Last Wednesday we came together at The Strong Woman Salon to talk “Space Sanity.” We gathered to explore why and how we hold onto things, and what are the most useful strategies to use when it comes to getting rid of stuff… something so many of us are tackling around this time of year.
We started, as always, with the wine. With lengthening days and warmer weather, everyone was in the mood for white, and we enjoyed two crisp, delicious French whites from Dry Farm Wines. I’ve discussed Dry Farm’s mission in a previous post – they’re connecting American wine drinkers with small, old family vineyards making wine according to traditional winemaking methods and eschewing modern commercial additives. They’ve recently gotten the attention of big-name biohackers and health advocates like Mark Sisson and Bulletproof’s Dave Asprey. The flavors of Dry Farm wines are bright and soulful, and these two were no different. We enjoyed a 2013 Domaine des Charbonnières, a fresh, crisp, full-bodied Beaujolais Blanc, and a 2013 Vieielle Vigne, a complex Alsace Rietsch with both fruit and vegetable notes that people really went crazy for. (Don’t forget to check out Dry Farm’s Strong Woman discount at the end of the post.)
I started the night off by reviewing some of the research from neuroscientists exploring the mechanics of how we perceive clutter, including some fascinating findings that connect messy environments to health markers like stress hormones. I recapped all the neuroscience in this blog post – totally worth a read, especially for moms!
We then moved on to my interview with Leslie Haber. Leslie has a company called An Organized Life, and while she works with many different kinds of clients, she’s a self-described “organizational therapist” whose specialty is working with people who have trouble letting go of things.
I asked Leslie what’s the first thing she does when she works with a new client, and her answer surprised me: She asks them what their goals are. Once she knows what a person wants to achieve in their life, she helps them organize and design their space so it’s not only in alignment with their goals, but ideally will support and energize those goals. This might mean if a client has a desk sitting in a corner that’s primarily used to hold dry cleaning, but that person wants to breathe new life into her home business, then this desk needs to be moved into a more prominent place, with a system for work flow set up. However, another desk owned by a working mom who’s tired of bringing her work life home with her, might choose to move that desk out of the flow of family traffic and into a quiet corner, in order to achieve more balance and presence. It’s the higher goals that determine how one’s space is planned and organized.
(Slight tangent related to desks and where to place them: A friend of mine once outfitted a small closet as a beautiful, fully-functioning office. Search “Closet as office” on Pinterest to see some interesting examples of this.)
Cynthia Smith, another professional organizer in attendance Wednesday, said “It’s rarely about the stuff.” Meaning, people’s deeper issues are what’s really driving how one’s home is kept. The “stuff” is just the outer representation of what’s going on inside. Leslie said this is why she will often work in tandem with a person’s psychotherapist, to help them dissolve the deeper issues that are keeping them blocked. It’s easier to clear the congested external spaces when the internal space is being cleared as well.
Leslie brought up an issue that’s important to be aware of when we’re handling objects that we have any kind of emotional attachment to. When we handle objects we love or feel attached to, a part of the brain lights up called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Researchers at Yale University discovered that this area is extra-active in people with Hoarding Disorder. In fact, hoarders feel such intense pain at the idea of letting go of a possession, it prompted the researchers to theorize that for these individuals, hoarding became a form of pain relief, a compulsive desire to be relieved of the physical suffering that occurs when thinking about letting go of something. (Interestingly, this part of the brain does not light up when a hoarder interacts with objects belonging to someone else.)
Apple has clearly done their homework on this neuroscience as well. Their stores are designed to invite people to touch and interact with the products. They know that the more people touch the laptops and the iPads, the more emotionally attached they feel to them. It can even be argued that this is why Apple enjoys such intense brand loyalty.
As far as decluttering goes, for us regular folks who aren’t hoarders, this understanding just means staying conscious that a pain center may get activated when we hold the dress that Grandma sewed for us 40 years ago. We’re talking about real pain here – this part of the brain is the same part that lights up when you touch a hot stove. So even though the rational mind knows it’s time to part with it, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex is begging you to keep it. Leslie even said sometimes she will hold a particular object away from the client, so they cannot touch it! She will encourage clients to make decisions about certain things without actually handling them, to reduce the activation of this pain center.
