A few years ago, I got rid of half my worldly possessions in one weekend. I piled everything from clothes to small appliances by the front door, in a brief purgatory before being boxed and bagged, and either donated them or put them out for the garbage truck. That weekend, I was a man possessed. What began as a modest spring cleaning snowballed into something transformative. That weekend marked the beginning of a process that continues to this day.
Like aftershocks to the initial earthquake, smaller purges followed. I’ve imposed order on everything from my vanity cupboard in the bathroom to my spice racks in the kitchen. My determination to declutter has been so successful that today I could list nearly everything I own from memory, down to my three stainless steel Zebra-brand pens. I don’t know if this is something I should brag about as a resounding victory over disorder or confess in shame as evidence that I take things too far.
The urge to declutter just felt right. It sprang from a place deep inside me. There is so much in my life, in all our lives, that is beyond our control. However, there is much we can control, areas of our lives where we can impose order and harmony.
As I cast a skeptical eye on each belonging, my litmus test came down to a few questions. Is it useful? Does it have some charm or beauty? Does it have sentimental value, reminding me of the things that are special in my life? So much of what I owned failed this test. I realized that my clutter was a symptom of a mindless habit of acquiring things, of an inability to discern quality from schlock. And the problem extended far beyond my physical environment.
Like a stone tossed in a still pond, I began to notice how clutter impacted my life in ever-expanding circles. For example, my digital space was equally a mess. Work files and personal files, many of them of no current value, formed a confusing jungle on my many devices. The task of finding anything specific sometimes ate up large chunks of time.
Over a period of weeks, I carefully organized my files. Once again, I threw out at least half of everything, this time in digital trash cans.
However, my most important efforts to declutter relate to the space between my ears.
Drinking from a firehose
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego estimate that every day we are inundated with 34 gigabytes of information through the media we use, whether it be television, internet, books, newspapers or social media. Our brains are simply not equipped to absorb even a fraction of this deluge. In fact, Thomas Landauer, a pioneer of cognitive science, has estimated that the size of an individual’s memory is only about one gigabyte. Consider this — these days, one can buy a trendy little USB flash drive to fit on your keychain that holds one terabyte of information, one thousand times the amount of information that we hold in our heads.
The poet T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” He posed these questions in the first half of the last century, when information was no more than a trickle compared to today.
In this age of information, we can’t remain passive as we are bombarded. Dubious “facts,” unexamined assumptions and unexplored motivations will quickly fill up our heads. I realized that my mind had become just as cluttered as my home. Bad ideas were competing with the good ones — and often winning. Just as I’d learned that I could control my physical and digital environments, at least in my home and my office, I could also choose which ideas I allowed to take up residence in my head.
Don’t believe everything you think
When we bring a skeptical mindset to our patterns of thought, we often find many that are judgemental, with some of the harshest criticisms directed at ourselves. Thoughts that tell us we’re not good enough, not smart enough or we don’t belong.
However, we are not our thoughts. Thoughts are just thoughts. They’re no more substantial than the wind, and we can choose to declutter and purge the ones that don’t serve us. Through self-examination, we can identify and kill negative thoughts before they curdle into self-limiting beliefs.
The psychologist Henry James said it best when he wrote, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a person can change their life by changing their thoughts.”
So take the leap. Start decluttering your life and reap the benefits!
John Burton is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.