Almost any decision is better than no decision at all. - Brian Tracy
Clutter is the result of postponed decisions. - Barbara Hemphill
I'm terrible at decision-making. - a lot of my clients
Many of you have heard these quotes, or something akin to them. Or maybe you've repeated one or two of them. They resonate because they feel true - and I know this both through experience and instinct. I recite the one from Barbara Hemphill to people a lot, and it always hits home - but I also know that for many it's simultaneously easy to digest and difficult to execute. What all lies behind making what seems like a simple choice? Quite a lot, in my observation, and we miss an opportunity when we stop at the end of the quotes.
Sometimes when I'm working with someone on a space attempting to provide homes for too many objects, the client will hold up one of those objects with a look of distaste. Or maybe even complete revulsion. I can see it on their face or in the way they handle it. It could be anything from a picture frame their ex gave them to a wall calendar from 2003. I wait to see what's going to happen next, and I hear them ask, "Can I get rid of this?"* or "Should I keep this?" or "What should I do?"
Of course, you can get rid of it. Of course, you can keep it. Of course, we can discuss it if we need to. But what in the client needed me to approve one of their options, when it was pretty evident that they already knew what needed to happen? It's not my stuff, and honestly it's not even my job to force someone to get rid of things. Sometimes, too, I see people get totally locked up with decision-making. They aren't seeking approval, necessarily, but they freeze at the thought of making a choice. For whatever reason, choosing is scary.
It happens just as frequently with schedule clutter, or head clutter. Who gets to see me for lunch on Saturday, who gets my time for a volunteer gig? Which goals do I want to pursue, which do I want to postpone, which do I want to let go of entirely?
I observe the process getting hung up in three distinct ways:
There's a ton of neuroscience about how making decisions plays out in the brain. Doing a little research for this post, the following passage from the website Applied Attention caught MY attention:
"Even simple decisions are complicated. We have a clever brain that leads us to believe that we came up with our reasons first and then we made our decision – it turns out that it often happens in reverse. Neuroscientists have found that, in many situations, we make a decision first and then come up with our reasons to support the decision afterwards (emphasis mine)."
It seems to confirm what I notice when clients clearly, with their body language, indicate that they already know what they need to do about something.
I also came across this gem: the average American makes roughly 35,000 decisions a day. Granted, many of those are really small and quick (Which coffee mug am I going to grab? Pasta or sandwich for lunch?). But decision fatigue is a real thing, and the role of intuition and mindfulness in decision-making is all but lost. I think this loss is due in no small part to a) the gargantuan level of information we can consume 24-7-365, all with a few clicks, and b) the gargantuan level of stuff and opportunities we've been presented with, also all with a few clicks. Who wouldn't be fatigued?
My thought is that because there is so much cheap and easy information, people gravitate towards relying solely on head decisions, to the exclusion of heartfelt or embodied decisions. We're taught to make "informed" choices, ask for opinions, subscribe to Consumer Reports, check how many stars there are.
If we don't carefully read through all 27 reviews of the bed & breakfast online, we'll make the wrong choice for our vacation, and then it will absolutely, totally, suck. Someone else will mock us or think less of us if we select the wrong type of coffee maker. There are 10,000+ planners available on Amazon, but if we don't identify The One, our lives will disintegrate into an unscheduled, goal-less wasteland. We've become accustomed to calling for backup of some sort on every move we make - and wow, there's a lot to parse through in that backup.
What happened to trusting your gut? There's nothing wrong with collecting some knowledge if you don't have it, and certainly if the stakes are high (buying a house, getting married, changing careers) we want to utilize our brains as well as our hearts. But really, where do we draw the line on things like keeping old bank statements? Or the jeans that don't fit now? Do those decisions require brainstorming?
What if you could exercise the intuitive, gut-level decision-making muscle in some small ways, with some choices that aren't make-or-break? With life slowing down for many of us right now, there's a fabulous opportunity to play with the process. You might work with it this way:
Journaling or keeping a log of how these kinds of decisions work for you over time can give you some great information. How many times does instinct work out for you? Could you be trusting it more, and coming out ahead as a result? You might even try timing yourself on small decisions, limiting the opportunity to fall into that head-based process.
I'll end with another quote:
Every decision brings with it some good, some bad, some lessons, and some luck. The only thing that’s for sure is that indecision steals many years from many people who wind up wishing they’d had the courage to leap. - Doe Zantamata
* We'll drop the grammar rules in this case for the sake of colloquialism. No one ever says to me, "May I get rid of this?"
Much of this content originally appeared in a post back in March of 2018, but I was inspired to rework and update it by some recent requests and questions from readers. The idea: In this time when many of us are stuck inside, what’s a small project that can be tackled without adding to our collective overwhelm? What’s a way that organizing something small could gently tip us over into taking on something bigger? How could the process of bringing order to a manageable space be a calming, almost meditative act? This idea I had two years ago seemed to fit the bill, so I reworked it a little, and here you go...
