I didn’t get around to writing a Clutter Comedy blog entry last weekend, though I had good intentions. There was some disruption to my schedule, and also my husband upgraded our home computers from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7, which he said took a long time because it should have been done sooner. When tasks are left to wait longer than they should, there’s usually more work as a consequence. With software, there are more upgrades to install.

This is not even the final task; it’s all just preparatory to installing Windows 10 later this year, which will require buying more memory because operating systems have gotten enormous. That’s the way of things in the modern world—technology has given us much more capability, but keeping up with all its changes can feel like running frantically on a hamster wheel.

During my mostly unplugged weekend, I started thinking about how there’s not much difference between upgrading our gadgets and refurbishing our minds. If we let too many bad habits, outdated assumptions, and other mental junk pile up, then it’s harder to clear that stuff away than if we had done timely maintenance all along. Same thing with clutter in the house and weeds in the garden—there’s always something in need of attention that wasn’t a problem when we last looked.
 

Big leafy green weed between orange and yellow snapdragons. 

I have no idea how a weed resembling a small tree got into my snapdragons, when I’m sure it can’t have been more than a couple of weeks since I last did something in that garden…

Of course, our ancestors also had to do plenty of weeding and other chores, without benefit of today’s labor-saving devices. Their work couldn’t be neglected because if too many weeds got into the fields and choked out the crops, they might starve over the winter. Still, their lives were much simpler and more structured than ours, so they didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to keep up with thousands of different things all at once.

We don’t really have to juggle huge heaps of tasks either—it just feels like we do, sometimes, because we haven’t yet settled into comfortable routines for such a fast-paced world. There are plenty of computer programs and smartphone apps to keep track of the little things. For example, my husband has a reminder in his Outlook calendar to run the self-cleaning cycle on the oven every four months, which was easy to do last weekend when it was cool enough that opening the windows was comfortable. Way easier than our ancestors had it, cooking over a hearth where they had to bring wood and sweep out the ashes every day. Their tasks rarely changed, though, so they didn’t have the stress of keeping up with to-do lists.

Our world has left behind the familiar customs and simple chores that once allowed people to go through their days without much need for conscious decision-making. We have many more choices now, and that means we need to manage and upgrade our choices proactively, so they don’t overwhelm us. It’s not just about getting used to new gadgets, either; the culture is changing rapidly around us, which means our assumptions are constantly being challenged. Sometimes everything feels like a leap into the unknown.

I am optimistic that as time passes, our society will develop more effective ways to help people navigate its complexity. The concept of supported decision-making refers to informal arrangements that assist people with disabilities in making choices. As I see it, people in general could benefit from having more structure and support in their lives. It’s not that modern humans are any less competent than our ancestors; we just live in a much busier world.

Every Thanksgiving when I was a kid, my father made fruit salad. The ingredients were McIntosh apples cut with the peel still on, big red grapes neatly halved, mini marshmallows, and a half-pint of whipped cream. I thought it was great and always scarfed down lots of it.

After I grew up and moved away, I made the same fruit salad because I associated it so strongly with the holiday. There was a problem, though. My husband didn’t care for it, and neither did our children. We had Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house every year, and I would always bring a big bowl of fruit salad, which only a few people would eat.

This year I didn’t make it because my husband said he’d like to bring sugar cookies instead. He went to the supermarket and picked out a bag of easy sugar cookie mix that needed only an egg and a stick of margarine. The cookies got baked very quickly on Thanksgiving afternoon, I didn’t have to do anything, we brought them to dinner on a festive red plastic plate, and everybody ate them happily.
 

Sugar cookie mix, eggs, and a stick of margarine. 

I hadn’t realized until now that when I always made the fruit salad as part of my holiday routine, even though my husband and kids were not interested in it, I was depriving them of the opportunity to create different family traditions they’d enjoy more. If they had baked sugar cookies every year, then we would all have pleasant memories of our sugar cookie tradition.

