Cleaning, Clutter and Half-Eaten Elephants

I’m always encouraged, and to be honest still surprised, how a ‘tidy up’ produces so much more positive outcomes than just finding a lost sock. There is of course the satisfaction of looking around the room and saying; “Yes, that’s better” and then being able to collapse in a heap knowing that for the next while, at least, you can bask in the simple pleasure of our shiny clean personal space or home.

Clarity comes from seeing things afresh and removing the clutter that has been stopping us from making informed life decisions. And when we say informed, it’s not just in relation to the wise use of the resources and space around us. We can also have a clearer picture of hidden and revealed opportunities. Add to this the benefit of opening up that clean space and you can be sure you will be in better head space control enabling you to handle the dirt demons that come in and distract or mess with your plans. Just this last month a real-life example happened that painted a picture for me as I was in the process of creating a better wake-up space for myself. I had just finished reading Hal Elrod’s “Miracle Morning”. Well worth your time and I will outline some benefits I’ve received personally in another article.

One of the key principles of the Miracle Morning is the intentional use of your wake-up time to position yourself mentally, physically and spiritually for the day. I had also wanted to create a journaling space away from my work areas and felt the space just beside my bed actually was a good use area. I could wake up to a creative space and also use it for those late night spasms of ideas. To put the plan in action I ordered a small desk that wasn’t too deep, just enough room to write and a shelf above and below for storing journals etc. At a bargain price from one of the online stores it arrived and so began the assembly process. What I hadn’t bargained on was the early arrival of Christmas due to the polystyrene packaging. This DIY assembly package had so many blocks and bricks of the white protective filler and tied into the problem was that they were crumbling all over the place.

With care and precision, I assembled the desk between finishing work and dinner time. With a proud sense of achievement that only a master Allen key wielding god can understand (and I think it was a Thursday), I looked back at the result and realised my life was still on the line. The mess of polystyrene balls was all over the bedroom floor. Roll out the Dyson and we are going to move our standing in the family scoreboard up a notch or two away from being the messy problem child in the house. After vacuuming all the fake Christmas snow into the filter bag, I was happy the room and writing heaven journaling desk were ready for use. That is until.

Although I had left the bedroom in a state of pristine hospital quality cleanliness, the next day I had a problem. Where did those white spots come from on the carpet? I must have missed a spot, so pick them up and chuck them in the bin. The next day I wake to more white spots on the carpet. Am I blind, pick them up. That’s better and pat me on the back for my MBA in Domestic Cleaning. However, on the third day, I’m questioning my sanity as the spots reappear like perpetual German measles and I’ve had enough.

Where was this day to day mess coming from. Down on my knees I was able to discover that under the main part of the newly assembled desk there were still dozens of little white polystyrene beads clinging with static electric might to the underside of the desk. As each day had gone by, some had lost their magnetic vigour and dropped to the carpet below. With a quick wipe and disposal, the problem was fully solved but I realised in that moment a life lesson presented in the aftermath of my cleaning escapade.

As I had prepared the desk construction site I had created an opportunity space. I knew my boundaries and had a desk, or solution that would fit. There was some pain in the initial exercise, after all, who enjoys assembling kit set furniture with no guarantee the parts fit the instruction sheet, but it would pay off in the benefits. But something I hadn’t reckoned on was that the cleaning part of the exercise would have another benefit. As we clean areas of our life, we have an opportunity to improve our day to day life with easier life management. Cleaning a messy bedroom or home after months or years of build-up and incremental tardiness can appear to be a super headache that is so easily postponed. Picking up three lightweight polystyrene balls from a spotless carpet floor and putting them in a bin is a walk in the park or a walk to the bin. Simples!

The adventure of ‘Life’ and the makeup of our home have great similarities. There are rooms we spend a lot of time in and others we seldom visit. Some rooms have also become the hiding places of clutter and topics we would rather not deal with ‘right now’. And while having a storage place can be good, our head and heart have limited capacity so there is often a time when we need to consider how it all works together and if our limit has been reached. If life is creeping out under the cracks in our room doors and into the hallway, then we will soon find even our coming and going is blocked and we begin to stagnate in our clutter.

