Declutter Your Life

29th December 2017

Jennifer Lipman offers suggestions for clearing away the rubbish (real and imagined), for peace of mind and practical improvements…

I send my car for its annual MOT and service in late December: a chance to get it checked as the year draws to a close, and to ensure any problems are dealt with as a new one begins. Even if it wasn’t required, it’s a sensible step, which begs the question: why don’t more of us apply a similar logic to our lives?

Resolutions are one thing, but seizing the start of a new calendar year as an opportunity to reflect on what’s working for us and what isn’t is quite another. The idea of ‘decluttering’ has now become linked to taking a Marie Kondo-inspired aim at the physical objects we could do without. But in fact, it also applies to other areas of our lives, too. The turn of the year is the perfect opportunity to declutter professionally and emotionally too.

“There are lots of times when making a fresh start is good, but often, after the excesses of Christmas, New Year can seem like a clean slate,” suggest Alison Wildon and Karen Francis of LifeWorks, a home organisation business based in St Albans.

Certainly, it’s a good moment for rationalising our physical possessions, from sorting our wardrobes to finally getting to grips with that pile of paperwork. It may be winter, but a one-off spring clean can be life-changing.

Unfortunately, decluttering often goes against our instincts. “When things aren’t broken, it seems wasteful to simply get rid of them, or if the items were gifts from friends or family you may feel guilty or unappreciative,” Wildon and Francis say. “Many of us grew up in homes where ‘make do and mend’ was the mantra, so whilst we have embraced a more disposable modern lifestyle, we still hear the voices from our youth telling us not to waste.”

For people hoping to make a major life change in the New Year, or those who have felt stuck in the past one, losing a physical load can alleviate emotional weight too. “Reducing stress levels, saving time, money and energy,” lists Tracy Ross of Blissfully Organised Home Organisation and Decluttering. “Too much clutter can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and process information.”

She points to benefits including saving time by not having to sort through a mound of clothes to find one particular jacket, or saving money by avoiding buying things you already own. But it’s also about freeing you up for the things that add value, from quality time with family to growing your business, or simply following your dreams.

“To only be surrounded by items you truly want or need feels amazing,” add Wildon and Francis. “The stress we carry by living in chaos can be extremely draining.”

Who among us hasn’t started a ‘decluttering day’ with several bin liners and a steely resolve, only to end it exhausted and surrounded by piles of things we can’t decide whether to chuck? Many of us are held back by emotional attachment to our possessions, and more generally by feeling overwhelmed.

What’s important is that you don’t have to get rid of everything; decluttering doesn’t have to involve cutting out every precious memory. Ross, who works with everyone from expectant parents to the bereaved or those moving house, says the key is to have a plan and get going immediately. Once you do, you tend to be more motivated. And, she says, we need to be honest with ourselves as to whether we can do it alone or need help from a friend.

January is also a good time to look at decluttering your career, and to revisit whether you’re advancing your professional goals. Career coach Simon Broomer says it’s one of his busiest periods. “Over Christmas people have time to think about whether they want to go back to work.”

Since we spend the majority of our waking hours working, brushing concerns about work-life balance, poor managers or lack of development under the carpet will only store up misery in the long term.

Unlike with physical clearouts, there’s no one set approach, but an important first step is being honest with ourselves about how things are going. “Ask yourself: am I happy, am I developing personally and professionally, and am I progressing,” suggests Broomer. “Depending on the answers you may need to address something around your career.”

“Are you doing something that you want to do, in the way that you want to do it?” echoes Life & Business Coach Tracey Baum. “What are the company beliefs and what are yours and is there harmony?”

It’s perhaps easier to admit to being unhappy at work than to think about what that means, but it’s imperative to take an incisive look at what your career goals used to be and where you are in relation to them, from salary to managerial level to flexibility. If you haven’t achieved your original aims, it’s worth thinking about what stood in the way.

For those with concerns, Baum suggests channelling the Spice Girls, asking yourself ‘what do you really, really want?’, then thinking about how to get there. If this sounds impossibly ambitious – if it was that easy to secure the dream job, surely we’d have done so? – there are strategies to help. These can range from talking things through with a careers coach or friend to taking an online psychometric test (using a verified site that will provide detailed, constructive feedback).

Another tip is to do a ‘360 performance review’ on yourself – and potentially ask trusted colleagues to feed in. “This can be a hard thing to do, as it means looking at yourself warts and all,” says Baum, but she stresses its value. “Take any information you get as constructive feedback, not as a personal attack or a way to bemoan your shortcomings.”

Ultimately, career decluttering shouldn’t be put off. “Managing your career is your responsibility,” says Broomer. “Organisations don’t do that. Every now and then you need to take stock.”

The same is true for our personal lives; nobody else will attempt to declutter them for us (perhaps with the exception of a therapist). When it comes to relationships and friendships, January is a moment to cast an eye over how these are making us feel, and potentially (although not necessarily) look to make a change.

Again, it’s about asking those vital questions. Are we bogged down by social plans that feel like obligations, or fed up with spending time with people who make us feel worse rather than better? Is our relationship working, or does it need maintenance to reignite the fire? Are we ignoring signs our partner is unhappy – or is our partner ignoring signs we are?

Possibly even more so than physical or professional decluttering, this assessment of the state of play is tricky. As the saying goes, breaking up is hard to do, as is actually acknowledging that there are problems. But staying in a stale relationship or maintaining a friendship that is making us miserable is no good either.

Airing personal issues requires a good dose of courage. “Humans are designed to like things in sure, familiar settings,” explains Baum. “The thought of change is scary. As they say, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. However, if you want something to be different, you have to do something different.”

If you are frustrated by a personal relationship, speaking to someone about it – a counsellor, a friend – is a good first step. Another is talking to the person concerned; are they feeling the same way, or are they oblivious? Then it’s about changing behaviour patterns, whether that’s scheduling phone-free date nights, or agreeing with a friend that neither of you will cancel at the last minute.

Ultimately, with any kind of decluttering, you can do as much or as little as you want. You don’t have to switch career; maybe it’s as simple as asking your manager for more feedback. You don’t have to go the full Marie Kondo, or say goodbye to every relationship that has lost its lustre.

But if you want to end the year in a different place to where it began, decluttering can help. New year might not always mean a new you – but it can mean a new start.

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