Unfuck Your Space: The power of being able to move around among your things

Unfuck Your Space: The power of being able to move around among your things

WARNING: This post is LONG.
You may want to break your reading of it into sections if you are attentionally challenged like I am.
I have labeled and numbered the sections for easy perusal.

Rachel Hoffman’s  website has started a revolution in space management.  Her book of the same name (Unfuck Your Space) offers straightforward solutions on decluttering, cleaning, maintaining and generally unfucking your habitat.  Marie Kondo also has a book out on simplifying your space which I can highly recommend: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  Between these two very practical guides, and pulling from other space management gurus and established leaders, we can derive some simple guidelines to making your space livable again and, perhaps most importantly, keeping it that way.

So let’s get started:

  1. GET STARTED!
    No, seriously.  You may have challenges of body, mind or motivation; you may even be soul-weary. However,  not being able to move around your home, not being able to find what you are looking for and not being able to have any place to comfortably rest your body, or even your eyes, may be contributing to the problem.  Imagine the mental energy spent navigating through the mess, the physical energy spent weaving and dodging through too many obstacles, or moving heaps of stuff around as you search for what you want in the morass of clutter, the motivation energy spent just trying to convince yourself that it’s worth trying to make it through the Chaos Web.  In this case, though, actually CLEARING the space is our goal and so when we are done, we will no longer need to navigate through an obstacle course; we will be able to find what we are looking for if we own it; and just moving and BREATHING in our space will be lighter, easier and fresher.
    Of course the motivationally challenged will say, “Jack, are you CRAZY!?  There’s too much to do and I will never get through it all!”  I am not asking you to do it all at once… we’ll be moving in phases of 20 minutes at a time with rests in between and we will NOT be doing any marathons.  MARATHONS ARE BAD, MMMKAY?  SHOULDN’T DO MARATHONS.  So stand up, take a deep breath, and MOVE.  AS Rachel Hoffman makes very clear on her website:  EXCUSES ARE BORING.
    And she is right… Excuses change nothing and change is exciting; instead, let make some excitement.
    SO let’s get started.
  2. PUPA – For transformation.
    In Biology we learned that a pupa was a necessary stage in the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly.  In our case, the transformation also requires a pupa… or PUPA, actually, which stands for “Pick Up, Put Away!”  When I am talking about transformation here, I am not talking the full transformation, but rather the basic levels of transformation that prepares your space for the bigger changes.  Even the Butterfly is not done transforming when it casts off the pupa, but it is a necessary step in the process before it can stretch its wings and fly!
    Let your eye scan the room and see the entire mess… just let it sink in.  There are going to parts that your eye will be OK with looking at and others where the chaos just dissolves into a kind of wash… a multicolored mishmash of “Heaps of Stuff.”
    Ignore those second areas for the moment and find a place where your eye comes to rest and look at that area first.
    Is this area filled with things that belong other places and you know exactly where they go?
    Often times this area will be like the dining room table or living room coffee table… things covering the flat/level surfaces, chairs strewn about the table but not pushed in, blocking the flow of foot traffic around the table, jackets slung over the chair corners and purses/satchels/backpacks/book bags set helter-skelter wherever they fell when you dropped them.  However it can be any kind of area where there is a more or less open flow of activity through the area.  Even the most dedicated hoarders have traffic zones and dead-zones.  We will be staying away from the dead-zones for now and clearing out the traffic areas so that you can move around and breathe.
    Start with a timer set for 20 minutes (or, if 20 minutes is too much to handle for any reason whatsoever: it’s too overwhelming, can’t sustain attention that long , 20 minutes of activity is too much for the body…. whatever reason at all, then set it for 10 minutes.  It may be a stretch, but you can do 10 minutes) and be prepared to be active during this time period.
    Then, notice any random item in the limited space of interest (coffee table, shelf, half or less of the Dining Room table).  Actually notice it.  Look at it; look at how it doesn’t belong where it is… how it interrupts the flow of traffic, or it seems to be out of sorts with the surrounding area… the color is off or the rhythm of the space is interrupted… whatever reason you can find in your own mind, notice it and let that sink in for a second… take a second to notice how it feels inside… how it contributes to the inner sense of disorder and then….
    Pick it up and put it away where it belongs.  If where it belongs is now blocked, unblock the space in the most efficient way possible, and put the selected item away.
    Now take a moment to be satisfied with doing that one thing. You put something away.  You did, indeed, put something away where it belongs.  It was a simple task… a single task… and yet it was profound.  The chaos around you was made a bit less by that single act.  You hung up a jacket, or collected up all the coasters and put them together in one place, or maybe you gathered up a couple of books and put them back on the shelf where they belong.  Whatever it is you did, take a few seconds to savor the accomplishment… it’s a tiny one and we are going to do it again in a moment, but for this few seconds, just savor the moment and congratulate yourself.  The Human brain needs some sort of reward to make an action worth doing again and since we are going to be doing this a LOT throughout the rest of our lives, we want it to be rewarding, so don’t skimp on the savoring your own job well done. Once you have allowed yourself a few seconds to savor the completion of the task, turn around to your selected space and do it again… pick something, notice it and let the wrongness of its placement sink in, then put it away and savor the completion of the task.  Then do it again: Notice, Pick up, put away, savor completion.  Then do it again.  Until the timer goes off… then rest for half as long as you worked, so for 20 minutes of PUPA tasks, take a 10 minute break… and actually take the break!  Seriously, you cannot skimp on this one either.  Having done the 20 minutes straight up (or 10 minutes with a 5 minute break), you need to give your mind a rest, let it absorb the change that you have made in your space so that you can remap things in your head, and also to savor the accomplishment (the brain really needs those “attaboys/attagirls”, so give them to yourself).  