Tie that thought to how easy you are processing day to day decisions and you may find it’s as simple as the picture of a computer or phone that’s run out of memory, or the crockery cupboard that couldn’t possibly take another cup for your collection. From work to home and all the relationships and dreams we navigate, the ability to find processing space is based on being able to declutter. It gives us space to breathe and in breathing we find health.

Another principle of cleaning or decluttering is that ‘sometimes’ it needs to get worse before it gets better. We are trying to gain a sense of the size of the matter, but also we need a path forward and by taking the next step we can define both the problem and the solution.

Throwing all the clothes out of the drawers or wardrobe and onto the bed is a model created by Japanese organisation consultant Marie Kondo. In pulling everything into one space we have short term pain for long term gain. Not only can we see the totality of our situation but we can also see the possibilities in space to reimagine the outcomes.

Marie walks her devotees through the idea all based on principles of joy. Whether it’s navigating clothes for tossing, mending, giving away or simply lifting out of the bottom of the wardrobe so that they can be given greater priority in the daily dress choice, each is considered against the ‘joy’ it brings. You can see Marie as she will hold that blouse or coat to her chest and say “Aaah, yes!” and it is then placed on pile number one, ready to be positioned for future use.

Oh, yes, there may equally be a balance of sacrifice that the top you wore at the senior dance just isn’t a trophy or icon that will contribute to either your personal confidence or this year’s social calendar. Time to go. Oh, and that applies to those of you with the electronics, kitchen appliances, read books and old VHS tapes that you ‘know’ will gain in value, (cough cough), save the world, or the kids will love, one day.

In computer terms, we used to DEFRAG our hard drives. Hard drive memory is like a wardrobe full of drawers or cupboards. If after a time of taking things out and putting things away, some drawers are full and lots are only partially filled, and nothing is where it started, it can be a poor use of the space. The defrag process doesn’t delete files but simply reorders their position on the hard drive so that there are bigger gaps for new files. Hey, using this opportunity to delete a few old unused files along the way isn’t a bad idea either.

How is your life right now? Do you have room to breathe? Can you see clearly the space ‘between’ your memories and future opportunities? If you are saying that 52 weekends a year isn’t enough to keep this three or four-bedroom house in order then I can only imagine what’s happening in your prefrontal cortex. Can you feel the smoke from the heat of overthinking or have you taken the opposite strategy and allowed an ice-age of hibernation to settle in on your life?

If only we had 20/20 vision in a 24/7 world. Maybe not now, but at some point, many of us start to ask why that food label isn’t in focus or the fine print of the side of the electronics is written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The fog is settling around our eyes and we are in need of the magic of the optometrist to bring our sight back. Personalised prescription in hand we navigate the new territory of the fashion accessory known as reading glasses. OK, Elton, let’s look at life with the glasses you should have been wearing for a while now.

Initially, the beauty of a sharp new world amazes us. Objects have edges, words have meaning and we can see a separation between the pieces that helps us chart a path rather than the experience of the barefoot dance over unseen Lego blocks.  We hadn’t realised the slow demise of our focal length had such an effect across many areas of life. Headaches are gone and we wish we had explored this so much earlier. Why did we allow the loss of clarity to be acceptable? At first, we are good and diligent, wearing our new specs on all occasions but there are times when we forget or lose our wonder tools and have to try to read without them. So if I hold it a little further away, no, a little closer, aha it’s further, I can just see the edges of,… nope, can’t read a thing. If only my arm was twenty centimetres longer I’m sure this would be in focus.

The success of objectivity is certainly based on the ability to get away from the fog of a world where the distinct parts have blurred together and we “can’t see the forest for the trees”. So how do we machete our way to a clear path through the jungle?

