Ep. 31 – The Case for Space: Less Stuff = Happy Brain

I recently had new carpet installed in my house. To have this done, movers had to first come in and take furniture out from all the rooms. As I was walking through the now-empty space, I could suddenly see possibilities differently. The spaces had a whole new dimension of what was possible in them vs. what had been there before. And what I envisioned while standing there was more of less. More space, fewer things.

As large items were being moved, I quickly decided on ones that I wanted to give away. And within two days, several big things had new homes and I had…space.

This experience inspired me to look for other places where I could have more of less. The practice of decluttering offers a cognitive and psychological boost. Cognitively, I was bolstered in my decision making. Soon, I was pulling items from the closet, sorting through paper piles, and purging the pantry. Psychologically, I found myself smiling when I walked into the rooms with new carpet and fresh air. I felt proud of myself for taking the action and for donating items to other families. It was a gift with purchase.

There is plenty of content about the movement of minimalism. My recent experience led me to explore the impact that mental momentum has in making room for fewer things.

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that making space in your spaces allows you to savor what’s still there – and have room for what’s to come.

Years ago, I was part of a mastermind group and one of the participants was an organization expert. “Clutter reveals where the fear is,” she said. That really stuck with me. Her point was to pay attention to where your life felt most overwhelming, physically – is it your computer files, was it the bedroom, the kitchen, your garage, closets? And then ask yourself: why there? Was does that mean to me?

There is a difference between messiness and intentionally ignoring certain areas that just feel too much. A lot of psychology resides in the corners of our mental and actual closets. Boxes of items reminds us of memories, actions not taken, time gone by. Sometimes the “stuff” that is around serves as a perpetual pause button – decisions that are simply suspended.

Episode 26 explored how indecision is a decision, and that can certainly be true in our spaces. Whether saturated in sentiment, regret, memory, grief, or general weariness, moving items requires care and attention and – yes – decisions.

I won’t get into the tactics here of sorting through the extra around you. Instead, let’s look at what happens in your brain as you take a mental inventory of all-the-things.

As your internal supercomputer, your brain plays many roles. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that serves as the executive functioning center. This is where you manage future plans, judgement, attention spans, and decision-making. This is the area that kickstarts the attempt to tackle, sort, and decide on actions to take next. Because our brains are always scanning the horizon seeking to prioritize and categorize what needs your attention, it has a running inventory of how much is where. And all that inventory-ing takes energy – and attention.

However, it’s a logical processing. That is until the amygdala gets involved. This is part of the brain that manages our emotional and behavioral responses. As your front lobe is checking out the inventory, the amygdala pops up to remind you of the sentimental or stressful connection to all that stuff. The front lobe simply wants a decision, so any hesitation from the feeling neurons moves that item to the Think About Later column.

The brain likes a plan. So here are a few ways to help it help you:

The first is to focus on micro decisions. You don’t have to close all your browser windows or clean an entire closet all at once. Simply start by starting.

Episode 19 highlighted the 10 Minute Kickstart practice. Pick one task (a kitchen drawer, for example) and set a timer for 10 minutes. Sort through what you can in that time and then stop. You might end up spending the whole time debating one thing or you might make a little dent of progress. The success is in the pursuit of progress. There is a time management concept called Parkinson’s Law, which is the idea that work expands to the time we allow it. So using a timebox, such as a 10-minute timer, helps our brain hyper focus on a micro task. The added benefit is often the feeling of progress. Action + feeling satisfies both parts of the brain that were previously distracting each another.

In this same spirit is the idea of This or That. Studies have shown that people are more likely to make a quick decision when faced with two choices versus multiple choice. The reason is that we’re likely already operating in Choice Overload. We’ve been conditioned by consumerism to believe that if one is good than more is better. I’ll confess I have a lot of black t-shirts for some reason. Now, I can rationalize why on many levels, but the fact remains I can only wear one shirt at a time. So in narrowing down my own supply of stuff, I used the This or That technique to make a choice between two shirts, one to keep and one to donate. Psychologically, it was easier for me to make a decision between two than feel overwhelmed looking at all of the black t-shirts together.

The final idea is a mental agreement of One In, One Out. This means if I find a new black t-shirt I simply delight in, I make the allowance that one moves out of my closet to the donate pile as the new one moves in. The organization expert I mentioned earlier uses this technique a lot with her clients. She says: “You should never have to wonder where your good knife is. Instead, the one knife you have should already be good.” Allow yourself the option to upgrade by knowing you will make the space for it.

One final note about the digital clutter in our lives. The 10-Minute Kickstart, This or That, and One In, One Out all apply to technology as well. In my productivity classes, I often ask people to share how many unread emails they have, how many icons on the desktop, how many apps on the phone, etc. There’s often a shared relief at how much noise we all have in our online lives.

So pay attention to how much is background noise. For instance, I recently discovered I have an HBO subscription I have been paying for for almost a year that I never knew was there and wasn’t being used by anyone in my house. There is a cognitive cost to all our clutter, and often a time and money one as well. A little decluttering can make a lot more room.

As we all seek to do fewer things better, there’s potential to also have fewer things.

Thanks for being with me and unpacking this idea. I hope it helps you unpack a few other things as well.

Until next time, enjoy some extra space and, as you do, take good care.

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.