OK… Now most of you will want to do another 20/10 tight away, and that’s good… but if you don’t, that’s OK too… you may need more time to assimilate the change, or to gear up for what you think is going to be the battle of a lifetime with the rest of your space… so if you only do one 20/10 on the space in a given day, that’s fine.  What I am going to say, though, may surprise you: I don’t recommend more than four 20/10 sessions (2 hours) of working on this.  As Rachel says, “Marathons are bad… don’t do marathons.”  The space did not get so fucked overnight, so it isn’t going to be unfucked overnight.  The PUPA phase is for making sure that the low hanging fruit gives us some victories to fuel the more arduous tasks ahead, and to make the space a little easier to move around in.  It lets you clear off a space where your eye can rest and you can let yourself be re-inspired to move through this… if you can do it with a small space, you just need to keep doing it over and over again to spread that “cleared space” feeling into the larger area.  As your space becomes less and less chaotic, you can move around easier, you can take positive feelings from looking at the tidy space, and you can enjoy the mental clarity that comes from not being bombarded with “shoulds” from your inner critic every time you look at your living space (you know… I should put that away; I should vacuum that rug; I should wipe off that counter top, etc.).
    PUPA Recap: Pick an area that your eye can rest on… Set a timer for no more than 20 minutes. Notice some specific thing that is out-of-place. Pick it up.  Put it away.  Savor having done something for yourself to cut the Chaos Web.  Repeat until the timer runs out then set the timer for half the active time and rest/recover.  Repeat the 20/10 cycle, if you like, for no more than 2 hours.
  3. RESPECT YOUR BELONGINGS
    Respect of our stuff takes many forms, perhaps to correspond to the many forms of stuff we have, but also that respect takes the forms of:
    Having a “put away” place in your home for the item, where it can live in its home when it is not being used.
    Putting it in its home and not just anywhere you can drop it when you are done using it.
    Appreciating and maintaining it so that it is in its best condition to do whatever it does in your space.
    Some stuff is for utility, other stuff is for decoration, and still other stuff is entertainment.  Each of these kinds of things has a proper kind of place for it.  Utility items are often sequestered behind closed doors until it is time to use them.  Decorative items, however, belong where they can be seen.  Hybrid items (Useful things that are also pretty) can have an easily accessible place in the view-space; examples of this would be an ornamental basket that can also be used to serve hot bread at a dinner party or a nice quilt or stylish blanket that can be folded and laid over the arm of a couch, ready to be used on a chilly night.  Entertainment items (such as a television or gaming system), might live behind a cabinet door, but would be available for use just opening the cabinet, or may be given center stage if the item fits the aesthetics of the room.  Just remember that everything has to have a “put away” place so that the Chaos Web doesn’t get a foothold.
    Another way of respecting our things is to actualize their purpose.
    If a thing is for utility, it should be used. Regularly. Possibly often.  Utility items, like vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, coasters, bed sheets, flashlights, car keys, office supplies and so forth, are here to be used.  They exist to be used.  Their entire reason for being is to be utilized, celebrated for performing their functions, and when they reach the end of their usefulness, released to be larger process of “post consumer land”, which is another way of saying let it go to the trash in whatever form is appropriate to the item and your community.  Replace the item if you still need its utility, and give it a “put away” space in your house that is reflective of its nature.
    Decorative items exist to be pretty and to contribute to the aesthetics and style of your space.  Decorative items are an expression of your style and displaying them is the best way of respecting them.  Giving them a space in your home that allows them to contribute to the overall feel of the space is respectful of the piece itself and of the Artist that created or designed it.  Too many pieces of art tends to create a jumble of overwhelming impressions that takes away from each individual piece.  There is, for each person’s style and space, an optimum number of decorative items in the area.  Too few and you’re understating your space.  Too many, and each additional piece of decor actually reduces the impact of itself and all other pieces. Eventually, with too much decor, there is an effect called visual saturation where the individual pieces are no longer seen for themselves and the overall effect is one of chaos and overwhelm.
    Entertainment Items are there to entertain.  Like utility items, they may live behind a door or other kind of screening, but when they are being used, they should be the center of attention.  Unlike decorative items, participation in entertainment items is more active.  Entertainment usually is not intended to create a stylistic statement in the space, but rather provide for engagement of the mind, emotions or body in a more participatory way.  Respecting your entertainment items, again, starts with it having a “put away” space. If you bring something into your home, it is only respectful to give it a space to live and to fulfill its function.
  4. RELEASING IS REFRESHING
    So, with all that said, if we have accumulated more stuff than we have “put away” space for, or more stuff than we can actually use, or more stuff than we can reasonably maintain with the limits of time, space and ability… if we have more things than we can reasonably expect to use on a regular basis during the course of a year of activities… if we have gathered more “treasures” than we can reasonably display in such a way that each bauble can be celebrated on its own, then the most respectful thing we can do is to let the item go to someone who CAN use it regularly and WANTS to do so.
    There are a number of ways to do this…
    You can gift items to people that really love them and would respect them in their own homes.
    You can donate them to charity to be resold or distributed in the name of a good cause.
    You can sell them on Craig’s List or another similar website and use the money to treat yourself to something nice (remember that brain reward thing we were talking about?)
    If they are too worn or otherwise unsuitable to carry their function forward to another user, then sometimes, the most respectful thing you can do for a tired, worn out item is to let it go to the Great Beyond.
    Regardless of whether the item is going to a new owner, or to the wastebin, it is important to keep in mind a few things:
    Nostalgia is not your friend.
