Having a clear understanding of why you want to declutter and organize your house will help you stay the course when it gets hard, overwhelming, and you just want to quit.
Start with why
If you’re a follower of Simon Sinek or a fan of career development tips, you may have heard this before. It’s the idea that the most successful businesses and leaders are the ones who lead with why they do what they do, rather than what they do or how they do it.
Nobody cares how your computers are made, Dell. People happily spend twice as much to buy an Apple product because their marketing focuses on why they’re in business (to “think differently” and challenge the status quo).
That’s not only a way sexier message, but the emotions it inspires inside of us actually speaks to the part of our brain that’s responsible for driving our behaviors. If you’ve ever worked in sales or marketing, I’m sure you’ve learned through experience that people make decisions based on emotions, not on rational thought. And that’s because the part of our brain that’s capable of thinking rationally and applying logic does not make decisions about behavior.
So what does this have to do with decluttering? Well, decluttering is hard. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting, it’s time consuming, and you have better things to do. Sure, you understand logically that your life will be less stressful if you can always find your phone charger. And you get that cluttered homes cause a physiological stress response in your body, which leads to negative health consequences. We get it, professor. Thanks for the lecture.
So…why aren’t you taking action?
Because those reasons appeal to the wrong part of your brain. Sure, they might be enough motivation for someone who has one disorderly closet they can tackle in an afternoon. Since the task at hand is relatively easy, they don’t need as much motivation to get started. But if decluttering is going to be really tough for you, you need reasons that appeal to you on an emotional level to get and keep you motivated.
Enter, the Life Vision Exercise
Why you need to know why
As Marie Kondo, reigning Queen of Tidy, states in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it’s critical to begin the decluttering process by identifying your goal: “Before you start tidying, look at the lifestyle you aspire to and ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to tidy?’” And, no the reason “to get rid of clutter” isn’t good enough. She urges you to think concretely so “you can vividly picture what it would be like to live in a clutter-free space.”
Ok, so say your biggest complaint about your home is how stressful mornings are because you can’t find the things you need to get out the door. Close your eyes and visualize your ideal morning in your decluttered home: You wake up, get ready for work without drama (because your closet is organized, your makeup is arranged nicely in a container, and your shoes – both of them – are waiting for you by the door). You have time to make a pot of French Press coffee (fancy!) to sip on the way to work. You grab your bag and your keys (which are waiting for you by the door), and leave right on time – just early enough to miss that school bus you always get stuck behind when you’re running late.
Sounds pretty nice! Time to kick all your stress-inducing, morning-ruining clutter to the curb? Well, not quite… Before you pick up that trash bag, you gotta go one step further. You must identify why you want to live that way.
I think this is best illustrated with an example:
I want my house to be tidy so that all of my belongings have an assigned home.
I want to be able to find my keys and bag quickly and easily every single morning.
So that my mornings are less hectic and stressful.
Because when my mornings are calmer, I feel better and more in control all day. This helps me be more focused and productive at work, and friendlier and more outgoing with colleagues at the office.
Pause. That’s a great why! Being more effective at your job and friendlier with the people you work with could definitely contribute to better life and job satisfaction. But, just for fun, let’s keep going…
But why does that matter to you?
Well, I really want to start my own company, but I need to keep my current job because I’m gaining valuable experience in my field. And since my income is predictable, I’m able to save money every month to create a safety net for when I do branch out on my own. I’m also forming relationships with colleagues and building my professional network, which will prove invaluable in helping me find clients, employees, and opportunities when I do launch my business.
BAM. Now that’s a big, motivating, life-altering why! But I bet we can go one step further….
But still, why do you want that?
Because I want to have creative control over the work I do, the ability to only take on projects that excite me, and the freedom to take time off when I want, so I can travel while I’m young and healthy, and make amazing memories by embracing opportunities to spend time with family and friends.
I’m not crying, you’re crying! Do you see how, by continuing to ask why, we got to the emotional heart of this hypothetical person’s deepest desires for their career and lifestyle?
By connecting a seemingly small goal for your home (always knowing where your keys are) to a very big and exciting goal that affects the entire trajectory of your life (owning your own company, the ability to be more creative and spend more time with the most important people in your life), suddenly this small thing isn’t so small anymore. It has ramifications that go far beyond the four walls of your house. If working for yourself is something you’re excited for and passionate about, that’s an incredible motivator to help you overcome the temporary discomfort that comes with decluttering and organizing your belongings.
I think Marie Kondo’s really onto something here.
But, what if you don’t know your life goals?
I feel you. I was there for years. It’s so frustrating, alienating, and disheartening when you can’t answer the question “what do you want to do with your life?” But here’s the truth (even though you may be in a place where you don’t yet believe me, it is): Somewhere, deep down inside you, you do know.
