Every six months or so, I get on a simplifying-my-life kick, which inevitably begins when I decide I hate all the clutter in my house and vow to get rid of stuff. Then I proceed to watch in bemusement as I tackle the bookshelves first, wondering what the heck is going on. The bookshelves are the least cluttered part of my house; they’re well organized and out of the way, and I never have to move stuff around on them just to get through my daily life. The clutter comes mostly from my general messiness, my tendency to start new projects before finishing old ones, and my penchant for letting mail pile up rather than recycling or filing it as it comes in. And so I wonder: why do I always start with the bookshelves?
Of course, part of the reason is just that dealing with the books is easy. They’re all neatly lined up on the shelves, so I can see what’s there, and I don’t have to think hard about what to do with the ones I decide to get rid of (Powell’s is my friend). It’s also excruciating–my books feel like old friends–but somehow that only adds to the sense of accomplishment.
But this morning, I think I finally figured out the real reason I tackle the books first: I’m not desperate to get rid of the physical clutter in my house so much as the intellectual clutter in my life, and the books represent all that mind clutter. Every time I look at my bookshelf, I see the economics book reminding me that I’d planned to learn something about economics, and the Greek book reminding me that I’d planned to teach myself Greek, and the pilates book reminding me that I should practice pilates more.
It has been years since I was able to sit down a fully concentrate on one thing without my mind going, “you can’t take time to do this, you need to do that, and that, and that.” (It doesn’t help that now I have the constant distractions of email, and facebook, and twitter, and…) For a long time, I blamed this problem on the pressures of college and then grad school. Whenever I did something non-school related, I felt guilty for not doing school work, and whenever I did something school related, I felt pressured to get through it faster because I had so much other school work to do.
Now, I’m out of school on something of a self-proclaimed sabbatical. I have plenty of time, but my ability to focus hasn’t gotten any better. I can only conclude that I’m so busy trying to take on the whole world, that I can’t even find my little corner of it, let alone get to know it. The trouble is, throwing out the clutter won’t actually simplify my life, unless I’m willing to finally let go of some of those passing interests to focus on the most important ones. As Thoreau said: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! Let your affairs be as two or three and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”