displays of rage or sentiment are reckoned as more honest, authentic or ‘human’ than calm and rational courtesy; and we freely broadcast a spattering of emotional reactions to the world on social media, in the convenient shorthand of emoticons.

Emoticons can express what we find difficult or are too inhibited to put into words. In this world of remote communication, where the person you are speaking to is not right there to read your expression, a wink or a smile can convey your meaning more subtly than words. But do emoticons help us to accept how changeable, irrational and complex our emotional weather really is? Or do they reduce complex shades of feeling to a set of clichés and grimaces, the online equivalent of cartoon expletives like ‘Grrrr’, ‘Arrgh!!!’ and ‘??’

In magical tradition, to name something gives you power over it. When you can appreciate your emotional state of mind lucidly enough to label it – “What I am feeling is angry, or sad, or anxious…” – you take command of the stress or upset that a moment before was controlling you. It is immensely helpful to give a child the words to pin down their confusing emotions: “That looks frustrating”, “Are you very disappointed?”, “That was surprising, wasn’t it?” It is immensely helpful to yourself to name your feeling, or cocktail of feelings: “This is only fear talking, this is my critical self having another go at me, this is confidence saying Go for it!” It is helpful to everyone when you learn to communicate your feelings: not as rights, or excuses, or reproaches, but to clarify where you are coming from; to explain your present point of view, without demanding sympathy or compliance.

Your kneejerk reactions are never a reliable guide to what matters. Our emotions do not tell us what is true. They can only tell us what we believe, or hope, or fear at this moment in time. But they give us a rich, rapid and intuitive range of responses to the world and to each other, faster than thinking. To be emotionally aware is to become emotionally resilient. If you know what it feels like to be afraid, defensive or hostile, you can also be more freely grateful, affectionate, compassionate. When you pay attention to your feelings, whether your heart is sinking or singing, you will know the direction of your thoughts. Then you can make decisions and move on, wholeheartedly – with heart and mind together – instead of being blown off track by mysterious and unwanted impulses.

Uncluttering: weeding out the no-mores and the maybe-laters

I prefer the word unclutter to the increasingly common ‘declutter’. An uncluttered space feels spacious and always pleasant to be in. To me, ‘decluttered’ sounds temporary, stripped, less than it was.

You can get such a buzz out of clearing a place to within an inch of its life, that the decluttering gurus often encourage throwing out hard and fast as much as you can in one sustained assault. This may be necessary when time is short, but it is like a rapid diet: you may lose weight fast, but it will soon creep back, and even more than before.

Your excess stuff, like excess weight, is a personal and emotional issue that can be dealt with more gently and effectively. It calls for sympathetic attention and planning in advance. Just as a definition of weeds is that they are the flowers you don’t want in your garden – because they tend to take over and choke the ones you do – clutter is only stuff that is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stuff in the wrong place: The old rule ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ is fundamental. Does every item in your possession have its own convenient, logical place, where you know exactly where to find it? What is the purpose of each room in your house, and is there anything in it which does not serve that purpose?

My mother once designed a treasure hunt for one of my birthday parties. We had to run from room to room, looking for objects that were out of place. A toothbrush in the hall would direct us to the bathroom; a carrot in the bathroom would send us to the kitchen… Each displaced object was a clue that would lead us from one room to another until we found the treasure. Nice idea! It was a disaster. The children found so many items in every room that were out of place that the treasure hunt disintegrated into a shambles.

The right place for anything is where that sort of thing belongs – tools together in their place, clothes in theirs – and (crucially) where you put it back after each use. Where everyone in the family knows to find it, without endless ‘Has anyone seen my car keys…?’ and ‘Where did you put the…?

Stuff at the wrong time: I like the idea that there are two sorts of clutter. There is fear-based clutter, which you are afraid to let go in case you need or regret it later; or that represents memories you cling to, for fear of losing what is special about them. And there is hope-based clutter, which includes all the things you hope to get around to mending/decorating/using one day; or that you hope will be of more value in the future than it is to you now.

The right time for stuff is what you presently love, use, and have space for, at this period in your life.  Clutter is what you have grown out of, does not add shine to your present way of life, that would leave you lighter and freer if it was not there. The right time for stuff is the time you set aside to take hold of it, look at it, experience the emotions it stirs in you, and think through your priorities. Whether you want to sort one drawer or a whole house, take a little time to explore different tips and approaches; find what works for you and where are the sticking points that you may need help with.

Uncluttering need not be a once-for-all, shameful or saddening, overwhelming encounter with your past or your unlived future. Let it rather be a continuous process of rearranging, reassessing, rediscovering, resurrecting, rethinking your life as you go along. You can’t stop old stuff from becoming less relevant, or new stuff from flowing in. A habit of redirecting the clutter as it starts to cluster will enable you to honour the past, make room for the future, and above all live unencumbered in the present.

Further reading:

Dana White, Decluttering at the Speed of Life

Making decisions

It is exciting to have a variety of options. We all want to be free to choose what we like. But it is known that more choice does not make us more happy. The more time and thought we have to put into choosing, the more stressed we become. And then it is hard to make a decision at all.

Deciding can be painfully difficult. It can involve emotional conflict and uncertain consequences. To choose one thing is to forego something else. Every decision brings the risk of regret. But every time you shove another unloved item back in the drawer ‘for now’, add another task to the ‘do sometime’ list, put up with another situation you don’t know what to do about, you burden your mind as well as your physical space with unnecessary obstructions.

Unmade decisions lead to clutter and debt. Procrastination lets a present niggle grow into tomorrow’s monster. Not deciding leaves you feeling increasingly harassed, often guilty, out of control, overwhelmed. You no longer trust yourself to make decisions confidently. You no longer know what you want. You may not even realise you are repeatedly putting off making decisions. It seems easier to let impulse, distraction, habit or other people decide for us, than to stop, actually engage with the item, the task or the situation, and choose what to do about it. If you keep waiting until you are ‘sure’, you will be stuck in perpetual uncertainty.

So what to do when you don’t know what to do? You can start by giving yourself less choice. Barack Obama is said to have simplified his wardrobe to identical shirts and trousers, so he didn’t waste time wondering what to wear. While all the media spotlight was on Michelle’s latest dress, he owned just one dinner suit throughout his presidency, and could be ready for any state occasion in ten minutes. You can cut some of your commitments, delegate others, change your way of life so that you are not distracted by so many calls on your time and attention.

Then, practise making decisions more assertively: like exercising a muscle. Be decisive about the myriad small choices you already make every day. Choose to brush your teeth; deliberately put on your shoes. Even sitting in your car in a traffic jam allows you some choice: you might take the opportunity to relax, look at the scenery, think about someone you love. Every deliberate decision makes the next one easier, and lets you live in the moment instead of being rushed from yesterday to tomorrow with no time to enjoy the view.

Decisiveness says it like you mean it: not ‘I have to’ but ‘I am going to.’ Not ‘I’ll try to be there,’ but ‘I’ll be there’. Not ‘Hopefully see you whenever,’ but ‘When shall we meet?’

And when you do delay a decision, do it decisively. ‘I don’t have time now but I will properly think about this on Thursday at 11.’ Make a date in your calendar. Then give that item/task/situation your full attention. You will be liberating yourself at the same time.

 

If you are interested in this topic you may like these TED talks:

https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice#t-396760

https://www.ted.com/talks/ruth_chang_how_to_make_hard_choices

https://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_choosing_what_to_choose

 

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