I love metaphors, idioms, and analogies. Colorful language can help our brains rework a perspective and bring new awareness or understanding to a situation when a normal, dry description doesn’t cut the mustard (see what I did there?). A fun turn of phrase always gets my attention.
And so one of those idiomatic expressions came to mind recently when someone shared with me that they had spent the better part of 24 hours just throwing things away. This person (I’ll call her Caprice) was telling me the story of how fed up she was with all of the paperwork and clutter in her home, so she just grabbed some trash bags and went at it. No review, questioning, or discernment regarding the usefulness or importance of any item - just tossed 90% of it all away. Now her space was clear and she felt great. The process was so liberating. It’s like minimalism, and that’s cool, right? As is often the case when people tell me stories about their adventures with "stuff”, I sensed she was looking for some affirmation.
Let’s set aside my concern (horror?) about discarding things that don’t belong in landfills, or how paperwork should be reviewed for potential shred-ability. I was trying hard to stifle these thoughts, but after I stuttered a noncommittal “Wow,” I followed up with a question - “Do you think there’s any chance you might have thrown the baby out with the bathwater?"
From Wisegeek.org: "Throwing the baby out with the bath water" is an expression that implies that an entire idea, concept, practice or project doesn't need to be rejected or discontinued if part of it is good. The baby, in this sense, represents the good part that can be preserved. The bath water, on the other hand, usually is dirty after the baby is washed and needs to be discarded, just like the parts of the concept that are bad or useless.”
The phrase has apparently been floating around since the year 1512, so it’s clear we humans haven’t learned how to manage the impulse.
There was quite a silence after I asked Caprice the question, and I immediately felt bad for possibly making her feel bad. I have my own issues with verbal impulse control, but I just can’t pretend a decluttering binge is a great solution to organizing woes. I know that they usually don't solve any of the underlying issues, and rarely produce lasting results. It’s too much, too quickly. If you want to lose weight do you best succeed by throwing out your food and starving yourself for a day or two? Or do you approach training for a marathon by heading out one morning and attempting 10 miles after months of inactivity? How long does that last?
Sure, there’s a balance to strike - I don’t advocate agonizing over every stray paper clip and ponytail holder. But what if in the discards, Caprice’s long-missing passport was hiding in a folder? Or the diamond earrings she inherited from her mom were tucked into an old purse? I know they’re just things (and of course, they can be replaced), but the next time Caprice wants to exercise the positive side of her spontaneity and head to Madagascar, she’s going to have to go through wasted time, expense, and trouble. Those are the three things that good organizational habits should fix, not cause.
p.s. I’m open to the idea that maybe a fast, all-encompassing decluttering binge might create a re-set, and could open the door to improved organization, so if you have your own experience to share lay it out there in the comments.
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, coach, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. Excited to be in the long but worthwhile process of becoming a Certified ADHD Organizer Coach. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?