Clutter, Focus, and Death

Today I’m dropping some life-lesson stuff on you.  And oddly enough, it clicked for me when I realized how much I preach essentially the same thing as a work-lesson.  But we’ll come back to put a bow on that later.

Long story short, my Dad died last fall.  He was getting ready to go on a trip, and I was looking forward to spending time with him when he got back.  He went to a doctor, though, thinking he was coming down with a cold or the flu.  Instead, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and he died within a few weeks.

Unfortunately, that experience was far from unique for a lot of people.  I’m also at that age where one starts to frequently confront the mortality of parents, aunts, and uncles.  My Dad led a wonderful life, and though we’re still sad about his passing, the aftermath delivered another blow to us that I wasn’t expecting.  I didn’t understand how much time and legwork would be involved to get everything squared away for my Mom.  And even after all that was done, there was all my Dad’s stuff to deal with.  Drawers, boxes, closets, and a garage full of his stuff.

Now, almost a year later, most of that stuff is sorted out.  I spent entire days going through piles and piles of papers.  And while some items were obvious keepsakes (old photos, newspaper clippings, letters, etc.), there were tons of old bills marked paid, bank and insurance statements, brochures, and about a billion sticky notes and scraps of paper with addresses, phone numbers, and old passwords.

And that stuff was relatively easy compared to going through his cell phone, his Kindle, his computer, his CD-ROM backups, and a bag full of thumb-drives.  It was worth it, though, as there were some pictures and movies worth keeping.  And also a ton of old files not worth keeping.  Which reminds me, I still have to get around to hooking up an external floppy drive to finish that job.

Harder still, was going through his tool boxes and collection of parts.  My Dad was a handy guy, and he had a LOT of tools, and some were very specific to his career field.  He had stuff that you’d only need if you happened to be dealing with a particular problem for a particular product that comes along once in a blue moon.  But they did come along. His stuff also included a fair number of duplicate tools which annoyed my Mom.  She’d say, “I don’t know why your father needed to buy four of those!”  In the moment, I let it go, but I knew why – because sometimes it’s easier to just buy another pipe-cutter while you’re at the plumbing supply store than try and find the one (or two or three) that you already have somewhere in the garage when you get back home.

All in all, I helped clear out a LOT of old stuff.  I sorted out a toolbox (the one in the picture), a tackle-box, and a few others things to keep and we gave away or donated the rest.  And looking back, I learned a few things.

Insight #1: It’s easy to underestimate how much stuff you’re carrying around

I admit, I’m always tempted by “a good deal” on something, even when it’s questionable whether or not I’ll actually need it.  And this is America.  We can cram stuff into our walk-in closets, our attics, our crawlspaces, our garages, our sheds – heck people even rent offsite storage units.  We convince ourselves we’re being responsible people by adding new stuff to our neatly organized piles of old stuff.  But we rarely get rid of anything.  So we just keep accumulating more and more stuff without realizing how much we already have and how much has become worthless (to us at least).  I feel like I’m about to channel George Carlin here.

Insight #2: We obsess over piles of little stuff at the expense of what’s really important

My parents downsized a few years ago from a large house on a big rural lot to a small single-level home with a one-car garage.  And it made them incredibly happy.  No more tree limbs to deal with after storms.  No more repairs on parts of the house they rarely used but still needed maintenance.  No more hot summer days on a riding mower that always seemed to find a new way to break-down.

More stuff had meant more work to keep all that stuff.  Living in a simpler, smaller home meant less time dealing with it and more time spent with each other.  It was really sweet to hear my parents talk about feeling like newlyweds in their cozy cottage.  And the stuff they decided to keep in their smaller home tended to be stuff they actually enjoyed and frequently used.  At their old house, my Dad would open their two-car garage and their pole barn, and he’d see a ton of reminders of stuff that needed to be fixed, projects he meant to start, and open-ended questions about whether some things were worth keeping around.  But when he opened the one-car garage at the small house, there were just three things that caught his eye – a car, a Honda Silver Wing, and a Weber grill.  And yep, he spent a lot more time happily waxing his car, riding his Honda, and grilling at the new house than before.

