Leo Babauta, shown here with his adorable son Seth, is the force behind Zen Habits, a Top 25 blog with a million readers, where he chronicles and shares what he’s learned while changing a number of habits, including quitting smoking, taking up running, eliminating his debt and becoming organized. I spoke with Leo a couple of years ago about how getting organized has changed his life. What he had to say bears repeating:
JS LLC: Why does letting go of clutter matter?
Leo: For me, the most important effect of letting go of my clutter has been transforming my relationship with my stuff. I never realized, until I started letting things go, that I relied on possessions for a lot of things: comfort, security, memories, love, my dreams, my self-identity. By letting these things go, I realized that I didn’t need any of them, and that I already had all the things inside of me to fulfill all of these needs. That was an amazing realization, but you don’t make it until you start letting things go.
I also learned that clutter is procrastination — I’d been putting off dealing with piles and piles of stuff. By actually taking action on clutter, I learned to overcome procrastination, and it felt great!
Another huge benefit of letting go of clutter is the peace that comes with it. You let go of things that you didn’t realize were weighing you down, stressing you out, requiring your attention and care. My life is much simpler now without a lot of possessions owning me.
JS LLC: Why is it so hard for some people to let things go?
Leo: We have emotional attachments to our things. Letting go of treasured keepsakes or gifts feels like we’re letting go of the memories or love that these things represent — but it doesn’t mean that at all. The memories and love are inside us, not in the things.
Letting go of things we think we might need feels like we’re letting go of the security of having them “just in case” we need them someday. But we’re not less secure when we let things go — we start to realize that we are just fine without them.
Letting go of things we spent a lot of money feels like a waste, but it’s more of a waste to commit the sunk cost fallacy and throw good money (and time) after bad. We constantly spend money and time to upkeep and store our stuff.
Letting go of some things that represent our hopes (like the language tapes you’re going to study someday!) can feel like we’re letting go of our dreams and ideals. But that’s not what it means — it means that you’re going to take care of yourself right now, by not burdening yourself with all this stuff you have to do later. And when the time comes to do any of those things, you can always get them used or borrow them.
JS LLC: What do you say to people who’ve tried to get organized in the past and given up because they became completely overwhelmed?
Leo: I’ve done this many times myself. We’re busy and we don’t have time to organize everything, no matter how optimistic we might be in some hopeful moments! We don’t have time to organize everything — but we do have time to organize for 5-10 minutes a day. Just bite off small chunks.
We all have 5-10 minutes a day, and you’ll be amazed at how these little steps add up to a lot of progress over the course of a month. Instead of going on Facebook or watching TV, just do a small step. Organize a few files, find a home for your incoming mail, start making a list of your debts, get rid of 5 pieces of clutter, any small step.
And with each small step, you’ll start to build some trust in yourself. Every time we commit to something like this and we fail, we lose some trust and feel bad about ourselves. But that’s OK, because it’s reversible: we can prove that we’re capable of doing this (and you are!) by doing one small step at a time.
JS LLC: I’ll meditate when I’ve gotten rid of all this clutter…
Leo: Ha! There’s always the light at the end of the tunnel, the great hope that we’ll reach an ideal state someday. Instead of putting off meditation, why not do it now, even as you get rid of clutter? Start with one minute of sitting still, and just trying to focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out, returning your attention to your breath whenever it wanders, over and over. After a minute, take this attention practice to your clutter, turning your attention on one item at a time, keeping your attention there as long as you can, considering it, making a decision, taking action on that one item. Is it clutter? Do you use it? Can you give it to someone else? Make a decision, take action. Then focus your mindful attention on the next item. This is great mindfulness practice!
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