I can attest to the power of this technique. The day after the Salon, I had to go deal with a couple of boxes at my storage unit. Things sitting in a paid storage unit definitely tend to fall into the “I can’t really ever throw this away, can I?” category. I noticed that as I picked things up and handled them to decide what to do, physically it was like they had me in their thrall – kind of like the ring from Lord of the Rings! At one point, I picked up a set of cassette tapes, a recording of Heather Woodbury’s epic one-woman show “Whatever.” Now, I may have lost you at “cassette tapes,” so please let me assure you I tossed all my old cassette tapes years ago (like everybody else) to embrace the greener pastures of newer technologies. But these particular tapes occupied a category all their own. Heather Woodbury and I workshopped our solo shows at the same time in 1990’s New York City, and her work was truly exceptional and inspiring. Holding the tapes brought me back to that time, and I realized there was a part of me that didn’t want to lose that part of myself, and that time in New York, which was so exciting for me. So I set them down, and walked a few feet away, and just gazed into the middle distance. I tried to conjure up a situation where I would actually listen to those tapes again. Even setting aside the defunct technology, even assuming I had the recording on my laptop right now in an mp3 format, I could not think of a circumstance where I would hit play and listen. I realized that in 17 years of owning them, I had never listened to them once. So I threw them away. It was the “rarity” of this item, the certain irreplaceable-ness that had driven my absurd saving of it. I think the process of actually placing this in the trash was made easier by disengaging the tactile connection, and thus defusing the pain response in my brain.
Another interesting thread in the conversation was the idea of helpful rules to use when sorting your stuff. I offered the following rule of thumb I’ve been using from Kathi Lipp’s excellent book Clutter Free.
When considering whether to keep or toss any item, ask yourself:
- Do I use it?
- Do I love it?
- Would I buy it again?
This trifecta has a convenient way of incorporating something’s worth, as well as it’s usefulness. If you have a $5 kitchen gadget you never use and wouldn’t buy again, it’s an easy toss. On the other hand, you might have a $500 kitchen appliance that you don’t use that often… but when you do use it, you love it. So that might be a keeper. Notice this list doesn’t contain questions like, “Was this a gift?” or “Might I feel guilty if I send this to a charity shop?” because as harsh as it sounds, those questions shouldn’t be part of the equation!
Of course, the most famous de-cluttering rule of the moment is from Marie Kondo’s blockbuster international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo asserts that any given item must bring you a “spark of joy” to earn a place in your home. It was fun to discuss that rule with professional organizers, who are out in the front lines of people’s homes every day. They said they’ve had to convince some over-zealous clients to at least keep things like toilet plungers. It might not spark joy in you, but you sure are glad to have one cluttering up your house when you need it! (Along these same lines, I must confess feeling a giddy simpatico with this piece from the Washington Post, which argued that the KonMarie method doesn’t really work all that well for parents.)
All in all, it was a really fun evening enlivened by fascinating discourse with some very smart women. I ended the night by talking about something near and dear to my heart – filing! (Sigh. I wish I were kidding.) I showed off the humble plastic file boxes I bought at The Container Store, which are now my preferred storage method for paperwork (though I keep one or two pretty Bigso ones around as well, because I love the juicy colors and the hefty weight of the fiberboard). The plain-jane plastic file boxes are my workhorses. They’re lightweight, modular, easy to carry around, cost around 6 bucks each and somehow don’t make filing feel as onerous as it used to when I kept everything stuck in one massive filing cabinet. They can be labelled with bright Post-It labels to quickly distinguish one from the other.
When it’s time to plan what we’re going to eat at The Salon, I turn to my Pinterest boards. This month I drew from Paleo for Entertaining. We enjoyed Coconut-Chicken Nuggets with Paleo BBQ Sauce, Quick Sweet Potato Hash and a Quinoa Taboulle Salad from Le Pain Quotidian. For dessert I did a modification on Cranberry-Orange tarts: Instead of the autumnal cranberry and orange, I used summer-sweet strawberry and rhubarb. I gotta say, the grain-free almond flour crust on these babies was extremely delectable! And they don’t even call for sugar, just a bit of maple syrup. My fabulous assistant Zakiya made sure nobody forgot to try any of the tasty morsels – thanks Zakiya!
Many thanks to our professional organizer guests this month. Please reach out to them should you need help getting spatially sane – they are lovely ladies and definitely know their stuff!
To enjoy 10% off Dry Farm Wines, don’t forget to plug in Promo Code THESTRONGWOMAN when you place your order.
How about you? Are you tackling a particularly challenging organizing project right now? Please let me know in the comments!