In my consultations, talks, workshops, and conversations, our discussions often turn toward clutter, and with good reason: Clutter collects in almost every home and workspace, and it has tremendous negative impacts on the people who are surrounded by it.
But when we talk about clutter, we are often talking about very different things. Clutter comes in different types, each fueled by different thoughts, impulses, and habits. The types of clutter also affect us differently, and they require different clean-up strategies. Clutter tends to fit into the following types:
In this essay, we will explore artifacts of unfinished business: clutter associated with projects we intended to begin or began and then stopped. This clutter includes the art supplies from a neglected hobby that lie shoved in a corner, the half-finished deck at the back of the house that sighs as we walk by, the broken furniture in the basement that awaits restoration work, and the piles of unread books that hold worlds we once wanted to explore. Sometimes these items silently nag at us, reminding us of all the things we wanted to do—or thought we should do. In other cases, the items have languished for so long that we don’t even notice them; they become the suppressed scenery in the backdrop of our spaces.
At a recent talk I attended, the presenter spoke about the “creative avoidance” involved in procrastination. Rather than tackle things that are difficult but important, such as unfinished projects in our homes, we spend time on other activities instead. These distracting activities might feel good in the short term, but they do not deliver the results we actually want. Procrastination can have real consequences for us even beyond the results we don’t achieve. Unfinished tasks can fill us with self-doubt, fear, and shame as time goes by; we know what we aren’t doing and sometimes why we aren’t doing these things. This can dampen our sense of accomplishment and creativity.
Why do we have these artifacts of unfinished business? Sometimes we genuinely lack the time to do the projects. At other times, we struggle with unfocused enthusiasm or lack of intention. Some people like starting projects but not following through. And sometimes life challenges force us to put projects on the back burner.
At its core, most clutter is about fear. We may fear not being good enough or not having enough in the future. We might be worried about having too little time and money. With unfinished business, we may fear that the finished product will be disappointing, causing us to wish we hadn’t spent time and money on it. Maybe we fear that we don’t know enough or that we can’t get the needed support to complete the project.
Others in our homes often know what our unfinished projects are, and they may be visibly annoyed. Sometimes our loved ones remind us of the projects we haven’t tended to. This can add another layer to the feelings of shame, inadequacy, or resignation, if these feelings are in play.
When we resist completing unfinished business despite pushback by our loved ones, this can point to other interpersonal issues. We may be ignoring these projects, our self-care needs, and even the important people in our lives as we distract ourselves. Or we may be engaged in a power struggle with another person in the home. The unfinished-business clutter can represent our resistance to being controlled.
In other situations, we think thoughts that are not true about the unfinished business; these thoughts seem true because they are stories we have repeated. We tell ourselves that the task will take too long, cannot be solved, or “I don’t know where to take these things”—to name just a few of our unproductive stories.
Oprah Winfrey says, “Life whispers to you all the time. Your life is speaking to you all around, from the time you wake up in the morning, in every single experience that’s coming into your personal space. All of those experiences are speaking to you. They’re telling you something about your life and about your circumstances. It whispers, and if you don’t get the whisper, the whisper gets louder.” In feng shui, the incomplete tasks in our physical spaces whisper to us even when we try to ignore them, and sometimes that whisper becomes a shout. A shocking or urgent event can be the “shout” to break us out of our patterns of resistance. A serious health challenge, the passing of a loved one, or a calamity can wake us up, and we act with focus and urgency.
A friend of mine shared that she had been asking her husband to clear out a section of the garage for years so the family’s cars could fit inside, and he had many excuses for why he couldn’t do it, such as “There’s nowhere to put all this stuff” and “We can never fit another car in the garage.” His daughter’s vehicle remained parked outside of the garage, getting covered with snow in the winter and becoming uncomfortably hot in the summer. Then one day, a severe thunderstorm warning with the strong possibility of hail spurred him into action. He envisioned the hail damaging his daughter’s car, which she had not yet finished paying off.
Thirty minutes later, he had cleared an entire section of the garage and parked his daughter’s vehicle there. The sandbox of their children’s early years left the property. (The youngest child was 14 and the eldest was 24; no one had used that sandbox in years.) His daughter’s vehicle escaped damage when the hail did indeed pelt their neighborhood soon after he pulled her car into the garage. All his previous excuses evaporated when he realized this greater cost, and he worked swiftly with intention and purpose.
What creates urgency when there isn’t a thunderstorm rolling into our lives?
You can often jump-start this sense of urgency by imagining what your home and life can look and feel like free of unfinished clutter. What will it feel like seeing people you love laughing together on that finished deck? How about when you no longer walk by dusty art supplies that told a story of how you don’t finish things you start, or when a piece of furniture is fully restored and the rest of the broken furniture is gone? Let yourself imagine the joy, freedom, and other positive feelings you will have when these projects are completed. (Keep in mind that completion can be you removing the objects associated with projects that no longer fit who you are and what you want to do.)
The “thunderstorm” within you can be as simple as the desire for a pleasant and welcoming home that inspires your creativity, rest, and play. In addition, you may yearn to be free of unfinished business and unburdened by reminders of things undone. When you have this vision of your better life, you can take action to complete these projects or free yourself of the artifacts of unfinished projects.
Actions, even imperfect ones, create results. There’s something powerful about taking a step and then another. This can apply to unfinished business as well: As you take those first steps to address the first project, you can trust that you are making important progress, even when you don’t know how you will complete the other projects (or perhaps even this one). The momentum you create will make each successive step easier.
Here are some suggestions to support your shift from creative avoidance to action dealing with unfinished projects: