Projects, Ambition and Streamlining

A question came up recently about how to manage multiple projects and “when-I-get-around-to-it” tasks without living buried in clutter. Let’s talk about this in the context of
- streamlining, an urgent need for most people with clutter or hoarding issues, as well as those who are parents, aging or have full-time jobs, and
- ambition, which leads us to take on more than can be comfortably handled.

Every object we own “calls” to us all the time: “use me,” “put me away,” “find a place for me,” “maintain me,” or even “discard me.” This is a major reason why clutter causes so much stress – the demands of all those clamoring objects create enormous pressure to act, but which task, which object should be dealt with first? And how to deal with them or avoid feeling guilty for neglecting those that you cannot get to? The more objects you own, the more impossible it becomes to respond to any of them, much less all of them. This stress leads to steadily decreasing well-being and self-esteem; over years of living with clutter and many incomplete projects, these feelings lead to depression, pessimism, and despair.

People expect new objects and projects to make life better, to bring happiness and pleasure. However, beyond a short-lived flash of pleasure when a new item is acquired or completed project imagined or done, the problems created by every additional item or task are usually greater than any possible pleasure. Just like most new items make managing existing items more difficult (we must exclude things like filing cabinets, bookcases, and other objects that increase the ability to manage our belongings), each additional new project makes the odds of finishing any of them lower because new projects create even more “which first?” stress than objects. The expectation that another item or project will produce greater good feelings when pain and pressure from too many objects and projects is already intense is not realistic.

Just to be clear, I am not arguing against doing projects to improve difficult or unworkable situations. This is only about voluntary projects such as nearly all crafts work or magazine subscriptions, especially when you already have a lot of each and the project’s only purpose is pleasure. Pleasure is not a bad thing, but sacrificing deeper, more urgent needs for pleasure can do considerable harm.

We all have finite capacity for essential tasks such as housework, maintaining our things, taking care of ourselves and families, and managing our personal business, to say nothing of having fun and playing. Most of us have an existing task list that makes us feel that we are racing just to keep up. The more items and projects we take on, the less time we have for essentials, both new and existing. When we can’t get these basic tasks done, our new and existing projects can lead to feeling overwhelmed, distressed, and despairing, and to self-blaming. 

Ambition, that is, the desire for accomplishment, is a fine thing that urges us to take action to make our lives and the lives of those around us better. However, our ability to carry out what we take on is limited by:

So we must limit the number of voluntary projects we take on or live in chaos.

A central difficulty for people who hoard is their inability to know what is enough. However, difficulty knowing our limits does not just apply to people who hoard but many others as well. We need to be clear about what constitutes a project. Every book you buy is a reading project that makes demands on your time just like any other project. Every magazine or newspaper subscription is a significant time expense that becomes an increasing burden with each new issue. Every piece of clothing must be cleaned, folded or hung up, mended as needed; people often buy more clothes to avoid dealing with the demands of their existing clothes, but this only leads to bigger or different problems. Every knick-knack imposes a burden of paying for it, finding a place for it, dusting it, fixing it if it breaks, and even remembering to notice it to justify the burden it creates.

People who hoard, clutter, or take on more projects than they can handle often ask themselves “What is the matter with me that I have made such a mess?” There is nothing the matter with you, but you have not yet learned the limit of your capacities or to correct the urgings of your demons. When your demons encourage acquiring or taking on more and more, your rational mind may know better, but it’s not in charge. Your demons, such as fears, resentments, self-pity, or any other negative thought or emotion, take over and make decisions for you unless you have strong push-back strategies in place to keep your demons from taking charge (see my recent newsletter, “Fear of Missing Out” to see one aspect of how this impacts rational thinking).

Cluttering, hoarding, and taking on too many projects are all incorrect assessments of the consequences of so many things. For each new item or project, you naturally think, “of course I can deal with this” but that is over-estimating your ability to cope. You did not know you were making a mistake or you would not have done it. Some learning can only happen by trial and error and some people have a hard time admitting they made a mistake or changing course. Mistakes are not a bad thing necessarily and can be useful, particularly when recognized as mistakes as soon as possible (read Making Mistakes And Redeeming Them). We must admit that our behavior needs to change and be willing to do whatever is needed to change habits, thoughts and emotions that support erroneous actions. 

We all have existential pain from being fallible, demon-ridden, mortal human beings. This leads to what I and others call the “hole in the heart” syndrome, a sense that something is missing, incomplete, or wrong with our lives. Most people do not correctly assess the root of this pain and attempt to soothe it with distraction (TV, social media, and many other forms of entertainment), denial (often leads to mental health problems or addictions), or acquiring. None of these “solutions” can heal this existential pain but they are sure to make it worse.

The cure for at least part of the stress of taking on too much is streamlining – that is, making everything that you do as simple, efficient, and easy as possible.
- Simple means keeping your expectations for a happy, healthy life achievable with minimal pressure while satisfying your creative urges or input needs. An example of input needs is reading; so reading a book a day or even every week is probably not reasonable goal or compatible with meeting the many other needs in your life. Indeed, why create a schedule for such desires at all?

- Efficient means taking advantage of every opportunity to remove extra steps from any task; some examples are undressing beside the hamper to save time and the extra step of carrying them there, putting multiple dishes in the oven to cook at the same time rather than turning it on multiple times for just one dish, or running several errands in the same direction so you do not have to make repeated trips. Although examples like these might mean more planning or time spent on carrying them out, they will save time for spent on separate planning and transportation.

- Easy means each part of every task be done, that the steps are broken into components that can each be done painlessly,

Here are some ideas for what works to keep projects from eating up your life:

- Accept that you only have ___ hours per day available to work on projects. Do the math to see how many hours are left for projects after doing your essentials (you probably will need to time how long these tasks take to get a good estimate). Calculate how much time is needed for each project, and how many projects are already waiting; chances are your estimates will need frequent revision. Limit the number of projects you take on to those that you can complete in a month.

- Write down every creative inspiration that pops into your mind as soon as it does. Perhaps sketch it out in some detail. Calculate how much time and energy you  would need to do it. What you would have to give up or postpone to do it? What would be the consequences of not doing the tasks you are willing to skip in favor of a new project? Is the project really worth the sacrifices you would have to make for it?
- Do not begin any new projects until you have completed or thrown out at least a corresponding number of old ones. If the new project you want to do is actually a stress lowering activity, begin it, but still look for old projects that you can drop off your to-do list.

- Always remember the pain caused by clutter and multiple incomplete projects. These memories of pain are useful reminders to not let ambition take over.

- Be constantly alert for ways to make your activities be simpler, more efficient, and/or easier.

- What would be the actual value of the completed project in terms of the sacrifices you must make to do it, the use you will get from it, and any financial or pressure doing it will create?


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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