And the only way I know how to rediscover the tiny flame of neglected passion inside of you and excavate your desires is to get introspective, messy, and emotional. How you go about that will depend on your personality.
My goals soapbox
But before we get to the tactics, imma take a minute to redefine “goals”. Because thinking about “goals” in the conventional sense – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound – is so totally uninspiring to me. And if you have a hard time setting concrete goals, maybe you can relate to this.
Part of the excitement of life is that you are constantly evolving. Everyday you learn something new. Every experience and each new person you meet has the potential to change, well, everything…including the goals you’ve set for your life. And that’s why I love Marie Kondo’s insistence that you dig beyond your external goal to understand why you want to achieve the goal in the first place: because the Why is the only thing that matters.
“You’re not chasing the goal itself – you’re chasing the feelings that you hope attaining those goals will give you.”
-Danielle LaPorte, The Desire Map
New ideas challenge how we understand the world, as well as how we understand ourselves. And we need to allow for those lessons and those changes. If you’re so invested in achieving an external goal, it can feel like you’re quitting or failing if you change your mind before you’ve achieved it – even if you genuinely no longer desire that outcome. It can feel embarrassing to “admit” this to family and friends, which can lead to you doubting your own intuition about what’s important to you in life. And, sometimes, you end up sticking with a path that’s no longer in alignment with your true desires.
So if you’re focus is on the Why behind your goals (rather than the specific goal itself), you’re able to stay open and receptive to new lessons and possibilities that life presents you with – while staying in tune with what matters to you at your core.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with setting external goals – in fact they provide a concrete framework that can help us identify our core values and desires, as well as a path to follow in life. But I am urging you to focus on the values and desires – the Why – at the heart of your goals, rather than the specific outcome of the goal itself. Because external achievements mean nothing if they don’t resonate with who you are at your core.
Suggestions for connecting to your Why:
Free-journal every day for a month, then go back and read your entries. What patterns do you see?
Keep a “joy journal”, and jot down every time you feel inspired or happy throughout your day – no matter how trivial or insignificant. Again, go back and look for patterns.
Take a “heart-centered” approach to identify your Core Desired Feelings. Danielle LaPorte’s book The Desire Map will help you to figure out how you want to feel in your daily life and what activities enable you to feel that way, which you then use as a guide post for intentional goal setting. (I cannot recommend this book highly enough!)
Journal with the following prompts:
First, go negative:
What’s not working in your life?
What’s not working in your home?
What do you dislike about your career? Health? Relationships? Etc
What do you hate about X, and why?
Then, immediately go positive (no wallowing!)
What do you want to do more of (or try for the first time)? Why?
If you could have any career, what would it be (focus on the what and the why,
not the how)
What is working in your life?
What used to work in your life that you miss doing?
Who inspires you and why?
What do you like about your current home, or what were your favorite features of
a previous home?
If big dreams feel too abstract for you, go smaller.
What would your ideal day look like?
List 5 things you like about your job, house, relationships, etc
List 5 things you don’t like about your job, house, relationships, etc
Write a letter to your current self from your 8 year old self. Try to get into the headspace of 8-year-old you. Talk about what 8-year-old you loves to do. Ask your current self questions and share some childlike wisdom.
Write a letter to your current self from your 80 year old self. What wisdom has age imparted about what’s important in life? What are her proudest moments and biggest regrets? Where is she now?
Talk to (trusted, nontoxic) friends or family members who’ve known you for a long time. It can be so helpful to get an outsider’s view on how you’ve evolved over the years, because we’re often too close to see it in ourselves.
I think it’s time for another example.
So you don’t have big, lofty goals, but you do know you hate your kitchen. Start there.
What do you hate about your kitchen?
Well, the cabinets are a hot mess and I haven’t seen my crockpot since we moved in. The counters are covered in mail, work documents, receipts, clean dishes that need to be put away, and for some reason an unopened pack of t-shirts I bought for my husband last week at Target. The pantry….well we don’t go in the pantry. It’s scary in there.
Great. Now close your eyes and describe in vivid detail how you wish your kitchen was and how you use it now that it’s tidy.
The counters are completely clear, the cabinets and drawers are well-organized and I can always find whatever dish or tool I need. The pantry is bright and clean, with pretty, well-labeled baskets, clear containers for baking supplies, and all the canned goods are visible. I can smell the homemade beef stew simmering on the stovetop, and I can taste the delicious warm coffee I’m drinking while I sit at the island thumbing through a travel magazine.
Sounds lovely! Now, go further. Why do those things matter?
Well, I want clear counters, organized cabinets, and a well-labeled pantry because I’d like to cook at home more.
Because we’re spending so much money eating out.
And why is that a problem for you?
Because we spend so much on takeout that we can’t afford to travel.
