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Clearing the Clutter

Asteroids, anyone?

When I was a kid I was hooked on the video game “Asteroids.” After school I would fill my pockets with quarters (tip money from my paper route) and cross Pulaski Avenue to the 7-Eleven. Inside the store, in the back corner, sat my intended conquest – Asteroids.

The graphics couldn’t be more basic, but the game was intense. Your mission: to command a miniature space ship (a white triangle on a black screen) and steer through an asteroid field (white outlines of rocks) without colliding with them or getting shot by the occasional alien spacecraft.

To survive Asteroids, you have to blast the drifting rocks with your laser gun. Trouble is, when you shoot a large asteroid, it explodes into more, smaller asteroids, further cluttering your path. As you continue to shoot the smaller ones, they split into still more, smaller rocks until finally, when you destroy even the tiniest boulders, your blank screen delivers a wonderful sense of accomplishment. That is, until the “next level” begins, a faster and more dense version of the same scenario.

Asteroids is a great illustration for real life challenges. When we attack a large project, we often find it explodes into lots of smaller ones. Initial efforts to make things better inevitably create more chaos and multiplied problems.And, of course, just when you think you have it all handled, when you have completely cleared your screen (or your to-do list), it quickly resets with a more daunting set of challenges. You have reached the “next level.”

It’s like the superhero, Mr. Incredible, says in the wonderful Pixar Animation film, The Incredibles, “I just saved the world. Can’t it stay saved for awhile?” Nope.

So, how do we reduce life’s clutter and the possibility of collisions? Strap on your spaceship and prepare to fire proactive missiles at the three types of clutter in your “asteroid field.”

Physical Clutter

We are constantly assaulted by advertising, television programming, and people proclaiming that having the next great “thing” will bring us the joy we desire. After all, isn’t that what money is for – to buy more stuff? I am as guilty of this as anyone. But time and time again, I discover that the purchase of anything brings an obligation as well as an opportunity – a new learning curve, time commitment, or sense of responsibility. These are the factors that are left out of the advertising.

We all have too much stuff, and the solution to this is really pretty simple. Get rid of it! To do that, you can organize a garage sale. Or, you can catalogue and inventory all your extra stuff, list each item on eBay, host multiple auctions and monitor their progress. Then, once the auctions are completed, you can package and ship each item to the “winner,” provide feedback about your purchasers, and hope they will do the same for you, so that your eBay ranking reflects you are a “certified stuff provider.”

Maybe you detected a note of cynicism there. The thing is, I despise garage sales (hosting them, that is). I don’t want to become an eBay expert. Both approaches, and many like them, are the equivalent of smashing big rocks (I have too much stuff) into little ones (Let’s do a million other things to address this one big thing.)

Or, there are many charitable organizations which will happily take your stuff, free of charge, and rid your life of some clutter with relative ease on your part. I think that is a far more simple and effective way to handle it. Plus, it feels good to give stuff away, especially to those who really need it.

Mental Clutter

Have you ever had the experience of lying awake in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep? While your body lay perfectly still, giving a convincing impression of rest, inside your head you are running marathons, turning back flips, and negotiating cruel and complicated obstacle courses of your own design. A busy brain is a side effect of a busy life. The problem is that it may be difficult to turn off (or even down).

How you spend your thoughts is how you spend your time. What you think about becomes amplified, attracted, and abundant in your life. This is why it is of supreme importance that you take an active role in policing the traffic in your cerebrum. You must strictly enforce sanctions about what is and what is not allowed to dominate your mind. Because, when you are slack about this task, the default of your thinking is, all too often, negative representations that will do you harm.

These Brain Killers include: Worry, indecision, procrastination, obsession, regret, resentments, guilt, and avoidance. Taken in one gulp, as we just did, this is quite a list, isn’t it? These emotionally charged words no doubt made an impact on you, as they each correspond to real life issues and dilemmas you have faced or are confronting now. These forces wield enormous power and alter our life experience.

Worry – Uncertainty about what might happen – Some elements about the future you can control. But others, you cannot. Get over it. Instead of fretting about the unknown, handle what you can and then show up to see what happens next. Instead of projecting disaster, expect resolution. The unexpected outcomes may be better than you dare to dream.

Regret, Resentments, and Guilt – What did happen – It’s over. You can’t change it. Ask for forgiveness and let it go.

Indecision, Procrastination, and Avoidance – What needs to happen, but is not happening, because of you – Get out of your own way, stop blocking your own progress.

The Clutter of Activity

Eddie, my nine year old boy, and I were bike riding in our neighborhood the other day and he asked me “Dad, can we do this every Friday?”

“Son, I’d like to do this as much as we can. Let’s try to take a bike ride together every week. But, it doesn’t have to be on Friday.”

“But Dad, Friday is my only free day. Monday and Wednesday I go to Tae Kwon Do. Tuesday I have piano lessons and my Cub Scout den meeting. Thursday is soccer practice. Then we have games on Saturday and church on Sunday.”

So much for a carefree youth. Like many parents, in our desire to provide well-rounded learning opportunities, we have over-programmed our kids. We are passing along our twisted notion that more activity and more commitments always lead to a better life. This simply isn’t the case.

Not only do we have too much stuff in our lives, we may have too many commitments. The difference is, you can’t pick up the phone, call the Salvation Army and ask them to drive a truck to your house and pick up a garage full of commitments you would like to donate. Commitments are “sticky,” and you may find it difficult to release them from your grip.

Why? Perhaps it is because others depend upon you. And if you don’t do it, then who will? But part of this equation involves our own feeling of worthiness. It is part of our identity – we are because we do. We are because we are needed.

I’d be willing to bet there is something in your life, an existing commitment, an unhealthy relationship, or an obligation that you can release. While the initial act of un-committing may be uncomfortable, the net effect will be positive. So what’s stopping you?

When you liberate yourself from one commitment, another “opportunity” will quickly present itself, and you will be tested. What will you say? Here’s an idea; how about “no, thank you.” When you decline, please follow these guidelines. Say “no”

  • Conclusively – Don’t be ambiguous with your answer, saying “I’ll have to think about it,” or “Let me check my schedule.” Say no. Sorry, but you are not available. Your schedule will not permit another commitment at this time.
  • Politely – Be direct, but do not be rude. There are plenty of nice ways to decline an invitation.
  • With Gratitude – It is a special thing to receive an offer to participate. It means that the other people involved value your skills and abilities. Acknowledge that, and thank them for the opportunity. Then say no.
  • Without Excuses – The less talking you do to justify your response, the better. Keep it simple and resist the temptation to explain just how busy you are and all the reasons why you can’t do it. Once they get the answer, they need to move on, and so should you.
  • With Confidence – You are sure you are making the right decision and response. You are confident they will find “the right person” for the job, and it’s not you.

Into Action

1. Get rid of physical clutter at home and at work. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.

2. Actively eliminate mental clutter. Let go of negative thoughts, such as worry or regret. Make the decisions you’ve been putting off so that you can move on and engage your brain for something more useful.

3. Reduce the clutter of your commitments. Release yourself from obligations, practice saying “no,” and apply yourself fully to areas that are truly important or deliver the greatest sense of purpose.

As you perform these tasks, you’ll clear a new path that will speed you toward what you really want and help you serve others in more powerful ways.

Wishing you uncluttered happiness,


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