Leave No Trace

I am currently reading How to Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chosen Bays.  It is a book that contains 53 simple exercises in mindfulness.  I gave a friend the book for Christmas and we are doing the exercises, 1 each week and then talking on the phone or by email to review how things went.  The second exercise is called Leave No Trace.  For this exercise, you choose a room or rooms of your house and for one week you try to leave no trace that you’ve been there.  In other words, pick up after yourself!

In my last post I revealed my cluttery past which is still probably my instincts.  While doing the Leave No Trace exercise, I realized a couple of things.  One is that my life has really changed in so many positive ways and I’m kind of proud of myself for just how much change I’ve managed to absorb.  Becoming more organized is one of them.  My apartment is much cleaner and it’s way easier to find things.  Come tax time, I know that everything I need is in one place.  I rarely misplace my keys and I don’t spend a lot of wasted energy looking for things or feeling like I’m constantly picking up stuff.

It is sometimes hard to break habits.  My coworker just the other day said, “They say it takes 30 days to change a habit.”  I didn’t even have a plan other than it had become so distressing to not be able to find things and to be visually stimulated all the time with stacks of unread mail that I started doing things slowly: easing things where I could.

One of the first things I began doing, now that I look back on it, was cleaning up as I went while I was cooking.  It was less stressful to do it this way, even though my partner was the dishes cleaner.  By the time we sat down to eat, the only dishes that needed doing were usually the our plates, utensils and maybe the pot I used.  Then I started retrieving the mail and sorting it immediately: recycling, file immediately, read later, read sooner.  I still use this method in an altered form.  I literally stand over the recycling bin as I sort the mail.  If it needs shredding it goes on a small pile that is on top of the shredder.  If its a magazine, it goes on the rack with my library books.  If it’s a bill (I don’t get very many bills in the mail anymore), it goes tucked into my checkbook and I leave it out on a dresser near the front door so I don’t forget to pay it.  If it’s some other mail that I need to read, it goes into a drawer of such mail and a place I use to catch things I don’t know where to put until I weed the drawer at some later point.  This method works for me.

When I come home I hang my coat immediately.  My mother, in particular, would be astonished by this development.  I don’t want to hang my coat and sort the mail and put my shoes in the closet; but, I know that the extra 90 seconds saves me the aggravation of doing it later and the stress of tripping over the stuff or seeing it lying around.  I put my laundry into a laundry bin, fold my sweaters and put them in the armoir and empty my pockets of change, keys, etc.  This sounds kind of ….uninspired…but, it is revolutionary in my world.

The exercise also made me realize just what things are the most important to me.  I think the “mindfulness” part is so valuable because it got me thinking about the feeling part of leaving no trace.  What I mean is….if I walk in the apartment and the kitchen island is clear and there are no dishes in the sink and no mail piling on the side table and no towels on the bathroom floor, I’m free.  There is no immediate chore hanging over my head.  There is no visual reminder of all that needs to be done.  It’s freeing and calming.

On the other hand, and I think this is a really important point, you also have to figure out what to let go of.  I have a box of “accident stuff” I’ve been dragging around.  Now that I live in NYC, where space is a premium, I look at that box and think: you need to go.  But I don’t feel like going through all those papers and trying to decide what to keep and what to ditch.  I don’t want to organize my photos which are in another box or my childhood memorabilia which is in another box!  And you know what?  I’m not going to.  Right now, I have the lucky situation where there is space for those three boxes and I don’t have to deal with them right now.  At some point, I probably will have to go through and sort stuff out.  But right now, I don’t and the key to that being a good thing is to accept it and not let it hang around as some UNDONE chore.  I’ve decided not to tackle them; so, it’s not a chore on my to do list at all.

I encourage you to try this exercise for a week or more.  If it seems overwhelming, do one thing:  I’m going to hang up my coat as soon as I enter the house or I’m going to put my keys, wallet and phone in exactly the same place.  I’m going to do all the dishes before I go to bed so that I wake to an empty sink.

What about your disorganization bothers you the most?  Tackle that one thing.

Good luck.  And if you like that exercise, pick up a copy of the book at your local independent bookseller!

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