Decluttering with dementors

Do I need this?
Do I really need this?
What do I really need this for?

I’ve written before about why decluttering is depressing rather than uplifting – because of the battery of micro-decisions you have to make, with the attendant drain on your cognitive resources.

My natural tendency is to think about the history of an item: how I got it, what it meant when I got it, what it’s been used for in the past, etc. It’s finally dawned on me that this focus on the item itself, almost seeing things from the item’s point of view, makes it harder to get rid of things. I end up feeling that the item’s “right” to stay in my home or office somehow beats my “right” to a clutter-free environment.

What’s starting to work for me is to focus on a vision of myself in the future – the opposite of focusing on a thing in the past. Everything gets relentlessly interrogated: is this something I want in the future? Does this fit into the narrative of where I’m going in the future? Yes, maybe it was really useful in 2008 but do I want to take it with me into 2015?

I’m trying to move away from metaphors about keeping versus jettisoning, because they come with the wrong emotional baggage (excuse the pun). Instead I go for metaphors about travelling: I’m moving forwards in time, so what should I bring with me? Or building: I’m making my future home, what should I add to it? These metaphors help a bit with the sense of loss that goes with deliberately taking things away from yourself. I might dither over throwing away a photograph that makes me feel unhappy. But the choice about whether I want to add that photo to my future home is easier.

Guess what, though? It’s still a cognitive drain. Once you get into the mindset of relentlessly asking about the use of things, don’t be surprised if you go for a walk round the park and find yourself mentally decluttering the birds from the trees rather than enjoying the walk.

Decluttering means bringing out the dementors. The bleak, functional mindset that comes from asking the same question over and over again can feel a lot like temporary depression. Sneaky bad feelings will whoosh into the void – in my case, a feeling that I don’t deserve nice surroundings anyway. (I combat that by repeating the mantra that if I make it happen, I must deserve it.)

Part of the answer is not to end up with a void. Do your decluttering in short bursts, at a time when you’ve got something to look forward to almost immediately afterwards, whether that’s something as big as a holiday or as small as a lunchtime bike ride. Looking forward to something seems to help with getting into the focus-on-the-future mindset.

Try to make the thing-you-look-forward-to fairly undemanding, because you need to refill those resources. (So not a trip to the pub with those friends who expect you to make all the social effort. Watch a film instead.) If you can’t be bothered to actually organise anything, take a tip from the dementor-fighters and have some chocolate.

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