Routines can be helpful when they genuinely serve our needs, but they only get in the way when we let many years pass without reflecting on whether they fit our current circumstances. Rather than putting things in the category of cherished traditions just because we haven’t changed them, we should take time to consider whether we really cherish them or whether we’re only doing them by rote.

We should also keep in mind that even if we like them, we’re not obligated to do them exactly the same way. If I want to eat fruit salad during the holiday season, I can make it for myself one December weekend. I might find that I enjoy it more, giving myself a bit of comforting holiday cheer to brighten up a dark evening in between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. It’s all about being flexible in how we look at things!

Motivational authors often advise against using weak words like “should” and “someday” that amount to nothing but idle fantasies, lacking any definite commitment. Such words can lull us into believing that we are taking constructive action when in fact we haven’t done anything. We may think we’re making progress along the road to someday; but really we’re just frozen in place, not moving in any direction.
 

Three-way intersection with light snow. 

While I agree with being careful not to confuse fantasies with action, it’s also important not to jump into action without forethought or to get overly stressed working on plans for everything we might possibly want. “Should” and “someday” can be useful in their proper place, as preliminary steps toward action. Before committing ourselves to act, we first need to reflect on whether the action would be a good thing to do—whether we should do it. If the answer is yes, then we move on to considering the logistics. Although some plans can be made right away, it’s not practical to immediately set an action date for every idea that comes to mind.

That’s where putting “someday” items at the far end of the to-do list comes in. For example, someday I would like to travel to Australia, but right now there are plenty of other things that have higher priorities in my life. So, for now, it’s just a fantasy, and it doesn’t need to be anything else. If I considered it to be more important, I would research the details and put together an action plan, complete with specific dates. But until then, it’s just one of my somedays, and that’s okay.

What’s not okay—and all too easy to do, unfortunately—is to get stuck in a deep rut, avoiding even the smallest changes to our routines because of fear or laziness, while telling ourselves that we should do better and someday we’re going to work on it. In that context, “should” and “someday” are nothing more than excuses for hanging onto bad habits in the here and now. And as excuses go, they’re pretty worthless ones. Although change may seem scary or difficult, often all that’s needed is simply to take a small action each day, building better and healthier habits as time goes by.

Setting aside time for reflection, with the aim of discovering one’s authentic self, is common advice in inspirational books and articles. The modern world’s distractions and responsibilities often lead to the feeling that somewhere along the way, we have gotten much too busy and lost a clear sense of who we really are. Meditation, long walks in the forest, and spiritual retreats are seen as ways of reconnecting.
 

Path in autumn forest with fallen leaves.

(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)
 

When I started clearing clutter out of my house earlier this year, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of improving my sense of self; I just wanted to tidy things up and feel more comfortable at home. I’m starting to feel that it’s all part of the same process, though. Letting go of physical clutter brings up thoughts and emotions having to do with each item’s source and what function it once served in my life. This in turn causes me to reflect on where I am now and what has changed since then. So I’m not just taking old stuff to the thrift store, but also clearing out my old emotions and routine behaviors associated with the stuff. I am making space for creative energy, positive thought patterns, and feeling more present in the here and now!

The subconscious mind is full of associations relating to the stuff in our environment. Even when something gets to be so much a part of everyday life that it doesn’t get noticed consciously, it still triggers emotions and habitual responses just by being there. So I would say that discovering one’s authentic self is not just about remembering the past; it’s also about clearing away whatever doesn’t feel right in the present.

We’re often told that we must be willing to go beyond our comfort zones if we want to accomplish anything significant and that otherwise, we’re doomed to stagnate. But not everyone agrees with that view. I recently came across a blog post entitled Comfort Zone Malarkey, in which the author pointed out that when we are more comfortable, we are also more productive. Why shouldn’t we want to arrange our lives in comfortable patterns that reduce our stress and make us more productive in our everyday tasks?

I’d say that as with many things, it is chiefly a matter of self-awareness and finding the right balance. Some of us naturally have wide comfort zones and are always eager to try new activities. Others get anxious about small changes in routine. Because the modern world is so full of change and disruption, those who get anxious more easily are often advised to work on expanding their comfort zones.

