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When in Doubt, Part 2: Declutter

Part 2 of the “When In Doubt, Do Everything At Once” series on Taste Life Twice. See Part 1 here.

This series of “When In Doubt” posts will deal specifically with how to get happy when you feel like you’re drowning in more questions than answers. I have frequently been in dips like this, as you can see from many of my posts. Sometimes I work out a problem on the blog here with you, but often it is expressed in activity in another sphere. Here is where I’m showcasing those other activities, and how I deal with uncertainty every day.

Tree growing in library

Too much stuff? Get back to your roots…

Besides traveling to foreign destinations, I learn about myself and the world by decluttering my belongings. This is a huge thing right now, and for very good reason. Declutter superheros like Courtney from Be More With Less or Joshua and Ryan from The Minimalists are pioneering the way for the rest of us who have had it up to here with the insatiable desire of our culture to consume more and more all the time (Um, hel-LO, Black FRIDAY calling!).

Take Stock of What You Have

If you’re getting increasingly less pleasure each time from a shopping spree, here’s what you should do first. When I first started decluttering, before I could throw anything out, I had to make a mental (or you could make it more formal) inventory of things I had that I used, things I had that I didn’t use, and things I didn’t have that I wanted. This helps me both avoid the guilt of purchasing something I already had as well as the inconvenience of keeping or storing something I didn’t want. In theory. (More on that later).

Figure out why

After you have a sense of what you have, now you can consider why you feel the urge to buy, buy, buy, when you have something perfectly serviceable at home. Are you at an emotional low? Are you feeling pressure to look modern and up-to-date? Are you feeling like things are out of control in other parts of your life? These are all reasons why I have gone out and spent $100 a pop– mostly on clothes or books, but others can do it on jewelry, gym memberships, anything. The important point is that you don’t need it. So don’t consume it.

This can get very tricky, especially if your consumption indulgence is food. Obsessing about or being irrational about food is a common problem, and the “why’s” are excellently highlighted by author Geneen Roth in her writing– check her out.

Make It A Mindset

Once you’ve taken stock and gotten some clues as to why you’re feeling the need to consume food, or shoes, or recipes, then you take steps to make it a habit to declutter. When I started, I would dedicate a couple hours to my clothes–  editing the closet, for example. The next weekend, it would be a few hours for going over books and clearing off at least a shelf-full to go to the used bookstore to be sold for credit. The weekend after that, it would be checking that I was using all my kitchen gadgets, and if not, putting them on notice that their days were numbered unless I used them soon.

Taking repeated steps toward a goal helps to make a habit, and from there, you create a mindset by reflecting on the process. It closes the loop, making it a feedback cycle. For example, I did all of the above purges for different areas of my apartment, which helped thin out the mess I was having to deal with. But if I didn’t reflect on the other end– the buying and using end– then I wouldn’t be fully considering how I consume. For example, I see an exotic spice at a specialty store and think, “Ooh, how cool! I want to try making something with that!” I still do think that, but now I also think about the space in my spice rack, the types of meat I have that would go with the spice, the amount of fresh produce I have that probably needs no special treatment… and I realize now is not the time. I will save the dream of using juniper berries until later (le sigh).

Monitor and Change the Incentives

After you’ve constructed this new psychological system for yourself where you are more aware of what you have, why you consume,  and how you can change it, it’s time to test yourself. Do it. See how you feel when you stop yourself from buying that awesome-deal-of-an-iPod, when you already have two. Deprived? Frantically bored? You can journal about it, as some have done, or you can change your incentives, as many others have recommended.

This has been a very hard one for me, especially with food, but here are some of the ways I try to accomplish that mood lift, or that distraction for a hard decision, or whatever I’m not ready to face yet:

  • go for a brisk walk in the cold
  • cook something that takes a lot of concentration
  • read a book in the sunshine
  • do a chore that someone would be astonished to find you doing (shoe-polishing recommended)
  • sit and stare (this is totally OK, for short periods of time)

In general, switch gears. Get out of your own skin for a while so that you can  more rationally see your own behavior. I’ve been on the declutter train for several years now, and just took a big step: buying an e-reader. Now I can go through and edit my bookshelves of all the books that are free in e-book form, at least, and I have hopes for much more ambitious purging as well!

