Having spent a couple of years paring down my possessions into one suitcase’s worth of belongings, I usually think of decluttering in terms of physical possessions. As I’ve embraced a simpler and slower life, however, I’ve also realised keeping my mental and emotional space clear is just as important to my wellbeing as maintaining a peaceful external environment. With that in mind, here are seven non-physical things I’ve found it helpful to declutter for a more tranquil life:
Having finances in disarray can wreak havoc on your feelings of stability and security. If your finances are less than great or you’re lacking transparency, it’s tempting to avoid the matter altogether (this is an approach I’ve taken in the past). But there is a huge mental price to pay for this. When you don’t know where you stand, it lingers in the back of your mind and casts a cloud of uncertainty and anxiety over almost everything you do.
So let’s sort this out!
As you begin to declutter your finances, the first step is about getting transparency. While I’m not the most financially savvy person on the planet, getting clarity on where I stand has been helpful in helping me identify my priorities (clearing debt? Savings? New laptop?). Tracking all incomings and outgoings, knowing where money is going, and cutting any unnecessary expenses might sound like a lot of work if you’re not in the habit of doing these things, but it frees up a ton of mental space. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful:
Track, track, track
I took forever to do this, but it’s been the most useful step. I use You Need a Budget (YNAB) to do my monthly accounts and find it super helpful. As I travel a lot and pay for things in different currencies, I also use the Trail Wallet app to track my cash expenditure abroad. While I’m not a spendthrift, getting clarity on where money is going has helped me make more conscious purchasing decisions. This also applies to income: I have multiple income streams and rather than thinking X income stream brings me Y amount of money each month (not a good approach!), when I track I know where my income is coming from and can make business decisions accordingly. Using YNAB in particular also allows me to…
Some people love budgeting, some people hate it. Personally, I find the structure helpful. YNAB is based on the concept every cent/penny has a purpose. At the beginning of each month, I make a plan and know exactly how much I have to spend, and exactly how much within each category too.
Declutter and cull unnecessary bills and standing orders
Are you paying for that magazine subscription, only to stash each issue away to read “one day?” Are you still paying uber bucks for your phone contract even though you’re out of the minimum term and could switch to a cheaper plan? Are you subscribed to Netflix even though these days you watch everything on Hulu? Go through your regular bills and standing orders. For each one, ask: do I really use this? Is it worth the money? Is there a cheaper option available that still meets my core requirements?
It’s no secret our relationships have a huge impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown cites research showing it’s not the quantity of relationships we have that makes a difference to our lives, but the quality.
So, are there any relationships that need a boundaries readjustment or need redefining? Are there any that have fallen by the wayside and could use some TLC? Are there any that are no longer working, or you’re continuing out of an outdated sense of obligation? Are there any behaviours or dynamics you’ve been contributing to within certain relationships you don’t feel good about? Is it time to trim down your Facebook friends list?
Equally, are there any relationships you’ve been meaning to invest in more but haven’t yet? Are there any you’d like to move from the “acquaintance” circle to the “friend” circle? Are there people you’d like to reconnect with after drifting apart or losing contact?
As I’m writing about in my new book on our inner critics, who we surround ourselves with is important. We end up internalising the voices of the people closest to us, and they become part of our internal dialogue. Redefining relationships that aren’t working doesn’t have to involve a tense confrontation or dramatic blowups. It might look like declining invitations to hang out as much, changing the topic when someone talks about something you’d rather not talk about, or being open about your boundaries: “I’d prefer not to discuss my relationship with Jonathan, let’s talk about something else.”
One of the guiding principles of my life is that all relationships are voluntary (apart from my responsibilities to my kid: I chose to bring her into the world so I owe it to her to stick around and do my bit to the best of my ability). That means I’m involved in the relationships I’m involved in because I want to be, not because I feel obligated to. It’s up to us to better the relationships we want to better (within the confines of what we can control), and to know when it’s time to distance ourselves, say goodbye, and create space for more positive and happy-making relationships.
“Whenever you use the word should, you are arguing with reality.” – Tara Brach
I often say or think this word when comparing how I’m living or what’s happening, to the ideal of how I think I should live or what should happen—an ideal that only exists in my head. Although I’m not a Buddhist, I see the sense in the idea that much of our suffering comes from wanting things to differ from how they are. Should-ing all over myself is a major part of this!
The next time you notice yourself using the word “should,” stop and get curious. Ask yourself why you think you (or others) should or shouldn’t do that. What’s the belief behind the should? Is that your belief? If so, why are you doing or not doing that thing already? What’s stopping you? If it’s not your belief, but one you realise you’ve adopted from someone else, then what is it going to take to let that belief go? What do you want to believe instead?
4. “Have tos”
Most of us use the phrase “I have to…” (do the laundry, pick up the kids, write this report, etc.) without thinking about what we’re saying. As I wrote about in this post, in reality, there are few things we have to do.
