When it comes to getting organized, it is almost NEVER about the stuff itself—it’s the stuff behind the stuff that is keeping you stuck.
I get why you would think that it WAS the stuff that is the problem—since stuff is everywhere.
But you’d be wrong.
STUFF ISN’T THE PROBLEM
To be clear, stuff is a symptom and one that is impossible to ignore.
Imagine you have the flue.
Your aches and pains and runny nose is not the flu—they are very uncomfortable symptoms that come along with the flu—but they aren’t the flu itself.
It’s the same thing with clutter.
You have what seems like evidence stacked up around that tells you … no, it’s the stuff that’s the problem. I can see it everywhere. It MUST be the problem.
But stuff, with the exception of American Girl dolls, Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Kids and the like, doesn’t come with a story.
You provide that.
Or your great grandmother does. Or your ex. Or your friend. Or your in-laws.
But the thing itself is storyless.
It’s just a thing.
If a stranger came across it lying in the road, she might think … oh, that’s interesting … I wonder where it came from … what its story is.
Anything she decided about the thing without proof would just be supposition or a guess.
Or more accurately, fiction.
YOU ARE THE PROBLEM
Or more accurately, your thinking is the problem.
Because it’s in the mind that we endow stuff with meaning.
We develop feelings based on our thoughts and then tell ourselves that those feelings are real.
They are real feelings—they aren’t fake feelings.
But often they are based on something that is possibly NOT real … on stories, on fiction.
For every vase and basket and bone in a museum today, there are thousands buried underground, intact or in pieces, that are without a story.
For every teacup in your cupboard, there is one at a thrift store or in a box in storage, that is slowly losing its story if it ever had one.
I don’t judge the value of the story—meaning is it a good story or a bad story.
I don’t judge you for being attached to the story.
I simply want to point out to you that it IS a story.
It may or may not be true.
If you like the story, it’s a good story—and you can keep telling it.
If you don’t like the story, maybe you start to think it’s a bad story.
But it’s just a story.
Perhaps you know the Zen parable, ‘Maybe?’
It’s a short read and goes like this:
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
So you can see, circumstances can change how we interpret a story in an instant.
Take any item you’ve ever received from someone you were in a relationship with that you are no longer in contact with.
You might have loved it when you got it … or not.
You might have kept it out of guilt.
Now that you’re no longer in touch with the giver, seeing the object may make you sad. Or angry. Or amused. Or apathetic.
I’d say, if it makes you feel any of the above OTHER than amused, you should let it go.
Why would you want to hold onto anything that upsets you? What do you get from constantly being reminded and re-feeling something that doesn’t feel good?
And that’s my point.
THE BOTTOM LINE
An object doesn’t make you FEEL any particular way—the story you’ve attached to the object does.
The object is neutral, the story is not.
So the quickest way to separate yourself from anything you want to let go of but are feeling conflicted about is to identify the story you’ve attached to the object and evaluate if it’s still a story that matters to you and pleases you.
If it doesn’t, disconnect the story from the object and it will be very easy to let the item go.
Just don’t lie to yourself and make up ANOTHER story to justify holding onto the object and the original story as well.
One of the pioneers of professional organizing and productivity, Andrew Mellen is the best-selling author of Unstuff Your Life!. He travels the world speaking, teaching, and coaching individuals and global brands including the New York Mets, Genentech, American Express, Time, Inc. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.