When a disruptive situation can’t reasonably be avoided, getting used to it is probably good advice. For instance, advances in technology may seem intimidating, but we’re much better off to get comfortable with new products as they come into use, rather than keeping obsolete stuff. Considering how quickly things are changing in our society, though, I don’t see a need to randomly jump into all sorts of activities with the aim of expanding our comfort zones. Just keeping up with today’s new technologies and cultural changes ought to give us plenty of practice in that!

As I see it, the main reason why people get stuck in unproductive routines is not that they haven’t tried to expand their comfort zones, but that routines can get outdated quickly without it being noticeable. We’ve all had to adjust our comfort zones hugely in recent years, just to deal with the massive changes taking place all around us. Even when a change is good, we still need some amount of time and mental energy to get used to it. And when we get stressed trying to keep up with everything that’s going on, we fall back on familiar routines to calm ourselves.

Having comfortable routines is not a problem in itself. We all need them! But if we don’t take enough time to reflect on whether our routines suit our current circumstances, we can end up mindlessly stuck in habits that don’t work well at all. Especially as we get older, it’s all too easy to keep on doing something a certain way because that’s how we have done it for the past 30 years, whether or not it makes sense anymore. That lack of reflection is what causes people to stagnate, much more than being afraid to leave a comfort zone. After all, if it hasn’t even crossed our minds that doing something different might be possible, then we never reach the point of considering whether we might want to do it—and our comfort zone slowly shrinks.

When that happens, it’s not because we lack the intelligence or imagination to notice that our circumstances have changed. Rather, it’s because the complexity of the modern world forces us to adjust our routines much more than our ancestors ever had to do. Keeping up with everything that has changed around us is a lot of work—it’s no wonder some things get overlooked! So, when dealing with people whose routines seem overly rigid, kindness and understanding are needed. After all, we may have our own stagnant habits that we haven’t noticed yet!

We all have different perspectives on managing our money. One common approach to curbing wasteful spending is to think about each purchase in relation to the work done to earn it. Before buying an expensive new gadget or a trendy pair of shoes, a person first stops to reflect on how many hours of work were needed to earn that much money.

While this may be an effective way to break a bad habit of impulse buying, I believe it creates more problems in the long term by conditioning the subconscious mind both to see work in a negative light and to see scarcity rather than abundance. When we measure everything in small increments of time and money, weighing one against the other, we’re left feeling as if we never have enough of either.

Psychologists doing research in this area have found that when people look upon their work in terms of how much they’re paid by the hour, they are more likely to feel that they don’t have time to get everything done in their personal lives. Business owners and salaried professionals actually spend more time at work than hourly employees, on average; but they often feel that they have more free time.

Some of that is because they have enough money to buy their way out of time-consuming chores, such as by hiring a maid instead of having to clean the house themselves. However, I’m inclined to think that much of it really is just a matter of belief. Because business owners look upon their work in terms of challenges and accomplishments, rather than hours, their work doesn’t feel like it deprives them of personal time.

In contrast, when people avoid making impulsive purchases by reminding themselves how many hours of work they did to earn the money, this necessarily implies their job took time away from other things they would rather have been doing. Too much of that attitude builds a wage-slave mentality in which work is seen as a misery to be endured for the required number of hours, all for the sake of buying one’s carefully rationed rewards when each paycheck arrives.

One of the reasons wealthy people don’t think like that is because wages are not their only source of income. Maybe they’re working 60 or 70 hours a week to build up the business, but they have investment accounts earning a good return. They probably also have a substantial amount of equity in real estate and other assets. So when they go out and buy things, the cost is only a small percentage of their total wealth. They don’t see it as chunks of time sucked out of their lives in exchange for wages.

Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to make withdrawals from investment accounts and go on shopping sprees whenever we feel like it. We need to put reasonable constraints on our buying habits, while going about it in a way that won’t leave us feeling deprived of time, money, material goods, or some combination thereof.

