Given the choice between a root canal and clearing the clutter from my life, I'd choose the surgery. The dental procedure is finite...and comes with anesthesia. This process of ridding myself of obstacles, on the other hand, seems endless and is stirring up all kinds of emotions about what I thought my life would be (very different—and not necessarily anywhere near as fabulous as what I have).
It's hard—and I don't like it.
I'm being supported through this process by professional organizer Amy Thomas, a spitfire of a woman who set a steady but gentle pace for moving through piles of papers and decades of memories.
Amy comes to this work with a graduate degree in project management and a penchant for solving puzzles. She approaches each situation with a compassionate curiosity. Rather than imposing a set of design systems upon me, she remains committed to understanding what works within the context of my life. I won't give up my shoes or bags, and I'm not the kind of person who will file and label each bill. Amy's cool with that and has other ways to keep those items organized. That flexibility gives me the permission to be cool with it too and—in some magical way—helps me let go.
We trudge slowly: Going through a small box of paper takes the same amount of time—and requires the same number of decisions—as a big box of stuff. Amy's willingness to bear witness to sweet little moments in my life helps me process them and move on. Every time I start to apologize for a dusty box or weird collection of stuff (two sets of dental molds, rocks from the Maremma Coast), she candidly reminds me that getting organized is a process that she's working on too.
The stuff is stubborn. I uncover things I haven't thought of in years and, all of a sudden, a desire to hang on to them takes hold. This reignited relationship is detailed in the work of researchers James Wolf, Hal Arkes and Waleed Muhanna. In their study "The Power of Touch: An Examination of the Effect of Duration of Physical Contact on the Valuation of Objects," they explain that touching an item increases our desire to have it. When it comes to items we already own, the amount of time we've had with them makes them more valuable to us. This explains why, even though I haven't even seen or touched some of my stuff in over a decade, holding it makes me want it all over again.
There are moments when I'm tempted to leave the house and beg someone to do a clean sweep of everything, or just pitch boxes without even opening them. But that won't help me understand why I held on to that stuff in the first place—or what I can do to change these patterns. I am still in the process, but my sense is that a lot of this will come down to a small, daily practice of staying organized rather than the accumulation of a critical mass of things that then feels insurmountable.
I might be coming to the conclusion that getting organized is more like a teeth cleaning than dental surgery. The process feels uncomfortable, but the shiny, like-new outcome is great. If I can get into the habit of flossing, keeping these in-between spaces clean might be achievable too.
P.S. This process really has worn me out. I'm taking a break, but will post a before-and-after slideshow of the final (well, finalish) results, highlighting great examples of how you can manage your own stuff, soon. Please join me on Twitter @simransethi and share how you approach organization in your life.
Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit SimranSethi.com and follow her on Twitter @simransethi.