Show of hands - how many folks out there have some sort of a drawer (maybe several...maybe many drawers?) that you routinely paw through to find what you need? Like a bear in Yellowstone going through a careless camper’s trash, you push the layers from side to side, front to back, looking for the elusive AAA battery, the lip balm, maybe a stray stick of gum. You’re so accustomed to this process that you don’t even stop to think how incredibly annoying and time-wasting it is. You don’t stop to think. You are engaging in some small-scale mindless disorganization.
Large-scale mindless disorganization might be something like having 60+ sweaters crammed into a smallish space in the closet, and digging around fruitlessly to find a purple one. You’re not keen on purple, but it’s your son’s school color - they made it into the basketball tournament that season, and the final game was that evening. Not finding anything suitable, you rushed out to purchase one*. You were mildly irritated because you had the vague feeling that you’d done this before, but you pushed that feeling aside. You also didn't factor in the time and cost that this excursion took away from you - you didn’t go anywhere near that feeling. Thinking about what could have been done with the money or the time just didn't happen. Months later, when you got around to pulling out all of the sweaters (in preparation for your move to another city) you found not one, but three purple sweaters at the bottom - one of which still had the tags. You may have managed to take them to the thrift store, or they might have ended up in the moving box and traveled with you to Nashville (where you still hate purple).
Mindless disorganization doesn’t show itself as readily as countertops covered in the mail or a craft room overflowing with supplies that have no containers. It's the kind of thing that hides and hums in the background of our lives and manifests when we’re looking for that thing we know should exist, but apparently doesn’t (because if we can’t see it, it’s not there). Or when we open a closet, sigh, and just shut the door again. Left untreated, it can snowball into more mindless behavior. It all sounds kind of discouraging, but what if you flipped your awareness around? What if you could reorganize a space, mindfully?
Mindfulness is a thing now, of course. It’s actually always been a thing, but we haven’t been as...well, mindful of it as in recent years now that it’s a popular subject. Here's a definition I like:
Mindfulness - a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
So go back to your drawer. Ask any other members of your household to give you a little space for this experiment. Maybe make this organizing process a bit of an occasion - light a candle? Diffuse some essential oil? Play some music? You don’t have to go over the top to set the stage for successful organizing, but why not do something that sets the time apart and puts it in a positive light? After that, following some simple steps can make this a meaningful process:
1. Take a few deep breaths, and take note of where you are and what the atmosphere is like. Are you hot, cold, calm, irritated? Is there background noise? Plenty of light? Not enough? See if you can either make slight changes, or...accept the atmosphere as it is.
2. Accept and acknowledge that you allowed the drawer to get cluttered, but that you are now in control of the situation. We’re looking forward here.
3. Pull out every single item from the drawer. Everything from the spare change, to the mechanical pencils with no lead, to the ponytail holders. Business cards, LEGO mini figures, travel lotions…whatever. Lay everything out where you can easily see it.
4. Calmly consider each item. No judgment, if possible. Does the ruler with a company logo on it mean nothing, or is it from your dad’s old hardware store? Was your dad a cool guy, or maybe not? What happens to you physically when you pull out an old flip phone? What sorts of thoughts cross your mind? All of this may sound a little silly, but objects have energy and some sort of meaning - even if that meaning is “that was a sick waste,” or “don’t know why I kept that," or "I really love seeing that here." Maybe if you take a little time to pay attention to that energy and those feelings, you can develop an awareness that allows you to clear unneeded things more frequently, or arrange wanted things more thought-fully.
5. Make your decisions about what belongs in the drawer. Allow yourself to trust those decisions (this drawer isn’t high stakes). What’s the best purpose for the drawer, and what goes in it to support that purpose?
6. On the more pragmatic side of things - don’t fill the drawer back up to the top. As mentioned above, for many of us if objects can’t be seen they don’t exist. If you feel it’s a waste of space, ask yourself, “What’s a bigger waste? The area that isn’t crammed full, or the stuff on the bottom that never gets seen or used?”
7. Once the drawer has what it needs to succeed, discard or relocate the other items. Arrange the needed items in a way that makes sense for pulling out and putting back.
Take a little time to take in what just happened. Where else could this process take you?
And when you go searching again for the gum, or the key to the safe deposit box, or even an ugly purple sweater, pay attention to how it feels to find it quickly and easily. It may even be a little startling if you’re accustomed to a struggle every time you look for something. That’s something to accept as well, and factor into your next mindful organizing adventure.
What kind of mindless disorganization holds you back? If you give this idea a try, I’d love for you to share what came up for you in the comments.
*Ah, remember those days when we could just rush out to the store? Maybe being quarantined gives us an opportunity to practice thinking before we rush. Can we keep that mindset going when things go back to “normal”?
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, dog-lover, author. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?