It all has to start with the Elephant. Call it compartmentalisation or eating the elephant one bite at a time but this methodical process can help you create the landscape for future freedom. Psychologists will also warn that the danger of compartmentalising our ‘issues’ can also be the defence mechanism that puts them out of mind for convenience and without review, they then become an unhealthy approach in avoidance of dealing with the issues, so let’s first of all agree, that 12 bites or 37 bites, we’re eating the whole elephant.

There are so many areas of our life where we make the mistake of allowing life to fill the void and then have no room for breathing or swinging cats. We buy a bigger home to give us more living areas then fill each corner with useless gadgets or trinkets as we retire into the shadows of a room filled with the light of Netflix. We stress over getting a more responsible job with a larger salary and then spend or commit it all to the nth degree until we need another job with a bigger salary. We find a way to stop some of our commitments to enable us to spend more with family and then recommit to other activities that will fill the recently reclaimed void. We are a danger to ourselves and often each cycle comes out of filling our lives to fill hurts or a misplaced sense of failure and responsibility. So where can we begin with the process of clearing that doesn’t become a merry-go-round cycle repeated every so many months or years?

The first step has to be learning to be comfortable with ourselves. One of the surprise starting points for the Miracle Morning was being quiet. But wait a minute, I’ve just spent 6-8 hours in slight snoring punctuated silence. Why would I need to start my day with the sound of silence as a motivating step? It mainly comes from being able to prioritise life.

When you can’t create silence, you react to the loudest thought or symptom in your life and lose the opportunity to direct the day. As your eyes open to another work day or even weekend, the natural inclination is to deal with a flood of morning thoughts of work ahead or tasks to be done. Silence is like a clean desk or home. It creates space when you are in charge of what gets put there next and how long it stays there.

So to avoid leaving a half-eaten elephant on your plate, let’s create a four-step plan that takes us to a place where you have space for breathing and creating. You may not have allowed yourself the pleasure of thinking any new and creative thoughts recently. Craft boxes untouched, book ideas stagnant in a title, rooms unpainted, models unassembled, views unvisited.  Give yourself one minute to imagine. To tease your heart just enough to think about a possibility you’ve ‘had to shelve’ due to a lack of space in your ‘place’.

Four Steps to Finishing Your Elephant

  1. Ask yourself where you have allowed clutter to clog the pipes of creativity. If it’s not obvious, don’t rush. Sit with this question until you have a clear picture of where it is. Is it your home, your timetable or your mind?
  2. Whether physically or mentally, choose to take stock. You can write it down to see whether you have a 1 or 2 page problem, or use the Marie Kondo idea to ‘throw it all on the bed’. Be willing to sacrifice the things that don’t bring you joy. Better yet, don’t see it as sacrifice and change it to a contribution. Give away what doesn’t solve your today problems but can solve someone else’s. So many of us have things in our garage, attic or bedroom closet, (both figuratively and real) that we haven’t seen for three or more years yet they command space and not attention.
  3. Now reimagine this space you’ve created. Even this newly carved space in front of you, like the silence you could enjoy each morning, is a creation. Enjoy it, and think about how it can serve a new purpose. Don’t be tempted to rush this decision. I am more convinced than ever that many great ideas are birthed in the waiting.
  4. You may be surprised to see that step 4 isn’t a list of tasks, ideas, or ‘things’ to do in your new space. Nope, that will at some point happen naturally. What will be more important is for your life to have some regular review to keep ahead of hoarding Defcon 1. Find a tool that works just for you. It may be your Google Calendar with a reminder on the first day of spring or a real calendar or notebook. Next up could be a task app like Todoist or Microsoft ToDo. Don’t get caught up on the tool, just something that will bring a review before your eyes at least once a year.

How good is that? You’ve just taken the first bite of an Elephant that can change your life. You’re thinking about it and that’s better than ignoring the cloud, the clag, the clutter that has been holding back thousands of litres of creative juices in your life.

I’m genuinely looking forward to hearing how your elephant tasted and what you have planned for all of this wonderful space you are creating. The view must be amazing. Connect with me online and tell me about the journey.

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