I believe the key word in that last sentence is “habits.” We live in a very complicated society, and we navigate its complexities every day by relying on whatever routines we’ve developed. When these routines become unproductive or harmful, then they need to be modified by substituting another habit that works better.

We’re all familiar with the need to change our routines in the context of managing our weight. Those of us who have full-time sedentary jobs can’t eat as much as when we were teenagers, unless we want to spend large amounts of time at the gym. Many people avoid eating too much by reminding themselves of how many hours they’ll have to run on the treadmill to make up for all the calories in that fried chicken and biscuits. This is exactly the same trade-off that is often used to curb impulse buying—time vs. overeating, time vs. overspending, measured in calories and cash respectively.

I’ve found that a more effective way to avoid gluttony (of both the food variety and the consumer goods variety) has been to replace an overindulgent habit with a moderate one. It’s basically an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. I don’t often think about eating fried chicken and biscuits since I started regularly buying baked chicken and salad instead. If a particular store or website seems like it’s getting too much of my money, I change my routine so that I’m not visiting it.

And on the time side of the equation, I don’t force myself to do workouts that I dislike. There are plenty of ways to get exercise that are more fun and are just as effective. If a workout routine is so unpleasant that the thought of doing more of it stops a person from overeating, then the person isn’t likely to be motivated to do enough to get results. Same goes for jobs. Anyone who feels stuck 40 hours a week doing a crummy job probably isn’t performing well enough to earn much money there. It makes more sense to change jobs. Granted, the economy isn’t at its best right now; but as time passes, more opportunities come along.

Although it may sometimes feel like a struggle to control time, spending, and food, this doesn’t mean we should obsess about rationing them. Looking at it from another perspective, we have an unlimited supply of time because there is always more of it as long as we’re alive. As time goes by, there are plenty of things we can do with it. What’s needed is to choose wisely from among the vast possibilities available in today’s world, picking those that are well suited to form enjoyable, lasting habits.

We’re always busy doing something, or at least it seems that way. When we’re not at work, we’re running errands or doing household chores. On top of that, many of us regularly work out at the gym, watch our kids’ soccer games, attend religious services, volunteer with a charity, or fill our schedules with other obligations. Even the things people do to relax—such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event, and playing video games—often take up distinct chunks of time too.

Because most of us have so little unscheduled, free-flowing time in our lives, we feel like we’re always being interrupted. We let the phone go to voicemail because we’re in the middle of something, no matter when we get a call. We feel annoyed when a coworker asks a question because it breaks our train of thought. When a family member wants help around the house, it’s a nuisance because we have to put aside whatever we were doing. Even if it’s nothing but Facebook or a mindless video game, we’re still getting interrupted, and we don’t like it.

In today’s society, interruptions often are described as wasting time, which in turn causes us to resent people who interrupt us. A common cultural script goes like this: “How inconsiderate they’re being! Don’t they know our time is valuable? We’ll never get anything done if they keep bothering us!”

When I’ve had a day with a lot of interruptions and start feeling annoyed, I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s not really a natural instinct to react this way, even though that’s what it may seem like. Getting angry when we’re interrupted is a culturally conditioned response—or, in other words, a collective bad habit. We can change how we react to interruptions by reframing them in our minds. When our coworkers or family members ask us something, it’s probably not because they want to waste our time. On the contrary, if they didn’t value our input, they wouldn’t be asking for it.

Living in such a busy world gives us both opportunities and challenges. Every year we have more choices about how to spend our time, and we can put together a schedule better suited to our needs and interests. We have far more opportunities than at any time in the past. But the more choices we have, the more mental energy it takes to navigate them effectively. We don’t have much left over for dealing with unexpected changes. Without predictable routines, we’re likely to get overwhelmed by stress. So when someone interrupts us, we may perceive it as a threat to our fragile coping ability. As such, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. We may snap at the person or storm off in a huff before we even stop to think about it.