Final Note on Forgiveness

I alluded to this above, that this is a system that can work very well, in theory. However, I know if you’ve read this far, you’re interested in many aspects of self-improvement, and have probably got a lot of projects going that fascinate you. So remember not to be absolutely black-and-white about whether the system is working for you. First of all, you can always tweak the system, if you need more or less discipline for the monitoring, or the questioning, or the switching gears part. Adapting any system to work for your personality and incentives is key to getting results from that system.

Second, if you are trying to adapt but still finding yourself slipping into automatic mode, finding a stash of new Christmas bulbs the next time you come back from CVS, for example (ahem), forgive yourself, and don’t toss the whole idea because it’s not working. Give yourself some space, some time, and try again. Because that’s the mark of someone who can deal with uncertainty and still be happy.

What do you think? Do you have a completely different view of decluttering? Have you tried it and tossed it? Let us hear in the comments!

Why Some Places Call to You Again and Again

Stop Look Enjoy reminder

Last year, I visited San Francisco.

Sam's Log Cabin, Berkeley

I was yearning to breathe free of stifling DC, and so planned a trip to a place I knew I loved to explore, and added a few activities with people I loved to be with. I had an awesome trip (a short one, at 4 days, that packed a punch).

Then I went home to DC.




San Francisco building

This year I returned to San Francisco with the glorious excuse of it being on the way to Yosemite, where I was headed for a quadrennial Family Reunion (posts coming soon!).

I once again got lost in the foliage, the sea air, the cityscapes.

Union Street Papery graphic

Oakland gondolier

And yet, when I contemplate the life change of moving cross-country, I shy away from SF- why is that? The city calls to me, and I know I would love living there, but my mind stops at the “Oh, but it’s so expensive” line. Hmph. Apparently the ninja is not yet ready to be trained…

I’ve done some reading about places, how environment affects one’s thinking, and experimented with some of my own place-based habits. I still find there are locations that seem to call to me. Scotland is one of those places. San Francisco is another. It varies. It may be an attempt to balance what the mind believes is an imbalance:

Too much citified noise and agitation? –> go to the quiet, misty hills of Scotland

Not enough creative energy amid the strait-laced DC crowd? –> let loose with the hipsters and entrepreneurs of the Bay Area

But I also think it might just be that some places make you feel at home, and they call you. Where do you feel you belong?

San Francisco blue day hill

 … and is that where you currently live?

Books Fly in San Francisco

Do I need a more obvious sign that this is where I should be?

The Idea of Tea

As I sit and gingerly stretch my wrist back and forth, trying to coax motion out of very reluctant tendons, I am reflecting on my yen for tea. What is it about tea that makes me feel so comforted, soothed, and grounded?
I’m not talking about any caffeine-related scientific stimulation or suppression effects. I just mean that feeling you get when you have two hands wrapped around a warm, steaming mug of steeped liquid, whether it’s white, black, green, or rooibos.

What is it?

I had an ex-boyfriend who was always annoyed when I put two hands around my cup. He thought it was weird or funny, and would tease me that one of my hands must not have been strong enough to hold the cup. What a thing to mock, right?
Here’s a poem from a long-gone Bigelow tea box I keep taped to my cupboard that hints at the essence:

When your day seems topsy-turvy
And as stormy as can be
There’s nothing quite as tranquil
As a nice hot cup of tea.
While you savor this ambrosia
Your problems fade away
Its warmth will bring you comfort
And brighten up your day.

So take a private moment
There’s calmness, as you’ll see
All because you briefly stopped
To sip a cup of tea.

The reason I’ve held on to this poem for so long (years. several moves.) is that it holds a clue to the sanity we’re all seeking in this modern age: Time Out! Stop the World- I’d like to get off! How about a moment to myself, for a change?

With all the digital connectedness we have now, it seems important to take time for our selves– not internet-surfing, not blog-reading, and not chore-performing. Just thinking about where you are, where you’re going, and how you’re feeling. A cup of tea facilitates this, and the habit of tea promotes regular introspection, which is a great balance to all the demands on our time from work and social responsibilities.

Do you use tea in this way? Do you have a different tool for your reflective times? Do you feel like you need something like this? Let me know in the comments… current brew as I write: Lemon Basil Oolong from Capital Teas.