I have what you might optimistically call a high threshold of tolerance for clutter.
It’s a running joke in our house that once a thing–a stack of papers, a stray chapstick, a stapler, a scarf–has been in a certain spot for more than a week or two, that’s just where it goes now. It truly becomes invisible to me. My husband, who conversely can’t stand clutter, is constantly fluttering around straightening up and moving my things.
“Babe, where’d you put my chapstick?”
“The chapstick that was on the kitchen counter.”
“I probably put it away. Why was it on the counter?”
“I don’t know! BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE I KEEP MY CHAPSTICK NOW.”
I’ve always rationalized that there’s a difference between being messy and being dirty. Messy people leave clothes on the floor; dirty people leave pizza boxes. I’m messy! It’s fine, right?!
But here’s the thing: even I have a breaking point, and it’s the finest of fine lines that separates a tolerable level of disarray from overwhelming, sanity-threatening chaos.
This is the spot in my bathroom right outside my closet where my luggage normally sits when it’s in the process of being either packed or unpacked, usually a 1-2 day process before and after any trip requiring a suitcase.
After returning from a recent family vacation, I deposited my luggage into its usual holding pattern. We happened to come back to an unusually busy week: playing catch up after being gone, wrapping up the end of a school year, meetings and other obligations every evening–you can surely relate. I gave myself a pass on getting unpacked; I was just really busy, and it could wait. So it waited.
The days ticked by, and every time I walked past that half-unpacked suitcase in my bathroom, it started getting under my skin a little more. I would dart past it first thing in the morning during the mad dash to get myself and my daughter in passable condition to venture out in public, and there it was: “Ugh, that suitcase. No time to deal with it right now–I’ll work on it during nap time.”
Then nap time would roll around, and inevitably, unpacking was the last thing I felt like doing after a hectic morning filled with scrambling, rushing, cleaning up messes, and negotiating with a 30-pound tyrant. “I deserve a break, don’t I?” I’d reason. “This is my one chance today to sit down and relax, and I’m not going to spend it unpacking a stupid suitcase.” Inevitably I’d spend a lot of that downtime mindlessly staring at my phone, scrolling through my Facebook and Instagram feeds, until “break time” was over and I had to get some work done while my child was still asleep.
So it waited some more.
Gradually I became aware that the half-packed suitcase wasn’t just a thing I was deferring dealing with because I had a really hectic morning and was exhausted; it was actually contributing to my frazzled and frenetic mornings. It had become an albatross.
“Where on earth did I put that pair of leggings?” Wait, I took those on vacation–they’re still in the suitcase.
“Where is that book that’s due back to the library today?” Here it is, in my suitcase.
“Where is all of my clean underwear?!” Oh right, still at the bottom of my suitcase.
This went on for–brace yourself–ten days. Ten days that suitcase sat on my bathroom floor, and not a day went by that I didn’t have to frantically dig through it looking for something. All at once it hit me that in deferring this one chore because I had earned a rest after a frantic and busy morning, I had actually made all those mornings worse by adding “can’t find my underwear” to the list of problems I had to tackle before noon. And the worst part? Deep down I wasn’t even really enjoying those moments of “relaxation” that I had indulged in, because this dark cloud was hanging over my head.
Eventually, I snapped. Immediately after putting my toddler down for her nap, I went directly into my bathroom and finished unpacking that wretched suitcase once and for all, and tidied up the rest of my closet for good measure.
Do you know how long the whole ordeal took me?
Nine minutes. Nine. Minutes. Nine minutes!
How many hours of peace had I robbed myself of over something that took nine lousy minutes? How many frazzled moments had I cost myself, how much joy did I suck out of the earliest moments of the day each morning that I shuffled past that suitcase thinking “No time now, I’ll deal with it later”? How much more truly rewarding would those “break times” have been had I knocked out this nine-minute chore and then sat down with a good book for twenty minutes, instead of mindlessly wasting time until it was time to get back to work?
Humans tend to do this sort of self-sabotage a lot because we’re hardwired to seek rewards. Maybe you can relate to this if you’ve ever skipped a workout because you wanted to sleep in instead–and then you felt guilty about it for the rest of the day. Or maybe you’ve rewarded yourself for a whole week of really healthy eating with a weekend-long binge on potato chips and desserts–and then felt bloated, sluggish, and angry with yourself come Sunday night. When these little “rewards” we give ourselves become no longer rewarding because of the way they make us feel, we’ve crossed the line between giving ourselves grace and stealing our own joy. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever reward ourselves; it means we need to be honest with ourselves about when those rewards are becoming counterproductive instead of motivating and enjoyable.
Ask yourself: what is the “suitcase” in your life that is preventing you from feeling truly at peace? Set aside ten minutes today to do something small–clean out a junk drawer, write the thank-you notes you’ve been putting off, organize the spices in your kitchen pantry (am I the only one who feels like they are breeding in there?). Then use the next twenty minutes to do something that’s REALLY rewarding–not mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed, but something that you think you never have time to do. Read a book, write in a journal, sit outside in the sunshine with a cup of coffee, write a letter to someone, call an old friend. I promise it will be your favorite half hour of the day.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”