    In the movie Labyrinth (if you haven’t seen it yet, you should watch it!  GREAT MOVIE!), there is a scene where the heroine of the story is being distracted from her mission by an old ragwoman with a HUGE pack on her back who keeps handing the young girl things such as a treasured teddy bear or a favored doll, a favorite blanket from infancy or a preferred brush.  As the items begin to collect, there is a sense of impending danger… as if the innocuous items themselves are foretelling doom… and they are.  The items are a distraction and the attachment of nostalgia is fueling the “stuckness” that could spell disaster for her mission.  Keep this scene in mind whenever you encounter nostalgia in your process of releasing.  It is tempting to keep something “for old time’s sake”, even if the item in question is no longer serviceable, entertaining or aesthetically pleasing.  Some small amounts of Nostalgia help us to stay in touch with who we have been in the past and does serve a purpose in a healthy psychological sense; however, such things should not occupy more than a very small amount of space in your life, and so in your space.  Treasured touchstones that serve no other purpose than to be reminders of bygone lessons in life are important, but should not ever take up more than about 3-5% of the space we devote to things in our lives.  More than that tends to smack of holding on to the past instead of learning from it and moving on with reminders of the lessons learned.
    “Practical Saving” is also not your friend.
    Living in the Rust Belt, “I might have a use for this someday!” is something I often hear from my spouse, relatives, friends…  The Great Depression came in 1929 and never ever left.  I mean, the economy improved and jobs returned, but the poverty mindset of “I might need this someday” never left.  The problem I have with this idea, though, is that every item you save for a “might need this” moment represents multiple costs at the same time.
    There is the initial cost of square footage. You pay rent/mortgage/taxes on your space, which means that every square inch of flat level surface in that space has a dollars-and-cents monthly cost… the item that takes up space needs to be worth the amount of money spent on that space over the time that it occupies that space to make it worth saving.
    Then there is what I call the Seeker’s Cost.  This item is likely be in with a lot of other items that are being saved for that unpredictable moment when its owner can say (Because this is always the fantasy of people who engage in this type of saving… they imagine that this item will make them a hero or will save them time effort and energy or whatever), “I have just the thing for this!”   Of course, to find it, to get your hands on the thing you need, unless you have invested in the time to create and more importantly maintain an organization system for a zillion things that just might be useful someday, you will have to search for it… and search for it… I know it’s around here somewhere… <shuffle stuff from place to place looking for it>.  How long is it worth it to search for the lost item?  How much is your time worth before it makes more sense to just go buy another one?  And if you DO have an OCD style categorical library of items, how much time is devoted to maintaining it and can your time be better used on other things? (See Unfucking Your Schedule for on this).
    THEN, there is the opportunity cost.  Space taken up by one thing is space that cannot be occupied by another thing.  As your space fills up, you begin to have less and less room for things that will be truly useful in a predictable fashion.  This one is pretty simple.  Once again, every added item to the collection reduces the effectiveness of itself and every other item in the collection because you can’t see a single thing because of all the chaos.
    Finally, there is the cost in terms of feeding the Chaos Web.  Having all that stuff, while it may alleviate the anxiety of not having the perfect thing you need in the moment you need it, it doesn’t really provide the perfect thing at the perfect time because often you cannot put your hands on the item, it’s been eating up rent-space, or it’s blocking your view of the thing you are looking for… it takes time to find, or it adds to the time it takes to find something else, and having that many things to search through is a major contributor of time loss on even basic tasks where “I know I have it around here somewhere” becomes a mantra.
    Releasing is freeing
    Allowing things to go, releasing them to the Universe is an act of Trust.  And Trust (or lack of it) is ultimately the the cause of such “saving” behaviors.  There is often an underlying belief that when you need something, it will not be there for you and you won’t be able to acquire one and you don’t have the ability to cope without it.  What is often more true though, is that the item will never be needed, and if it is, then you will be able to acquire a new one, and if you aren’t able to acquire a new one then you will be able to cope with the situation by asking a friend, or by improvising, or even by doing an end run around the entire situation and negating the need for the item altogether through creative problem solving.  Either way, your space is freed up, and so is your mind.
    Apply the “Hell Yes!” or “No” principle.
    So how do we tell what is worth keeping and what should no longer be given space in our space?
    Most Space Management Gurus use the “Joy” principle… what I like to call the “Hell YES! or No” principle. The process is simple… does the item actually bring you joy?  When you hold it, when you think about it, when you see it in your space, when you use it or get entertainment from it or decorate your space with it, do you get that slightly expansive feeling in your heart that says “I LOVE this item and it is a joy in my life”?  If not then we need examine things no further.  Unless it is a utilitarian item that must be used for maintenance of something that DOES give you joy, then let the item go.  Get rid of it.
    But Jack, I just can’t let this go.”     Yes you can.
    “I get anxiety when I think about letting this go.”      That’s OK.  Anxiety won’t kill you and it can give you insights into your own mindscape to show you where maybe you could use a little confidence building.
    HELL YES! is the only answer you want when you ask yourself “Considering all the costs this item will have in my space, on my time, and upon my life, do I really want to keep this?”  If you cannot muster a HELL YES! for the item, then it is time to let it go… to a friend, to a charity, to Craig’s list, or to the trash.
  5. REMEMBER TO GIVE YOURSELF BREAKS AND REWARDS ALONG THE WAY
    We are trying to build habits and routines here… these actions will be repeated and you want to make it so that your brain is working with you instead of against you in all of them.  Remember also that this is an incremental process.  You don’t (nor should you) try to clean it all up at once.  DO NOT TRY TO MARATHON THE PROCESS (Notice: I keep saying that… it’ll become familiar).  Marathons are punishing processes and do nothing to encourage motivation… in fact, they are one of the most demotivating ways of tackling a large project.  Break it into no more than 4x(20/10) sessions in a day, and I also recommend not doing more than a total of 12x(20/10) sessions in a week.  More than that is likely to get boring, monotonous, stressful and anxiety inducing as you ask your brain to adapt to very rapid changes in the environment.

