Margaret was a small business owner who worked and saw clients in her home office. She generally kept the space clean and inviting, but she wasn’t happy with how her set up was working and hired me to help fix it. Much of what we did to improve Margaret’s office was simple: rearranging furniture to improve workflow, recycling unneeded paperwork, and adjusting storage areas to solve recurring annoyances.
The real revelation with Margaret came when we moved away from her desk and onto her lesser-used cupboards. I often find that people focus on the mess they interact with regularly, but disregard the clutter that’s been there for years. Margaret opened the first cupboard, pulled out a few binders, and began sorting them into the established piles for recycle, donation, etc. She was moving through things pretty fast, but there was a large box inside the cupboard she wasn’t touching. I asked her about it.
“That is everything that’s left from my old job at the University. I was a teacher there for several years,” she said. “But that’s a whole big project. That’s a project for another day. Not today.” She went back to sorting the binder in her lap.
“So,” I asked, “What’s going to be different on that day?”
She stopped her work with the binder and looked at me blankly, so I tried to explain my question.
“If you think it should be done later I totally understand,” I said. “Maybe something else needs to happen first, maybe you want to use your time with me differently. Those are all good reasons. I’m just curious what will be different on that day.”
“You’re saying we should do this now,” Margaret said, looking at the box. “You’re right, we should do this now.”
I wasn’t trying to trick her. I took Margaret at her word that this wasn’t a project for today, and I wanted to help her create a plan for the future. Oftentimes projects linger in the back of our minds because we haven’t thought about what our first step will be. I was just trying to find Margaret’s first step.
But Margaret, like so many of my clients, knew her own problems better than I did. She took my innocent question and saw the truth reflected back at her. We began to sort through the box.
It had been three years since Margaret left her job at the university. She sorted through the papers and realized instantly that everything she actually wanted to keep was already stored digitally on her computer. Nearly all of the paper went in the recycle, with a few binders moved over to her office supplies to be repurposed. Then we got to the gifts.
“I taught a lot of international students,” she explained. “So they would give me these little presents.” It was a cute collection of dolls, bowls, and fans.
“Do you have good memories of these students?” I asked.
“Honestly I don’t remember most of them,” she said. “It was just a thing they did, to give gifts to teachers.”
It’s hard to get rid of gifts of any kind, but I suggested to Margaret that she consider Marie Kondo’s philosophy: the real gift from the students was them giving her something. It was their expression of gratitude that mattered. Once received, it was up to Margaret to decide if she liked these objects enough to keep them.
“Do you like any of them?” I asked. “Do any of them remind you of your favorite students?”
“Not really, not anymore,” she said. “Maybe…” She poked around the pile and pulled out a few small items. She put the rest in a bowl and handed them to me to put in the donation pile behind me. The cupboard was empty. It took less than ten minutes. Margaret sighed in relief and disbelief.
I explained to Margaret that her problem, ultimately, was that she’d developed a relationship with that box of university stuff. Her relationship was one of denial and deferral. And the longer she put off sorting through the box, the more problems she imagined were inside it. She knew there were gifts, so she imagined them all to be the important kind that meant a lot to her. She knew there were papers, so she endowed them with all her years of teaching. That box became equal to that job in her mind. Her whole career at the school was in there. It’s understandable that she thought it was too big a project for us to tackle on that particular Sunday. It was too big to tackle on any day. That’s why she kept putting it off for another day. Another Day is the longest day of the year, the day when absolutely everything can be accomplished. Unfortunately, the only day you ever have is today. Another Day never comes.