After six months of sacrificing all personal projects for work and family obligations, I ended 2017 with my energy meter on empty. I was stressed, short-tempered and pretty darn unhappy.
Inspired by the promise of the New Year, I signed up for the Finish What You Start course, offered by Srinivas Rao and his team at Unmistakable Creative. In fact, I started the course immediately, not waiting until January 1.
Control Your Life Environments
One month in, some of the biggest changes I’ve seen have come from taming my life environments. In this particular lesson, Rao cites experts who poo-poo reliance on willpower. Instead of forcing ourselves to make the right choices, we should engineer our lives so that we default to the right decision.
Although Jim Bunch points out nine environments that determine the quality of our lives, Rao emphasizes three as especially important (and they don’t correspond exactly to the Bunch environments):
- Physical. The space we live and work in, including furnishings, equipment, technology
- Digital. Our plugged-in life, includes social media and other forms of “screen time”
- Social. The relationships that support and sustain us, includes family, romantic partners, friends, mentors, colleagues
Taking the environmental assessment was a humbling—if not downright depressing—exercise. In my case, looking at my environments confirmed that my life was essentially a hot mess. Where to begin?
Fortunately, our life environments are interconnected. Focusing on one area tends to produce positive changes in other environments.
Tackling My Physical World
I started with my physical environment, partly inspired by Rao’s mention of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. This book had been on my radar for some time, and a few members of my writing accountability group had read it. So I ordered the book, which I already knew was a hard-core guide to eliminating everything from your life that doesn’t “spark joy.” In addition, I looked at my office bookshelves and packed away items that I wouldn’t be using in the immediate future. Sure, I wanted to study Mandarin Chinese, but would I really take limited time away from my novel to do so? Besides, such items actually contribute negative energy, creating stress associated with guilt, for instance.
In some ways, starting the tidying process was relatively easy. Years ago, I had downsized my life from a four-bedroom home outside Memphis, Tenn., to a studio apartment in Manhattan. Whittling my living space by 90% forced me to evaluate every item I took. Literally everything in my New York apartment supported my primary loves: reading and writing, cooking and entertaining, and exercising.
As hard as it was to let go of things like leather-bound notebooks (blank) and a gorgeous shearling coat (rarely worn), I realized that donating these items would likely bring more happiness to others, while freeing my physical environment of negative energy.
Three weeks later, I had done the following:
- Cleared out the tea chest and tool cabinet in my office, discarding three boxes of stationery and creative resources
- Emptied coat closets of jackets and other outerwear that hadn’t been worn in years
- Purged my dresser and bedroom closet of clothes and shoes that were outdated, ill-fitting or “just not me”
- Cleaned out the drawers of my father’s rolltop desk, again clearing away items that I would likely never use—nice though they might be
- Winnowed down my active collection of cookbooks
Bonus Project: Digital World
As a secondary project, I started tackling my digital environment to remove clutter and distractions:
- Unsubscribed from email lists with abandon (up to 40 or so to date)
- Turned off notifications and alerts on my computer (email, text messages, other updates)
- Hid the dock on my computer to remove the temptation to multi-task
- When reaching for my phone, stopped to ask whether I really needed to check email or could it wait?
One month later, I feel less overwhelmed and generally happier. By surrounding myself with less, I can focus more on what matters to me. At the moment, those priorities include my fiction writing and my son. Having less also makes it easier to keep track of what I do have, which increases the likelihood that I’ll actually use it. Less waste translates into an additional happiness boost.
I still have a way to go. Plus, I live with a four-year-old and a grown man who undoubtedly has his own ideas about essentials. Encouraged by my progress so far, I’m planning to continue tidying my entire house over the next four to five months.
Are you ready to make some positive changes? Check out this article, and see how well ordered your life environments are. Then, choose one area to improve. I’d love to hear how it’s working for you in the comments below or via email.