Take it slowly and be kind to yourself in the process.  If you run into a part where you, for whatever reason, simply cannot continue with unfucking your space… if you run into a different obstacle that prevents you continuing with this space-unfucking process, that’s OK.

Seriously… that’s OK.

Remember how we talked in the initial article about how the Chaos Web has many entangled dimensions that support each other?
Well, this is what I was talking about.

  • If you find yourself being demotivated by people being negative or actively undermining your choices to move forward with unfucking your lifestyle, you may want to check out the article on Unfucking Your Social Circle.
  • If you find yourself lacking even the time to dedicate a 20/10 every other day, then you may want to look at Unfucking your Calendar
  • If you find that you are simply too physically exhausted or sick to engage in the process of unfucking your space, then you probably want to check out Unfucking your Body.
  • If you lack the motivating force of WHY you want your space unfucked, then Unfucking your Emotions may be for you
  • and finally, if you are facing mental health challenges that are preventing you having the mental clarity to take on the task, or you cannot muster the belief that things can change, then give Unfucking your Mind a look.

This is, for most people a compound problem, but it doesn’t have to be complex.
Like untangling a ball of yarn, all it takes is patience and persistence.
You are smarter and more powerful than your mess and YOU CAN DO THIS, so GET IN THE GAME.

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This is a dialogue not a diatribe – Add your stories of challenge and success in the comments below.

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