Insight #3: Focusing and de-cluttering is good for our loved-ones too

Unpacking my Dad’s stuff at my house, I looked around and noticed all the stuff I had accumulated as well.  The woodworking tools that need to be refurbished and haven’t been touched in years.  The random parts I’ve saved from different projects that I figured might be useful someday.  The homebrew stuff that I haven’t used since our second kid was born.  The moving boxes we haven’t unpacked from at least six years ago.  Then there’s the paperwork around my home office and on my computers.  If I die today, what kind of mess am I leaving behind for my family?  Probably a pretty big one.  We already have a will and all that legal mumbo-jumbo taken care of, but just the sheer mass of stuff to sort through would be a royal pain in the ass.

There’s also the stuff that I know my Dad wanted to do.  For instance, he was about to go on a long trip to visit relatives he hadn’t seen in a while.  And I was hoping to take him on a big fishing trip with my brother the following spring – something we put off for years.  Invariably, these were things that he would’ve definitely enjoyed, but were put-off for relatively unimportant reasons.  It’s cliche to go through a bucket list after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  The thing is, we all know we’re all going to die someday.  It’s ironic that our optimism about how long we’ll live prevents us from enjoying our lives right now.

Insight #4: Less is more – more time, more energy, more enjoyment

So I’ve started decluttering.  Lots of stuff going on Craigslist, FB marketplace, and getting dropped off at Goodwill.  And that’s also meant I’ve started focusing and prioritizing.  Asking if I’m really going to do XYZ in the next 12 months – otherwise, I’m getting rid of XYZ.  And keeping myself honest, e.g. if I tell myself I’ll really use XYZ  then why haven’t I done it already?  Is it really that important?  Because, again, just having unimportant stuff cluttered around you is a distraction and saps your energy from your true priorities.  I’m also finally going to a retreat that I’ve put off for years because of minor scheduling problems.  And we have a big family trip that we pushed out from this fall, but we’re not letting ourselves delay it again.  We decided to do it, now we need to focus and get it done.

The Big Take-Away

The more stuff I accomplish and the more stuff I let go, the better I feel.  I have fewer distractions, and when I want to do something that’s important to me, I don’t have to move a bunch of crap out of the way to get to it.  And another important practice comes with this.  Before I add to one of my piles of stuff or start a new pile (I have too many hobbies), I ask myself if I’ve finished the stuff I’ve already started.  The answer is almost always “no”, and I remind myself that if it was important enough for me to start it, I need to either finish it or decide it really isn’t important and let it go (and not just let it sit on a shelf).

How does this relate to work-life?  Anyone who knows about Lean and Kanban had “WIP” and “inventory” go through their minds as I described what happened.  And really, that’s what a lot of our accumulated belongings point to – incomplete work in process and parts of things that have little value on their own. That clutter has the same effect in business as it does in our personal lives, distracting attention from what’s really important, sapping energy, and slowing everything down.  Thankfully, there are less-morbid events that can wake people up about it at work – key people change jobs unexpectedly, projects or products are suddenly cancelled, partnerships fall apart, divisions or entire businesses shift or fold without notice, and suddenly everyone sees the WIP and inventory of what’s left behind.  That’s when it finally becomes obvious how much all that baggage got in the way of making the right decisions and taking the right actions.

Starting new stuff is fun and interesting, and I still have plenty of room to improve (don’t ask how many guitars I have).  But for success with my business, for more joy in my life, for the sanity of my wife, and as a good example for my kids, I’m going to keep at this.

And if this sounds good but you don’t know where to begin, here is a super-easy place to start: the stuff in your refrigerator.  For example, before you buy any more beer, make sure you finish the beer you already have in your fridge.  Especially beer that has sat in there seemingly forever.  Ask yourself if you’re going to drink that six-pack of mango-coffee-pumpkin ale in the next 12 months.  Lord knows why it seemed like a good idea when you bought it, but now it’s time to make a decision and don’t just put it back in the fridge.  Then you’ll have room for some Surly Furious.  When your fridge is squared away, crack open a cold one, enjoy the moment, and then pick the next pile of stuff to tackle.  And your life will be better for it :)