Three essential tools for clearing mental clutter
There is so much I could say about how "more with less" has applied to my life, especially during this last year. I'll try to resist the urge to get philosophical and stick closer to the spirit of Parent Hacks, which is practicality. In practice, nowhere has "more with less" has been more obvious than in my ongoing mission to declutter.
If you're a fan of productivity/lifehacking/getting organized blogs, you've probably read your share of "declutter-and-change-your-life" manifestos. The promise is that when you get rid of stuff you don't want, need, or use, you'll be rewarded with free time, a pleasing home, and mental clarity. Less stuff, more happy. The message is seductively simple. The follow-through? Hard. Especially when you're wrangling little ones who conspire to interrupt your sleep, complicate your schedule and toss Cheerios onto every horizontal surface in your life.
In the last six months, I've made remarkable headway in my quest to declutter. I owe some of my success to timing: my kids are now past Cheerio-throwing age. But I've also discovered that, before I could declutter our various bulging closets, I had to clear out the most overstuffed container of all: my mind.
As such, every time I tried to do something declutter-y like clear out old toys or organize the linen closet, my mind would revolt long before I finished the job. And you know what half-finished decluttering projects produce: more clutter.
What changed? I finally put tools and systems in place to support my poor, overtaxed brain. More importantly, I've made an in-sickness-and-in-health commitment to using these tools every day:
Everything with a date or time associated with it goes into my calendar. And I mean everything. All the obvious stuff (appointments, classes, birthdays), plus the stuff I figured I'd just remember but never do (when my friend expected results of a troubling medical test, when to give my dog his monthly flea medication, when to send more lunch money to school with my daughter).
Now, the parts of my brain formerly devoted to sorting and remembering obscure dates (when's the field trip again?) can rest, secure that something much more reliable is on the job. Plus, by constantly interacting with my calendar, the dates are reinforced in my memory -- which makes tracking it all that much easier.
The key: your calendar must be with you at all times. I use an iPhone synced with Google Calendar, but any paper or electronic calendar will work just as well.
My to-do list
While my calendar provides the big-picture view of my week, my to-do list helps me navigate each day. If your experience of parenting is like mine, the logistical variables change too quickly to map neatly onto a schedule. My to-do list has become the viewfinder for all those moving targets, large and small, that need my attention now, at a fixed point in the future, or someday.
I have found that an electronic to-do list is more useful than a paper version because I can sort and manage so much more information. When I find myself with ten minutes of free time (in a waiting room, say), I find myself making lists: gift ideas, quick pantry meals, my Life List, etc. Because I use an app for the job (Things for the iPhone), the lists have somewhere to live; in the past, my jotted-down paper lists would die a meaningless death at the bottom of my purse.
As with my calendar, the act of writing these lists forces me to break tasks into component steps, and gives me a clearer picture of my responsibilities. And it frees me from the overhead of having to remember it all. And, every time I do something, I get the visceral satisfaction of checking the "Done" box (we parents need to take props wherever we can get them).
My ability to delegate
The mental space created by my calendar and to-do list has prepared me for the most powerful tool of all: delegation. I've already got some paid help including a housecleaner and a neighborhood babysitter for our weekly date night. But in the midst of mental chaos, delegating chores to my kids felt like too much work. Shortsighted, foolish, irresponsible, even, but true.
Now that I've learned how to break my own tasks into simpler steps, I can help my kids do the same. Now that I've practiced using my beloved brain-support tools, I can create simpler versions for my kids. Again, timing helps: they are old enough to pitch in. But it also turned out I needed to strengthen my own skills before I could teach them to my kids. Too bad: this job would have been much easier for all of us had we started years earlier. (Take note, parents of toddlers.)
So, if you find yourself trying to declutter your garage for the umpteenth time, take a step back and assess your cluttered mind. That may be the most important place to start.
What's your Parenthacker take on "more with less"? For me it's about mental hygiene, but what about for you?
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