Because so much of how we respond to interruptions takes place on a subconscious level, if we want to respond differently, we have to change our subconscious perceptions of what an interruption is. Put another way, we have to tell ourselves different stories. Humans are by nature storytelling creatures, and we filter all of our experiences through the narratives we use to explain them. Therefore, if we don’t want to get stressed out by interruptions, we have to convince ourselves that the interruptions are not really a problem.

Parents do this as a routine matter when teaching children good time management habits. We might, for instance, tell our kids that it’s time to do their homework now, and they can just pause the cartoon or the video game—it’ll still be there afterward. But often we don’t think about applying this simple lesson to our own busy schedules. When we get interrupted at work or while we’re doing something around the house, we’re likely to react without thinking and get annoyed about it. We’d do better to remind ourselves that the task isn’t urgent (which it usually isn’t) and can get done later.

As with many of the things we do, taking control of the interruptions in our lives is chiefly about developing better habits.

Researchers have found that people who often complain about being old or fat have more health problems than others of the same age or weight. And when older people leave their usual environment and go somewhere that they associate with youth and physical activity, their health improves. For example, blood pressure might be significantly lower after spending a few weeks at a hotel in the mountains, surrounded by hiking trails and furnished with dated décor reminiscent of one’s younger years.

When articles describing these studies appear on news websites, readers often post skeptical comments downplaying the effects of attitude. People complain more because they’re in worse health, not the other way around, the commenters suggest. And they argue that when someone’s health improves during a vacation, it has nothing to do with feeling younger—it’s simply because of a better diet and more exercise.

Some readers gripe that the scientists are being unethical by conducting studies that have the effect of encouraging people to lie to themselves. After all, if someone is old or fat, that’s the truth. It’s nonsensical to pretend otherwise, they say; and it gives people false hope that magical thinking will cure serious medical problems.

My take on it is that categories like “old” and “fat” are chiefly matters of opinion. Their boundaries can and do change as our cultural expectations shift over time. A century ago, when the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today, people thought of themselves as growing old earlier in their lives. And before the modern era, when food was much harder to get, a substantial waistline often was thought desirable—both because it was a sign of prosperity and because it improved survival odds in times of famine.

We also differ in how we sort ourselves into categories based on our life experiences. For instance, I would call myself middle-aged because both of my children are grown and are close to getting their university degrees. To my mind, it wouldn’t make any sense to describe myself as a young adult when my kids are now young adults. But nowadays, because of second marriages and fertility treatments, there are plenty of people my age who started their families just recently. They are likely to spend much of their time associating with young parents of toddlers and, as a result, to think of themselves as being nowhere near middle age.

Another factor in how we classify ourselves, which is even more individual, has to do with the connotations that we attach to the words. One person might despair upon approaching middle age, believing that it means the best part of life is over. A more optimistic person might view it as having many more years of a long and happy life remaining. Although they’re both using the same term to describe themselves, what they mean by it is totally different.

As to the health effects of what we say about ourselves, I believe the skeptics have a valid point that there’s more to it than positive or negative thinking. When someone is in better health after a vacation, it probably has to do with being more active than usual. The person isn’t just sitting around the whole time repeating affirmations, visualizing a younger and healthier self, and so forth.

That said, however, it’s all interrelated. When we think of ourselves as healthy people in the prime of our lives, we’re likely to act accordingly, getting regular exercise and taking better care of ourselves. To a large extent, humans are creatures of habit. What we say about ourselves is a strong factor influencing what habits we form, which in turn goes a long way toward shaping our circumstances.

Most people don’t like to be told that we are stuck in old habits of thinking or that we are behind the times. We prefer to believe that we are sensible people who can adjust our thinking when the circumstances change. But in fact, we often have no idea how many outdated instructions we’re carrying around in our mental checklists.

Not long ago, my husband pointed out one of mine when he asked why I loaded the dishwasher a particular way. He had noticed that I didn’t put spoons next to other spoons in the basket. I explained that my mother had told me to do it like that, when loading the dishwasher was one of my chores as a child, because otherwise the spoons might nest together and not come clean. He replied that maybe this was a problem 40 years ago, but it wouldn’t happen with a good modern dishwasher.

