I told him, “If you’re really serious about reducing your clutter, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional, you have to start slow and dial it way back to bypass the fight-or-flight part of the brain that gets activated (and is already in the red zone of overwhelm)… Addressing an issue that drives you nuts with despair would not be a good place to start. Breaking down the onerous task into smaller, more manageable bites, however, would be.”
What I didn’t give him was my all-purpose one-minute magic steps to clearing anything and everything.
Here’s how it works:
For starters you need to adopt the “rule of one” to clearing whatever is challenging you – that is, address just one thing, one pile, one area, or one issue for one minute, once a day, until the task becomes effortless, the issue is no longer a challenge, and/or the overwhelm subsides.
Next you need to give the task or issue all of your attention. It’s a bit like the principle of acupuncture, the ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into key areas of the body to restore balance: when you insert compassionate awareness into the thing or area that is causing you to feel overwhelm, you “needle” areas of energetic stuckness in your home and life and give the buried emotions some space to reveal themselves and release.
Finally you need to observe physical sensations and allow feelings to arise without personalizing or judging them. This last piece, which may be the hardest to cultivate for those who don’t like to enter that sometimes scary zone called “feeling,” is what ultimately lightens the load and brings about lasting change.
For example: If you applied the above principles to a task like sorting the mail, this is what a four-day practice sequence might look like:
- Day 1 – In-tend – Set a timer for sixty seconds and place yourself in front of the pile of mail (or whatever is challenging you). Bring all of your awareness to the rat’s nest of bills, letters, catalogs, and junk. Allow any emotional “weather” that may arise (e.g. the shoulds, the guilt, the shame, the squirmy frustration or impatience…). Notice your breathing. Invite ease. If this process does not calm you after one minute, leave the pile where it is and repeat again tomorrow. Allow your basic self not to like it one bit.
- Day 2 – Attend – Sort the day’s mail for one minute with complete awareness. Notice specific sensations that come up as you move through each item in the pile (e.g. the “shallow breath gulp” when you see a utility bill; the jarring resistance triggered by junk mail or catalogs that you never subscribed to; the pummeling staccato of self-judgment for letting this go for so long; the sludgy stuckness of overwhelm and attachment to outcome…). Stop and go back to Day 1 above if the task feels too much.
- Day 3 – Observe – Sort the day’s mail like you’re watching a movie of yourself sorting the mail. Allow feelings and sensations to arise without personalizing or judging them. Notice where in your body you feel the energetic charge and emotional weather. Notice your breathing. Stop and go back to Day 2 above if this step feels too much or impossible.
- Day 4 – Nurture – Sort the day’s mail by following the previous three steps. Add gentleness and self-kindness to this round: give yourself props for sticking with the task; notice how good it feels to put each piece of mail where it belongs; do something that feels really good after you’ve put the mail away.
Once you’re out of the red zone of overwhelm, you can begin to incorporate all four steps into a quick and easy daily practice. You’ll know you have mastered the task when these steps come naturally and no longer elicit a stress response.
For situations that are super-charged and onerous, the trick is to dial back your efforts to a bare minimum task that doesn’t activate the fight-or-flight response. If sorting the mail is still too much to handle after several days repeating step one, walk away. Leave it and practice clearing something smaller and more doable – like a drawer, the kitchen sink, your email inbox – something that doesn’t rattle your cage. The mail will be there for you to come back to when energy and motivation allow.
Cycling through the four-step sequence is the practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s a toothpick or a hairball as long as it’s done with complete awareness.
As I like to say, “when you clear the clutter on the inside, the clutter on the outside takes care of itself!”