Be Ambitious About Having Less

Be Ambitious About Having Less

I'm reading two books on the 'too much stuff" problem. One kind of too much, the artifacts of house and home, in the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. And another, which is a kind of minimalism but not with regard to things, more with regard to how much we want to accomplish. It's called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less Book by Greg McKeown. Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels stretched really thin under the weight of normal responsibilities and the wants and needs of daily life.

I struggle with the latter more than the former. However, I do have family members who struggle with excess stuff in the home and in storage. I would call it hoarding, but they may see it differently. But that's a story for another time.

I'm only halfway through Stuff, but I have already come across quite a few insights. The greatest insight is that many people who hoard (and probably plenty of people who wouldn't describe themselves as hoarders) have what's called clutter blindness. It's something that treatment professionals like psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists have noticed in working with extreme hoarders, where they simply do not see their own collections. They are not aware of how much stuff has accumulated and are not aware of how it is negatively impacting themselves and those they live with. 

Illustration by R. O. Blechman for The New York TImes

Illustration by R. O. Blechman for The New York TImes

I almost dropped the book when I read this part because I instantly recognized this aspect in a few clients I've had over the years. People I wouldn't call hoarders, necessarily, and who certainly wouldn't identify themselves as hoarders. 

Essentialism is a hybrid of a book, both self improvement and business guide. Frankly, I could do without the business anecdotes, mainly because it tends to come from Silicon Valley and supports that realm of business thinkers. However, there was enough pertaining to the everyday that I could use. He also uses a closet full of clothing analogy repeatedly through the book, which subtly legitimizes my profession, so of course I'm good with it:

There are a lot of useful nuggets in here, if you have the time to read it. 

The most useful for my life?

  • I want to accomplish 9 things every day but really only have time for 4. What gets cut? "Discerning the trivial many from the vital few." This helps me boil things down to writing and researching my book, this blog, spending time with my family and meditation. What got cut? School volunteering, cooking and cleaning, online marketing course and reading fiction. 
  • Build a buffer for unexpected events - we can't predict whether a sick kid could cause my whole work day to go kaput, or a friend in need or a sick partner will be at home. Home is where I work, so I have to be prepared to work in an abbreviated way or perhaps there are more distractions so I can be prepared to carry my laptop and materials to another room. Prior to this book I would just give up in despair and have that sad nervous feeling about having lost the work time.
  • I spend a lot of time with my kids and I get ideas for the blog while I'm with them. But I don't want to be one of those parents always glued their phone or laptop so I've made a habit carrying around a small binder full of notes for the blog and book. This way I can flesh out an idea while I have it instead of letting it pass.
  • Finally, the best - he writes of a friend who seemingly had an amazing marriage and family life. When he asked that friend what their secret was - they did not belong to any clubs or outside interests, they simply spent time with their family. I'm always asked by family and friends what our kids do after school and I've said for years "Nothing. I pick them up and we come home." to their apparent amazement and who-knows-what judgements lay below. That's our secret too. We make art and bake and play countless games! Sometimes we just hang out doing our thing in the same room. Imagine that.

Of course, I LOVE when McKeown writes:

"You can think of this book doing doing for your life and career what a professional organizer can do for your closet... In the same way that our closets get cluttered as clothes we never wear accumulate, so do our lives get cluttered as well intended commitments and activities pile up."

Again and again, throughout the book, he returns to the organized closet analogy. Probably because he knows that around the world, in most developed nations (where folks may be reading his book) people have way too many clothes and have stuffed closets. The availability of cheap fashion has ensured his analogy a common experience.

The author has termed "Essentialists" as people who are able to simplify their lives by deftly eliminating the things and activities that muddy our daily experiences so we can live with more purpose and meaning. I think of another article I read a few years ago about the co-founder of The Paris Review, CIA spy, Zen Buddhist, conservationist, novelist, Peter Matthiessen. The author, Jeff Himmelman, writes:

"After quitting the C.I.A., Matthiessen returned to America with Patsy and soon settled in Sagaponack, where he would supplement his writing income with commercial fishing. He described those early years on Long Island as the happiest of his life, “when I was writing but also doing hard physical labor.” He referenced a line from Turgenev a few times, from the suicide note of a character named Nejdanov: “I could not simplify myself.” “That really struck home,” Matthiessen said. “I knew exactly what he means.” He paused and then whispered it again. “ ‘I could not simplify myself,’ ” and then he added, 'That’s always been my goal.'"

One of my strongest beliefs is that in our current culture we are finding it very very difficult to simplify ourselves. Emotionally, physically, organizationally, intentionally. As a result, a growing social and lifestyle movement, minimalism, has grown. An entire global industry, professional  organizing, has grown out of the problem we've created with hyper consumerism.

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