Sunday, March 10, 2013

Understanding Why You Keep Stuff--and Teaching Yourself to Let Go (Part 1)

Tip of the Week, Early February 2013


One of the biggest hurdles to getting organized, when that process involves weeding out unneeded stuff (which it very often does), is making decisions about what stays and what goes. "I might need it someday" is far and away the most common reason clients give for wanting to hold onto things, even when they haven't used them recently (if ever), don't particularly like them, or find that they're getting in the way--literally and figuratively--of achieving their organizing goals.

Getting beyond "I might need it someday" is critical to accomplishing what you set out to do in terms of organizing, but it's not an easy task. That said, with a simple but powerful technique, you can get to the heart of your true reasons for keeping things you very well may not need, and once you know these reasons, can take small steps toward letting go. 

A Lesson from Kate and Helen
To introduce this technique to you, I want to share a conversation my colleague Kate Varness of Green Light Organizing & Coaching in Peoria, IL, recently had with one of her clients, who I'll call Helen. (Kate shared this conversation recently as part of a larger discussion in a group for professional organizers, but she didn't share any identifying details about her client, including her real name.) Helen had amassed a significant number of magazines and newspapers, among other items, which were taking up lots of space in her home. She enlisted Kate's help in getting organized in order to have more time for other activities, including scrapbooking.

The pair started by sorting Helen's belongings into bins, each of which they labeled with its contents. Once the sorting was complete, they looked at the bins labeled "Magazines," and Kate asked Helen a question: "How long do you think it takes you to read one magazine?" One hour, replied Helen. 

Here's how Kate described the rest of the conversation:

I said, "We have 6 bins of about 150 magazines each, so that is 900 magazines. If it takes an hour each, that is 900 hours. If you spent one hour a day reading a magazine it would take you 2 1/2 years to get through these bins. And that doesn't count the magazines that you will continue to receive during that time. How will using 900 hours in that way impact your ability to do the other goals you have?"

Helen was silent. I could tell she felt very conflicted about the magazines. So I asked, "What's the worst thing that can happen if you don't have these magazines?" 

Her response was, "I won't have that knowledge available." I followed it with, "And what's the worst thing about not having that knowledge available?" She said, "I won't know the best way to fix a problem." 
  
My response: "Have you ever been able to solve a problem to your satisfaction without using information found in a magazine?" 
  
"Yes," she said hesitantly. 
  
"What made it possible for you to solve it without that information?"
  
"Well," she said, "I knew what to do because I had other experiences like it."

"So you solved it without needing these?" and I pointed to the magazine bins.

"Yes, but what if I have a problem that is something I'm not good at, like technology? I have to have these to help me with that."

I responded, "OK, let's say you have a technology issue. The first thing you would do is come down here and look through your magazines?"

"Ah, no."

"What would you do?"

"I would probably call my son," she said.

"And then you would come down to look at the magazines?"

She was quiet. And I knew that she knew there was very little chance that she would ever get around to reading or referencing these.

The Technique: Challenging Your Reasons
Kate helped guide Helen to this realization not by belittling her or playing up the impossibility of ever reading all of the magazines she'd amassed, but rather by gently challenging Helen's stated reason for holding onto her magazines: that they contained info she might need. 

Through Kate's questions, Helen came to acknowledge that, first off (and most importantly), she had a greater capacity for solving problems than she'd given herself credit for, and that she hadn't had to rely on magazines to get her unstuck.

She also acknowledged that, if she did find that she needed information she didn't have, her trove of magazines wouldn't be the first resource she'd turn to--and, ultimately, she realized that she quite possibly wouldn't turn to the magazines at all.

Learning to Do This on Your Own
Helen had the benefit of having Kate, a trained professional organizer, to guide her through the process of challenging her reasons. If you're able to enlist the help of a friend or family member to be your gentle interrogator the next time you're faced with weeding, go for it. 

But even if you're approaching your next organizing project solo, you can still use this technique. Ask yourself, "Why am I keeping this thing?" If your answer is "Because I might need it someday," keep pushing: "What's the worst that could happen if I needed it but didn't have it? If I needed it, would I truly remember that I have it? Would it be easy to access? Have I been in a situation where I needed it before? Did I use it then, or did I fill that need in some other way?" As you use this technique, you'll learn to target your line of questioning so you can quickly get at--and challenge--your underlying reasons for keeping things.

Coming Up: Taking Steps Toward Letting Go
In the next Tip, we'll take a look at how Kate and Helen tackled the process of parting with the magazines Helen realized she didn't need, one small step at a time.

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