Breathe. Eat. Sleep.
Most other things we think of in terms of “have to” are things we choose to do. Get up at 5.30 am? I choose to do that because that’s when my daughter usually wakes up. I prefer spending that time as quality time together rather than engaged in a battle to persuade her to sleep longer. Do the laundry? I choose to do that because I like having clean clothes and being able to hang out with my friends without them wrinkling their noses while edging away from me.
When I view my life as a series of “have tos”, I feel less free. If you feel the same way, try replacing “have to” with “choose to.” If it makes little sense or doesn’t feel right to hear yourself say “I choose to…” what can you change about the situation?
5. Ideas, errands, and to-dos
Ideas are great, but not when they are taking up valuable bandwidth and space in your head. That thing you’d like to do when you finish graduate school three years from now: do you want it taking up valuable mind bandwidth for three whole years? No! Write it down, get it out, declutter your thoughts, and move on, knowing it’s safe and sound for when you’re ready to come back to it.
In Getting Things Done (a system without which, I would not get things done), David Allen describes an exercise he calls a “core dump.” It’s simple: take a sheet of paper (or a new Evernote note/Word document) and give yourself 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted time. Write everything in your head. Everything. Tasks you need to finish, errands you need to run, to-dos that are looming, projects in progress, projects you want to start at some point but haven’t gotten around to yet, ideas for the future, things you’re waiting for people to get back to you about, things you think you might someday want to do but aren’t sure… everything.
Write it all down in one big list. Once you’re done, you can divide the items up into their relevant categories (he suggests: projects, tasks and someday/maybe ideas). Make this a regular weekly practice. Each time you think of a new “Ooh, I should remember to…” or “Hmm, wouldn’t it be great if…,” get it out of your head, write it down, and bask in your newfound peace of mind, knowing you don’t have to keep track of all this by memory anymore.
6. Worries and fears
How much time do you spend worrying about things that haven’t happened yet or you have no control over? If the answer is “more than I feel good about,” then it might be time to declutter your worries.
I start this process using the core dump exercise above to get everything out of my head and onto paper. I usually find this alone eases some of my fears and worries and gives me a different perspective on them.
Here are two other things I’ve found helpful to declutter my emotional life too:
If you notice you have the same persistent internal voice casting prophecies of doom and gloom, try conversing with it. This is a journaling technique I talk about more in my book, The Ultimate Guide to Journaling. The basic gist is to write out a dialogue with this part of yourself like you would a script or screenplay. Try asking this part what it’s afraid of, why it’s afraid of that thing, and what it needs: what would help it worry less?
Practice negative visualisation
Follow your “what ifs” to their conclusion. What if you did lose your job? What if you did lose all your friends? What if your house did burn down? Even if we know the scenarios we worry about are unlikely, what we resist persists. The more you try to tell yourself to stop worrying, the more you’re likely to ruminate.
So why not change your approach and give your worries a voice? If you follow your fears through to their logical conclusion, you will usually discover you are capable and resourceful enough to deal with most things life could throw at you.
If you could use extra support with your worries (for example, if it’s stopping you from doing things you’d like to do and you’re not sure how to move forward on your own), consider talking to a qualified counsellor, therapist or coach about what’s happening. I wrote more about these different kinds of support here.
I am a big fan of goal-setting. Goals give me a sense of momentum and forward movement. I find it useful to think about the values I hold dear, how I’d like to feel, what a life well-lived would look like, and what I can create in my life to reflect those things. Like most personal growth tools, however, we can also encounter “goals gone bad.” When my goals aren’t working, I’ve noticed one of two things is usually happening:
I am focusing on too many goals at once
As the saying goes: we can do anything, but not everything. Focusing on too much at once is a subtle form of self-sabotage as it almost guarantees you’ll become overwhelmed. Dissuaded by the lack of progress and the seemingly never-ending mountain to climb in front of you, you’re more likely to give up—reinforcing the belief the thing you’re trying to do is too difficult.
You know your personal limits and, while life doesn’t go on forever, you also don’t need to do all the things right here, right now. Focus on going deep with one or two goals and shelve the rest until you’ve made significant progress or have completed them. I have found it takes mindful self-discipline not to add too many goals and projects to my plate, but rather to make a note of new ideas and aspirations (remember the core dump? Such a useful exercise!) and return to focusing on what I’m doing right now.
My goals are conflicting
This is another byproduct of “trying to do all the things right now.” When I try to do too much at once, I’m likely to end up with goals that conflict and therefore not make any progress. For example, if I want to finish the three books I currently have in progress (#truestory.), it will be harder and slower to do that if I also decide I want to start another website at the same time. That doesn’t mean I can’t do both those things, but it requires some serious thought and consideration to figure out how I would make those two goals work together.
Over to you: Which of the areas above could use attention in your life? Are there any other non-physical things you think it’s important to declutter?
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