We keep stuff we don’t need or use for many reasons. Some of it is for sentimental reasons. Some of it is because we think we got a great bargain at the Stuff You Don’t Need sale. Some of it is because it somehow got left behind by someone, and we’re not even sure what’s in that pile. Some of it, of course, is inextricably linked to procrastination. This happens in both obvious and less obvious ways.
Obvious ways procrastination creates clutter:
Donation bags we keep meaning to drop off
Items to return that are waiting for the deadline to pass so we’ll never see that money again
Coupons we laboriously clipped that will likewise expire without being used
Produce we bought with the intention to “eat better” that instead created a gross extra chore
“Skinny jeans” that don’t fit “yet”
Craft supplies, yarn, and/or fabric for projects we haven’t started
Magazines we haven’t read in the years they’ve been sitting there, but we totally, totally will
Boxes we never unpacked after our last move – or our first move
“Yard sale” stuff that will still be here three years from now
The garage/storage unit/spare bedroom/closet that’s on every to-do list we’ve ever written
These elements of clutter are nearly universal. They’re so well known that they’ve been staples of comic strips for nearly a century. I don’t know if anyone has ever written a sitcom episode based around cleaning out a refrigerator, but there’s probably one about cleaning the garage from every show ever. We don’t even realize we’re living in a comedy because only the studio audience can hear the marimba music in the background.
We won’t realize how many subtle ways procrastination creates clutter until we change our lives. We finally decide to start living in the moment. We let go of the past and firmly shut the cellar door on it. We look at the likely future we’re creating with our present habits, we come to some educated conclusions about how well that will work out, and maybe we shift course in a few areas. At that point, we start looking at our stuff and wondering, “What did I ever want with this old junk?”
If I had never bought any of the things I actually did buy and didn’t need, the money would go pretty far. I could buy a guitar and pay for several months’ worth of lessons. I could replace my funky old laptop. I could have a weekend in Paris in a luxury hotel. I could hire a personal trainer and do a full 90-day fitness makeover. I could get a professional massage every night for a month. I don’t even know all the stuff I could have had instead, because all I can do is estimate all the stuff I bought for 20 years that I no longer have.
All the clothes that fit my old, obese body. All the books and magazines I read once and didn’t want anymore. All the old CDs that I played until I didn’t care to hear them again. All the kitchen gadgets I just had to have that got culled in one of my last four kitchen downsizings. All the many, many bags of cookies and pints of frozen desserts and six-packs of soda and chocolate-covered-pretzel bars that I wish I hadn’t consumed.
Why do I associate these things with procrastination?
What I was doing was putting my focus on impulse purchases. I was trading in what I thought of as my “real” life, the one for the “real” me, for the “just for now” me. I was going to learn to play guitar SOME DAY. I was going to go to Paris SOME DAY. I was going to really live the way I deserved to SOME DAY.
For tonight, I was going to plunk down on the couch, read for several hours, and eat me some desserts.
When I started running, it was a match made in heaven. I could do my two favorite things, eat and read, with total abandon. Running was custom-made for me, one of the most high-strung creatures who ever walked the earth. I could go out and run until I felt “like a human again.” I could listen to hours of podcasts and audiobooks guilt-free. I could start the day with four waffles, eat two lunches, and stuff Nutter Butters in my little chipmunk cheeks as fast as I could chew.
Two things happened. 1. I lost my taste for sweets, which seems a bit unfair, and 2. I lost 25 pounds before finishing the two-headed sweater I had spent about 40 hours knitting.
Frog-stitching a project can be a weepy, painful experience. All that work! Ruined! In this case, I had to laugh while I did it. Not only had I lost 25 pounds, but my husband, who was supposed to fit in the other half of the enormous sweater, had lost 30. Goodbye, half-finished sweater! Buh-bye! I traded it for three finisher’s medals and a stack of race t-shirts, which I wear during my workouts. I got rid of my “skinny jeans” because they were four sizes too big. Then I realized that I was really done with knitting and I gave away all my knitting stuff.
Yeah, all of it.
I don’t miss it. If I really, desperately need to knit something, I can go out tomorrow and buy all the supplies. If it was a true crafting emergency I could probably ask all my crafty friends to lend me some needles and maybe, perhaps, spare a few feet of yarn. I still know what to do. In that sense, I’m still “a knitter.” I could competently teach a class and have them knit up a sock, a hat, or a children’s toy. In the more practical sense, I’m not “a knitter” anymore. I don’t define myself by this ability in the same way that I no longer think of myself as “a nanny” or “a receptionist” either.
I don’t need supplies, tools, or materials to prove I can knit.
I don’t need books or old class notes to prove I’m “a smart person.”
I don’t need photo albums to prove I have a family or a past.
I don’t even need those finisher’s medals. They always bong me in the forehead when I run.
What interests me now is the potential I have to create what’s going to happen in my life next week, next month, and next year. Where am I going to be in three years?
Am I going to be sitting in the same spot, with the same dirty sink full of greasy dishes, the same piles of unfolded laundry, and the same dusty bookshelves?
Am I going to be carrying balances on the same credit cards?
Am I going to be facing the same lifestyle-related health issues? Having the same kink in my neck? Getting headaches at the same frequency?
What interests me now is how much muscle I can build, how much I can increase my agility and flexibility, how much farther I can go on foot, how much of a load I can carry. What interests me now is how much money I can sock away for my old age and how much I can increase my income before I lose interest in working anymore. I’d rather quit out of a sense of fulfillment and triumph than because I just ran out of steam.
There is never going to be a shortage of interesting books to read, movies to watch, or music to enjoy. In fact, in just a few years I’ll laugh at how dated these songs and storylines seem to me. There is never going to be a shortage of clothes to wear or 75%-off sales to raid; in fact, in just a few years I’ll laugh at those clothes and maybe cry over what they cost. There is certainly never going to be a shortage of shopping malls, craft stores, kitchen gadgets, or storage units they can fill. I can always start accumulating stuff again, and there will always be someone willing to take my money every month to stash it all in a little room I never visit. I’m putting that off for now.
What I’m not putting off is saving for my old age. I’m not putting off any necessary medical or dental appointments. I’m not putting off my chores. I eat healthy food every day, partly because I took the time to learn how to cook it. I try not to put off telling people I love them and I’m thinking about them. I certainly never put off snuggling my pets. If there’s a backlog in my life, it’s a backlog of gratitude, for all the fantastic things in the world that I didn’t bother to notice back when I was surrounded by stuff.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.