Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, writes, “When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
Belongings are only part of what clutters our lives. Each time I’ve moved—which has been once a year for the past 6 years—I inevitably discard countless belongings I no longer want or need. The number of boxes I use to store my paltry possessions has decreased significantly. When I come across an item I no longer use, it goes. When I purchase a new item of clothing, I get rid of something I no longer wear. I am meticulous in keeping my living space clean and organized simply because I cannot concentrate when my personal space is out of sorts. This is not a new or unique experience—researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published a report back in 2011 essentially proving that cluttered environments restrict our ability to focus. It’s science.
Of course, physical items are only the half of it. I’ve often found myself scrolling through social media aimlessly, to distract myself from necessary or difficult work, boredom, or uncomfortable emotions. Similarly, I routinely keep my days packed to the brim to avoid slowing down and being confronted with empty time. Free, unscheduled time has been historically difficult for me to handle for a few reasons. Firstly, I associate empty time with "wasted time." This is easy to do in a country and culture where “time is money,” and “wasting time” is widely considered irreverent. However, “wasting time” is inherently different from spending quality time with yourself, engaging in self-care, or learning how to be okay without something or someone around to distract you.
Secondly, I consistently feel as if I’m not “doing enough.” I have big dreams and big goals, so taking a break from chasing them feels inappropriate, like I’m bucking the system. Although countless studies show that taking proper down time increases employee’s productivity and creativity, it feels counter-intuitive to take a break. Again, this is not a unique experience. Finally, I’ve grown to realize that the need to constantly do something is a fear-based behavior. And, I am afraid. I’m afraid of falling back into disordered behaviors and reliving past traumas. There is deeper work that needs to be done in order to address these underlying fears, and I’m working on them, but like John Heywood said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Personal healing doesn’t happen in a day, either.
As I write this post, I’m sitting in a Starbucks with dozens of other people. Some are also on their laptops, many are scrolling through their phones, and many have headphones in their ears. More than half of us have more than one device within reach. There is one outlier- a young couple two tables over from me, engaged in rapt conversation. They are sharing a frothy, sugary drink and sit side by side instead of across from each other. They are the only people in this entire building who are intently engaged in human interaction. Everyone else is comfortably near other people, but comfortably distant. Each of us sit in our own little worlds, tiny vacuums of separate lives converging for a few hours in one place on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I often go to coffee shops to write because I like the change of pace. I can turn my wifi off, disable my phone, and have nothing to do but put words on the page. At home, I am distracted by innumerable things. The laundry that needs folding, the dishes that need washing, the television, my cat, or innumerable tiny domestic minutiae. Here, I am distracted only by the presence of other people, who are similarly seeking refuge, distraction (or a lack thereof) in this communal space.
The most insidious thing about living a distracted life is that we often and incorrectly associate distraction with happiness. In THIS Vox article, Nicole Clark writes, "Americans have long been taught to buy things, countless things, as a means to satisfaction and happiness. The impulse is as listless as it is absorbing, a band-aid to patch a problem that no material item can adequately satisfy.”
In 2012, UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) conducted a systematic study of 32 middle-class, dual-income families in Los Angeles. They found that only 25 percent of garages could actually store cars because there was too much other stuff in them.
The state of the American garage is unsurprising and sad for those of us who do not wish to live a frantic, distracted life. Marie Kondo writes, “Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder.” Distractions—material or otherwise—can be crutches to avoid our pain. Sometimes, these crutches are necessary. They help us get through our days and allow us not to wallow or spiral into negativity. Distractions aren’t always bad, but it takes insight and awareness to distinguish the positive distractions from the paralyzing ones. A few things I have done to de-clutter my space and my brain:
1. Tidy up: Discard or donate items that you no longer use or that you’re holding onto out of fear. Creating order in your physical space can be empowering, refreshing, and incredibly freeing.
2.Turn off notifications: You can do this on your phone, smartwatch, laptop, and more. It will change your life because you will begin to operate on your own time, making conscious decisions when to answer texts, emails, Instagram message, et cetera. You will be more productive at work, be less distracted, and probably pick up your phone less, which the average American does over 110 times per day. Yikes.
3. Meditate: I plugged it once, and I’ll plug it again. Meditation doesn’t have to be long—I literally do five minutes a day. Deep breath work and mind-body connection have both been shown to have about a million benefits, including reduced stress, better sleep, and better digestion. Read more here.
Have a wonderful, distraction-free day,