So why do you want to travel?
I want to travel because it’s always been my dream to visit Loch Ness in person.
Boom. There’s your why: Being able to afford a bucket list trip to Scotland that you’ve been fantasizing about since you first heard about Nessie on a History Channel “documentary” when you were 10 years old. And decluttering your kitchen will help you get there. If the chance to fulfill your cryptozoological fantasies isn’t enough motivation to tackle the mess, I don’t know what is.
A few notes…
It doesn’t have to be life-shattering or world-changing
So, how do you know when your why is big enough? I believe it’s big enough when it lights you up, gets to the heart of how you most want to feel, and/or enables you to look at the future with excitement and drive rather than apprehension and dread.
And please don’t compare yourself to others. If your friend’s life vision involves finishing medical school so she can work with Doctors without Borders in Africa, and yours is to get your messy house under control so you can host a monthly book club and make new friends, you might be feeling like your goal is insignificant.
If your goal makes your heart sing, it’s not insignificant.
When I was in real estate, we did this “big why” exercise at my firm. Many of the other agents had why’s along the lines of “I want to provide my children with a better life than I’ve had” or “I want to fund a community shelter for homeless youth”. Whereas mine was basically to “not hate my job so I actually want to get out of bed in the morning”. And I felt selfish, insignificant, and small.
But you know what? It was the truth. I’d been in a terrible emotional and career rut for years, and I was slowly realizing that the career I’d worked for months to get into – the career that was supposed to fund my dreams and be my ticket out of low-paying, physically-demanding drudgery – was just as toxic to me as the jobs I’d left behind.
And that really sucked! But I figured out how to make the job work in the short term, and devoted all my other energy to doing the emotional work of figuring out who I am and what I truly want out of life. And a year later I started my own business.
During that year, I realized that I’d been clinging onto versions of myself that no longer existed (or that never existed but I wish existed), and therefore was neglecting the person I actually was now and was meant to become in the future. And, yes, decluttering my house was a huge part of that discovery and recovery. But so was therapy, medication, exercise, reading, career development, group coaching, research, and hours upon hours journaling and reflecting and crying.
This is heavy stuff, so don’t feel ashamed. Living your life on emotional autopilot is part of what got you (and your house) where you are now. Do the work to figure out who you are, what you want, where you want to go, and take back control of your own life. Because when you’re clear on who you are and what you want, you feel good. And when you feel good, you’re able to do good. You’re able to show up in the world and impact other people’s lives for the better. And there’s nothing insignificant about that.
Remind yourself often
You’ll only see results from this if you continuously remind yourself of the why behind your goals. If you can distill down your why to one sentence, write it on your bathroom mirror, make it your phone or computer background, or make a sign to hang on your fridge or in your office.
If you have a lot of why’s, write each one on an index card, and review them daily like flash cards. When you read each card, try to connect to the emotions it evokes, and take 10 seconds per card to visualize the end result. Visualization is a powerful tool used by athletes, business leaders, and performers. No reason you can’t take advantage of this too.
If you’re a visual person, make a vision board. Take the old-school approach by cutting out representative images, words, and quotes from magazines, or take it online by using a vision board app.
For auditory learners, you can record your voice on your phone and play back your goals and vision statements while you’re driving, during your morning routine, or before you go to bed.
One idea that I’ve heard of for more tactile people is to create a “power spot” somewhere in your house. It can be a corner of a room, a reading nook, a shelf, or even a closet that you fill with small objects that represent your values. Interact with the area often to stay connected with your desires.
Make it yours
If you’re having no luck connecting a goal you’ve set for you home with a larger life goal, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I actually want this, or do I think I’m supposed to want this, or that I should desire this?
- Is this a goal someone else has for me, not one that I’ve decided for myself?
- Is my deeper motivation for this goal my desire to be perceived a certain way by others?
- Is my desire for this based on comparison or jealousy?
- Is this goal still in line with my core values and desired feelings?
You can’t control how others perceive you, and it’s normal and healthy for your life to look different from your best friend’s or the way you were raised. Be honest with yourself if you’ve created goals that are dictated by societal, familial, cultural, or any other person’s expectations. If your desires are not in line with those expectations, understand that you can’t make yourself want something that doesn’t resonate with you. Find your own path and embrace it.
And it’s ok to change your mind. Remember, the external goal is not what’s important – it’s the Why behind it. Stay connected to that Why, even if the specific path changes.
I know it can feel scary or overwhelming to acknowledge and explore heavy, emotional stuff like this. But I can promise you that it’s worth it. And not just for getting your home under control. We only get one shot on this planet, so if you’re living on autopilot and letting life happen to you, you’re not taking full advantage of your time here. Get back in that driver’s seat and start living with intention. Trust me, it’s way more exciting than being a passenger.