Unstuff Yourself!


Unstuff Yourself!

The Gratitude Connection

By Don Officer


Live less out of habit and more out of intent. – Amy Rubin Flett


Inattention to what matters is not new. Nonetheless, we may never have been so subject to the attraction of distraction. Among the most insidious of distractors is the great pile of stuff surreptitiously building like a huge ball and chain while we ward off aggressive streams of advertising pouring in from every direction. If with a little discipline we could learn to turn off the torrent long enough to regain some composure, we might have only the stuff to deal with.


Ah, the stuff and how to deal with it. Many writers have stepped up to offer advice. The question is which of them to listen to. That brings us back to the attention problem. To be fair, the decluttering gurus are prompt to explain that everyone is different; we all have distinct ideas about what clutter looks like. The problem for the overburdened starts with deciding which line of advice to follow or where to adjust what you believe is your own true philosophy of tidying up. As grateful leaders, we have an even bigger picture to think about. If we are so preoccupied with stuff either as something to acquire or something to unload, what becomes of our relationships to the people in our lives? Where do we find room, time or energy to properly appreciate how much we owe to all the others we rely on and care about?


Who hasn’t struggled with decisions over what to keep or what to discard? My father advised me that nobody should send anyone who knows how to read to clean an attic. Maybe it’s time for a reality check. We tend to think of gratitude in terms of gifts or achievements past. However, as observed in previous columns, gratitude is about being in the present and the impact it can have on our common future. Gratitude builds an appreciation of what we have now to find the confidence to face our prospects. An important part of that picture is removing obstacles that block our perspective. Nothing stands in the way more than clutter. When you try to move forward it slows you down. As I have noticed for a long time, some things matter precisely because they don’t. Probably Gretchen Rubin comes closest to spotting this paradox. In Outer Order Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, she positions decluttering and reorganizing as critical for anyone who feels stuck and seeks more choice in life. “When too much stuff piles up, I feel paralyzed. Digging myself out of the mess seems insurmountable, so I stay stuck.” Although irrational in some respects, this reasoning, born of mounting anxiety is hard to fight. Being stuck suffocates all the positive emotions. If Rubin, who has published eight previous titles, including several bestsellers, finds her inner calm so disrupted by outer disorder, how many of the rest of us might be similarly perturbed by the physical chaos in our surroundings? Perhaps most importantly, the whole process sharpens your sense of purpose. Rubin’s chapters mark a path many would choose to follow. From making choices to get you unstuck to making your transformed space attractive, she has found a high road to happiness through de-stuffing. Her approach accommodates many productive lifestyles. Hers is a path worth considering. Marie Kondo’s more radical philosophy impresses Gretchen Rubin although not enough for her to fully endorse it. In Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, as in later works, the now internationally famous Japanese decluttering guru starts by examining the confusion many have over what to save or discard. After that, we get to think about what remains. Such a strategy sounds extreme, perhaps harsh. Yet there’s often a time when a clean break may be our salvation. Few have the skills to make all the difficult choices a decent contemporary lifestyle let alone their deepest desires cry out for. To meet the challenge of choosing and organizing, Kondo has a simple litmus test: Does it [the item you hold now] spark joy?


Kondo has a deep respect approaching veneration for truly valued possessions. In an age where mass production supersedes craft, this may seem quaint. Yet we have invested much wealth, judgment and care in our material goods for reasons that go beyond even those that she lists. We could do far worse than to care for what we decide to keep.  If we cherish ourselves, families and friends there’s another dimension to consider, the passage of time. Margareta Magnusson does that in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. Magnusson states emphatically that death cleaning is not sad. Indeed, more than once she remarks on how some object that has become invisible or worse is associated with loss rather than warm memories as might have been hoped for. Not unlike Rubin and Kondo, she sees the practicality in discarding items no longer of use. Moreover, Magnusson takes the longer, and broader, view as she urges giving away once valued things that no longer spark joy while you still can. You will relive the pleasure they once gave you by watching others enjoy your former treasures. No longer that active or simply downsizing for efficiency? Many formerly well used every-day objects now belong with a younger family at a different life stage.


Furthermore, through your foresight, you can give your relatives the additional gift of not having to declutter when you are gone. How many spatulas or ice cream makers do you need after all? Magnusson should know. She has death cleaned for her father after her mother passed away and for herself when her husband died. We should also take advantage of technology and our remaining time to digitally record photographs and mementos which take up so much room then leave our survivors with the puzzle of identifying snapshots or tagging heirlooms of family long gone. Many of the procedures and rituals of death cleaning have a place at every phase change in our lengthening lives. How long do you need to keep those stuffed animals or model airplanes you collected or built in your childhood? Who needs those old cassette recorders or slide projectors? I have an ancient typewriter my aunt once used that could go to a museum.


A few more books deserve mentioning. Sheila Chandra, a British singer turned organizer has written a hard-nosed book for creatives. Organizing Your Creative Career: How to Channel Your Creativity into Career Success is its title and the text delivers much-needed advice to artists and craftspeople who have a hard time picturing themselves as businesspeople or serious members of the workforce. The biggest service she extends to the creative community is to forcefully dispel the myth that genius demands disorder. Artists, unlike most workers, might need several purpose-built workstations or ways to reorient the space available quickly and efficiently. Otherwise, they may confuse overlap for clutter. Any creative life is always threatened by fuzzy routines intruding on creative time. Creatives like solopreneurs, in general, need to be both efficient and effective creators, as well as business savvy publicists, unless of course they are fully supported by wealthy and very forgiving patrons. By the way, do these same precepts not apply to innovators or change agents? As with artists, so with those whose challenge is balancing several loosely defined roles at once. Cassandra Aarssen has written the book for you. Too harried for the great purge? If you are tested by objectives over which you have only limited control like raising a young family while operating a daycare from your home, this might be you. This was Aarssen, an admitted clutter bug forced to get seriously organized with very limited time and small chunks of it at that. So, she learned how to make it happen the way you eat an elephant – one bite at a time. For her, that meant a tidy-up target of 15 minutes a day. She makes no bones about the virtues of “good enough” and learning on the run as opposed to flawless plans or exacting execution. You do not have to digest or experiment with all these strategies. Ask yourself and those who know you, which approach could work best for you. What is your number one priority? Does the stuff of your life spark joy and prompt gratitude?   The genius in clearing out and organizing your physical space emerges in the energy decluttering releases to open your headspace.  These authors learned to achieve results while modeling exemplary lives of accomplishment. Getting “unstuffed” is freedom from material envy and the burden of social anxiety. Start with who and where you are. This makes your transformation authentic and you a true grateful leader.


Cassandra Aarssen – Real Life Organizing: Clean and Clutter-Free in 15 Minutes a Day Miami: Mango, 2017


Sheila Chandra – Organizing Your Creative Career: How to Channel Your Creativity into Career Success London: Watkins, 2019


Marie Kondo – The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014.


Margareta Magnusson – The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter New York: Scribner, 2017


Gretchen Rubin – Outer Order Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make More Room for Happiness Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale, 2019



What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute of Learning Vice-President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.