Here is the full transcript of author Kerry Thomas’ TEDx Talk: From Clutter to Clarity at TEDxAshburn conference.
Overwhelmed! That doesn’t feel pleasant hanging in the air, does it? The word itself brings up feelings of failure and isolation. It’s also the word, sadly, that I hear the most from new clients.
I have a friend and client who is successful, runs a great business, is very active in the community, and is, honestly, the most positive person you will ever meet. And yet, at our first coaching consultation, she told me that not only did she feel overwhelmed, she felt paralyzed. When I asked her to elaborate, she brought up words like shame, failure, fear, and isolation. I assured her that she is not alone.
In fact, in homes, and businesses, and relationships everywhere, “overwhelm” has become our society’s dirty little secret. We fill everything. We fill our houses, we fill our cars, we fill our offices, we fill our smartphones, we fill our storage units, we fill our minds, and we fill our hearts with more than we can manage. We think that the “more” will lead to happiness, but all it does is perpetuate the overwhelm. Because of this “dirty little secret,” the word “clutter” has exploded in our nation’s vocabulary.
From books to TV shows, to magazines, you can’t even check out at the grocery store without seeing the word “clutter” plastered over every single magazine cover. But what people don’t realize is clutter is not just our stuff. It can be those physical things that clog up our homes, but it can also be digital, mental, emotional, or even spiritual.
The physical clutter is the typical that we think of: the closets that are overflowing, the garages that can’t hold cars, the storage units that have become a billion-dollar industry in this country. Digital clutter are things like the ten, twenty, fifty, eighty thousand emails in inboxes that I see on a very regular basis.
It’s also things like files saved on your computer without naming conventions, so you don’t know what you have, and you spend a lot of time looking for things. Mental clutter can be fears. It can also be voices whether it be from a boss, or a spouse, or the news, or just anything that bombards us. Emotional clutter can be from patterns, negative patterns that you don’t even realize that you have. It can also be all those “I can’t” voices: “I can’t lose weight” “I can’t quit my job and go out on my own in business.”
Now, spiritual clutter isn’t talked about as much, but it can be caused from things like a lack of forgiveness or a lack of peace. Those last two, the emotional and the spiritual clutter, they can be very subtle; those can also be the most paralyzing.
Basically, clutter is anything that keeps you from living the life that you were meant to lead, anything that keeps you from living the life that you want to lead, anything that stops you from accomplishing your work and enjoying your life. Now, it may not seem possible, but all types of clutter, all the ones I listed, have one main cause.
I have a wonderful friend, mentor, and business coach, Barbara Hemphill, and she trademarked a phrase that sums up this universal truth: Clutter is postponed decisions. Think about that for a minute, it fits in every circumstance. The physical stuff – you walk into your closet, or if you can walk in, maybe you try to walk in, and there’s a whole section of clothes.
And perhaps the postponed decision is: “Am I really going to put forth the effort or the time to try to lose that last ten pounds and fit into this whole shelf?” Or perhaps the postponed decision is: “Am I going to clean out my storage area so I can take these things, and put them in bins, and then rotate by season?”
Paper – paper’s a huge one that I deal with. We pick something up, we put it back down. We pick something up, we put it back down. One pile becomes ten piles, and then your boss is coming in, or you have friends coming over for dinner, and you push them all in a bag and put them in the closet.
Digital – you do the same thing with email that you do with paper. You open it, open it, but you’re not making decisions. Sometimes the decisions are easy, just delete, or reply, or put in a folder, but for some reason, we postpone them, and then we get to the point we don’t even want to open up our computer.
Now, I always had a very good handle on the first two, the physical and the digital clutter. And I understood how the other ones worked with my clients because very often there’s an underlying reason that things got to the point that they did.
But I didn’t truly understand how those affected you in your life until I got stuck. In 2012, I had heart surgery. I had a valve defect that I’d had my whole life, and I had been told “You’ll live into your 80s, no medical intervention, go, you’re fine, everything’s great.”
Well, the year leading up to my surgery, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, given a very short time to live, and my oldest son was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. My heart figuratively and then literally broke. So by April of 2012, I was in heart failure and I had surgery.
Now, I flew through. I was the model patient. I was only in the hospital 48 hours, I was up walking, I was doing fun things, I completed a half marathon 11 months after heart surgery. So everything looked great and I was getting a lot of compliments, but I was stuck.
I had massive amounts of mental and emotional clutter. My mental clutter was fears: “What if it didn’t work?” “What if it breaks again?” “Why am I having these stupid, crazy disease spells?” “Why do I still need a nap every single day a year later?”
My emotional clutter was guilt: “Why am I still here and other people aren’t?” And let me tell you, those two roll together to make some really nice spiritual clutter along the way. So, now don’t hate me when I tell you this part, but my house is very, very neat and clean almost all the time. And I had a client who was quite the opposite. She was depressed by her townhouse. She hadn’t had people over in years, except for me, to try to work on it, and we became very close very quickly.
And so, one day I was commenting to her that besides this stuff that was dragging her down, she had a vibrant life, and she was doing fun things, and learning, and continuing her education, and going on trips, and I sort of prompted her a little bit, and I said, “Imagine what you could do without all this stuff weighing you down.”
And man, did she zing me. Because she said, “Look who’s talking.” And she said, “You keep telling me about ideas that you have for your business and things you want to do,” and she said, “and you’re not doing any of them. You are staying stuck also.”
So, we challenged each other, and I must say, she got through her issues a lot faster than I did, but I started facing it, I stopped postponing the decision to look at the fear, and postponing the need to deal with that guilt, and so a shift was made.
Now, I don’t know what all of your postponed decisions are in some of those areas, perhaps you also have a fear that you’re not facing. Perhaps there’s someone that you need to give forgiveness and you haven’t extended that forgiveness yet. But what’s the answer? The key is, make a decision, right? Some are easy: Two weeks from today we are cleaning out this garage. Some are grand. I’m going to drop out of school, move to California, and write a novel. Some are minuscule: Every week I’m going to delete two sales emails – or unsubscribe from two sales emails. But the key is, it’s for you. Your clutter of any type is not a moral sentence. Guilt is not going to help whether from someone else or from yourself.
So everything you do in these areas needs to be for you and for your sanity. There’s a saying: “Change is a result of action, and action is the result of a decision.” So that means that you have the power, even in the midst of that horrible overwhelm, to the point of being paralyzed, you have the power to affect change by making a decision.
Now, it has to have an action, just like with the physical stuff: you’ve got to box it up, bag it up, take it to the donation center, take it to the curb, whatever. For the others, you need to take an action also whether it’s talk to a good friend, get out in nature and meditate, journal, whatever it is, but there needs to be an action tied to it.
I heard something years ago, and I love how it applies here, and that is “Give God something to bless.” In other words, do something, move forward, make a decision, take an action, even if it’s tiny, and the universe will reward you with momentum.
The bottom line is, ultimately, the quality of your life is determined by the decisions you make, about your stuff, and about yourself. So do something, move forward. Some clutter is going to come back, both the physical kind, the emotional kind, that’s called life, it’s going to keep coming back.
But if you make those decisions along the way and don’t postpone them, you will ultimately move from overwhelm towards what we all want: peace.