There are few things more satisfying than being able to identify stuff you don’t need/want/use anymore, gather it all up and get rid of it. All month long I’ve been taking out the trash and let me tell you, it’s been one of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on all year. The only thing I regret is waiting so long to do it.
You know you’re an adult when an empty 22 x 8 foot, 60-cubic-yard, solid steel waste container being unloaded onto your driveway makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. To me, this container wasn’t empty—it was full of possibility.
I was so excited because I knew, at last, we would be getting rid of years worth of old, useless stuff that had been piling up, including a big pile which had been collecting since we first bought our house eight years ago. There was a big pile of wood scraps, old decaying cabinetry, shelves, rusted metal and other scraps from various minor renovations that was somewhat “out of sight, out of mind” in an old decaying potting shed that had been built off the back of our garage by previous owners decades ago, and that shed was itself now decaying and falling to pieces. After generating more scraps for that pile ourselves during a bathroom upgrade at the beginning of the month, we realized the time was right to put an end to all of the madness.
All it took was two hours of teamwork, and a little help from a pry bar, sledgehammer, and reciprocating saw, for me and my wife (an awesome woman who enjoyed ripping this old stuff apart and getting her hands dirty just as much as I did) to take the whole pile away and dismantle the entire shack itself. Spiders and all.
And suddenly the empty steel container wasn’t so empty anymore. Especially after we went back and started pulling out whatever other trash we could find, because once you’ve paid to have a giant waste bin in your driveway you want to fill it with as much as possible. I pulled piles of old scrap woods and junk out of the garage, coils of 50-year-old electric cable, wheelbarrow loads of decayed bricks and concrete blocks, and random pieces of metal someone had long ago thought might be useful again.
And every time I tossed another armful of debris into that container with a satisfying metallic thud, I felt a little lighter, a little more free. I couldn’t stop myself asking over and over again, “why did we wait so long to do this?”
It felt so good to get all this done because it had been sitting in piles I’ve wanted to get rid of for years—not really physically in the way, but weighing on the periphery of my space, and my mind, as “that thing I have to take care of someday but I don’t even know where to start so I’ll figure it out later.”
It’s a lot easier to add to a pile than it is to make one go away. The longer I put off dealing with the pile, the bigger it gets, and the bigger the pile, the more overwhelming dealing with it feels.
It doesn’t surprise me that books about de-cluttering our homes and tidying up are bestsellers now. In our digital age, where virtual storage space seems endless and we don’t have to throw anything away, it’s harder to remember to be focused and mindful about the objects and “stuff” that we surround our space with. And nobody likes to be wasteful either, so it’s easy to keep thinking “I could use that bit for something else later. Oh wait, that’s too nice to throw away.” Get enough consecutive people doing that in the same house over the years and that’s how I wound up with a crumbling shack behind my garage full of of decayed cabinets, paneling, tiles, and shelving from the 1940s-1990s.
Clutter and waste are part of being human. Life relies on systems—our bodies, our families, our homes; the things we make or sell, the groups we are a part of, even the ideas we have in our head. And the function of all systems relies an input of raw materials at one end, and an output of work at the other. Along the way will always be debris of the bits we don’t use, and never will, and it has to be discarded.
In the end, like most things related to living a productive, balanced life, solving clutter really comes down to building better habits. Piles themselves aren’t the problem, it’s the purpose behind them.
If we’re mindful about why we need to create a pile, it’s usually because it’s part of a larger sorting process—this pile of books goes to the library, these clothes and this chair are going to charity, and this pile of cardboard is for recycling. But then we need to follow through on each of those goals for the piles and actually then move them to the library, to charity drop-off, to the recycling bin.
So the habit we need is to set aside time to do this sweep of our environment regularly. Once a month, once a quarter, once a year—whatever it takes. Because no matter how minimalist your lifestyle is, you are always going to have things you need to sort in piles and take action on.
The same applies to the more abstract “piles” we have in our work: we can break our projects and assignments up into all the to-do lists and we want, but they don’t go away if we’re not also regularly reviewing, revising, and taking action on those to-dos to make them go away.
I have felt the power of the weekly/monthly/quarterly review process and I hope I never go back. I also know there are still big piles I have to deal with from the past, but now that I’ve dealt with the biggest of them, and felt that burden lift from my mind, seen the literal sunlight that wasn’t shining in that spot before, I know that getting rid of the rest of the piles is not something I need to fear.
No matter how big your piles may become, you still have the power to make them go away. You may have to do it one piece at a time, you may need to ask for help, but if you make that removal a purposeful act you will succeed. Bag it, bin it, dump it, donate it, recycle it—whatever’s appropriate. The important thing is to get rid of it, let it go, send it out of your life, and vow to make your next pile with purpose.
Sometimes the best gift we can give ourselves is to bring back some emptiness; a clean space empty of clutter, and full of possibility.