After I thought about it for a moment, I realized he was correct. The spoons always came out just as clean when he was the one loading the dishwasher and put them next to each other. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that there might not be any real need to keep them separate.

I believe that most of our social prejudices have equally simple underpinnings. They’re based on things that were said long ago—that it was best to keep certain kinds of people separate, or to have different ways of treating them. Maybe some of those ideas made sense in their original context of a world with vastly different cultural expectations and more primitive technology. Maybe they never really made sense. But however it might have happened, they ended up as entries in society’s collective checklist of how things ought to be done.

Whether our antiquated notions have to do with the proper placement of the spoons in the dishwasher or of the people in our community, we feel uncomfortable when someone points out the flaws in our thinking. After all, we’ve always done things the same way without seeing any reason to change, so how can there be anything wrong? We’re reasonable people, and we certainly would have noticed if we had been doing something that made no sense—wouldn’t we?

Once we get past our initial feelings of denial and annoyance, though, we generally do acknowledge the facts in front of us. Although humans are creatures of habit on both a social and an individual level, we are capable of changing our ways, even if it might take a little while for new information to sink in.

Modern life can be so hectic that people often get stuck in routines that have outgrown their usefulness, without even thinking about it. Routines have a calming effect because they reduce the number of decision-making points we encounter in an increasingly complex world. They’re essential to protect us from the paralyzing anxiety that would otherwise result from having too many choices to make. But if we’re not careful, we can miss out on a lot of things we would have enjoyed, just because we didn’t take the time to reflect on how our routines might be improved and updated.

Here’s a simple example of how that happens. I routinely buy the bagged salad mix at the supermarket because it saves the time and effort of assembling the individual items, while also ensuring that I won’t find myself short of any particular salad vegetable. For many years, I always topped the salads with shredded cheese and bacon bits, without any dressing, which is how my husband prefers them. That seemed fine, and I didn’t give it much thought. When we ate out, however, I enjoyed the house salad at a restaurant that prepares it with a vinegary dressing, dried cranberries, and walnuts.

It never occurred to me that I could do something similar at home until a recent grocery shopping trip. I was in the condiments aisle buying more bacon bits when I noticed a new salad topping on the shelf—a mix of dried cranberries and almonds. That was like a moment of revelation. I just wanted to shout “Yay!” and jump for joy right there in the supermarket aisle. Although I didn’t really do it because of our cultural expectations about proper behavior for middle-aged women (alas), I put the new topping in my cart and had a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

Of course, I could have bought dried cranberries and nuts separately even before the supermarket began selling the new salad topping mix; but the thought never crossed my mind. I had gotten so much in the habit of making my salads the same way as my husband’s that I just did it by rote.

By definition, routines are things that we do as a matter of course, without need to ponder the details. Our conscious minds pay very little attention to such familiar actions. So it takes a deliberate effort to consider what’s involved with a particular routine and how it might work better if done a different way. Improvements that other people may find obvious are likely to elude us, just because our habitual acts always seem normal and reasonable in our own minds. We also tend to exaggerate how hard it might be. It’s the big things that come to mind when we think about change, such as buying a new car or house, rather than little variations in our daily routines. Change seems difficult, expensive, and far away.

I believe it helps to set aside a few minutes every day to consider the question: What can I do differently, in the here and now, to make myself happier? Often the answer is something that can be done easily and for little or no cost. We can, for instance, tidy up those cluttered areas that give us the subconscious feeling our lives have gotten out of control. Last week I cleaned out my desk drawer, which (I am embarrassed to admit) had been accumulating junk for over a decade. Now every time I open the drawer, it feels peaceful and orderly, instead of the horror-movie adventure of the Junk Drawer from the Black Lagoon invading my workspace.

Although small changes like this may not seem to make much difference in themselves, the cumulative effects can be very powerful.